My Train Recollections: Mary McPherson

This month’s train recollections come to us from Ms. Mary McPherson. Thanks for sharing your fond memories, Mary!

Mary P

I’ve been asked how I got interested in railroads. Fair enough question, I suppose. The railfan community is, after all, mostly a male domain.

Mostly, but not exclusively.

In many, if not most, instances, the interest is something passed down from generation to generation. A father, grandfather, uncle or cousin worked for the railroad and the interest was handed off through the experience of being trackside. Not so, in my case. If asked how I came to my interest in railroading, I blame Captain Kangaroo.

“What?” you may ask, “Captain Kangaroo?!?!”

Yup. I got it from a seventies kids’ T.V. show featuring the guy with the big pockets on his jacket. My attention was grabbed by a segment featuring film of a steam locomotive with the musical accompaniment of Albert Hammond’s “I’m A Train.” That was it; the ground zero that planted a seed which quickly sprouted.

Trips to the public library found a supply of railroad photography books. The works or Lucius Beebe and Charles Clegg were in abundance; “Trains In Transition” and “Highball” were frequently checked out. My favorite title was Don Ball Jr.’s classic “Portrait Of The Rails.” His writing of days spent alongside the Kansas Division of the Union Pacific around Lawrence were particularly evocative to me.

The subject matter of the books I read gave me my particular preference for steam power. By the time I was in fourth grade, I could draw up a diagram of just how a steam locomotive functioned. By the time I was in junior high school, terms such as Stephenson, Walschaert, superheater, staybolt and crown sheet were cemented in my vocabulary.

I was lucky enough to grow up near Carbondale, Illinois. Carbondale was split by the mainline of the Illinois Central Gulf, and was only twenty miles from the Crab Orchard & Egyptian Railroad, which at the time was the only steam powered common carrier in the United States. Six Amtrak trains a day called on Carbondale and when Amtrak hired its own operating crews in 1987, Carbondale became home to Amtrak crews.

I became a common sight around downtown Carbondale, pedaling about on a red ten-speed and hanging out along the tracks with a camera and tape recorder. I was ten when I took my first real train ride, and got my first cab ride on a freight hauling 2-8-0 when I was 12.

If one were to ask me why I am interested in trains, I frankly couldn’t say. There is not any way for me to break it down and quantify just what it is about the railroad that is so appealing. Why does anyone do or like the things they do? Stamp collecting, fishing, whatever it is; either you get it, or you don’t. The why, I suppose, isn’t all that important anyway.

The sound of locomotive prime movers shouting in the night as they climb the grade near my home, with the metallic screech of flanges biting into the rail and echoing through the hills brings a smile to my face every time I hear it. The scent of coal smoke from a locomotive stack, mixed with the smell of hot valve oil, smells just as good to me as a hamburger broiling on the grill. The why isn’t important. The thrill of the moment is what it’s all about.

That fourth grader drawing steam locomotives on homework pages has long ago grown up. Since then, I’ve ridden aboard and behind steam locomotives large and small. I’ve paced Union Pacific hotshots along U.S. 30 in Nebraska. I’ve shot BNSF coal trains fighting the grade of Nebraska’s Crawford Hill. I’ve shot a 2-8-4 blasting around Horseshoe Curve, and chased F-Units trundling along a Nebraska short line. I’ve shot the Southwest Chief climbing the grade Raton pass on the Colorado/New Mexico border. I’ve slept on the ground beside my car to be in position to catch a Frisco 4-8-2 or a N&W 2-6-6-4 the next morning, and I’ve slept on the floor of a church rectory when the person working the gift counter at a depot offered the space to a nearly broke college student toting a camera and a couple of microphones.

They are all singular moments; accumulated over the years into a life well spent.

Those moments are best when shared; whether through bringing a friend along on the adventure or through sharing the documentation of the experience through the media of photography, sound and video.

There is such an abundance of things to experience and places to visit along the high iron, that it is plenty to fill a life’s work. I’ve only now begun to scratch the surface.

And those Amtrak crews that watched that kid riding around on the bike way back when? Some of them were the ones that said “they’re hiring; you’d better put in for it!” as I was graduating from college. Glad I did, for it has now been fifteen years and counting since I donned the conductor’s hat myself.


Mary McPherson
Dongola, Illinois

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