What is it about trains that makes them special in my memory? When I was a child, we always had a train track running underneath the Christmas tree. Even after my parents divorced, my mom had to buy a Lionel “O” gauge train to occupy the space under the tree. When Walt and I had our own family, we were given that train. Our oldest daughter, Diane, still has that train. It is a replica of the trains of my childhood.
There is something about the resonating sound of a train whistle that invokes feelings of nostalgia in me. Whether it’s the memory of the haunting steam whistle of days gone by or the mournful echo of today’s diesel horns, the sound never fails to reignite childhood memories and take me back to a simpler time.
Pre-World War II, trains were not only America’s main method of shipping goods from one part of the country to another, but the most popular mode of transportation. Not only the cities, but almost every little town had a railway depot where passengers could embark on journeys to visit relatives, do some sightseeing, or travel to the city to conduct business.
Several of my childhood memories involve trains. When I was a young child of five years, my mother, grandmother, my two brothers and I rode the train to visit Gram’s relatives in Milroy, PA. Standing impatiently on the platform as we waited for our train, we finally felt the rumble as the iron horse approached. Mom and Grandma made sure we stayed back as the train slowly came to a halt, exhaling its steam as the brakeman finally brought it to a stop. I was excited to board the train and choose my seat. The mohair-covered seat backs could be moved forward and backward, enabling passengers to sit facing one another if they wished. I was fascinated by the dining cars where we sat down and ate a meal as if we were in a restaurant. The clickety-clack of the train’s wheels on the steel track provided a constant rhythmic accompaniment as we traveled. After we reached our destination I recall lying in bed at Gram’s cousin’s house, listening to the mournful train whistle as it reverberated through the dark night. Hearing that sound initiated dreams of travel to other places that linger today.
On one of my trips to my Uncle Bob’s summer cottage on Lake Erie’s Van Buren Bay, New York, he drove us to a local train crossing to see the 20th Century Limited as it raced through the night on its way from Grand Central Terminal in New York City to LaSalle St. Station in Chicago. Uncle Bob knew when it would come through his area, so we waited at the crossing to see the streamlined train as it traveled west. Although still steam-powered, the engine didn’t look anything like the locomotives I was accustomed to seeing. Watching this silver bullet as it traveled through the night provided me with an amazing memory.
"Beginning on June 15, 1938, when it got streamlined equipment, it made the 960-mile journey in 16 hours, departing New York City westbound at 6:00 P.M. Easter Time and arriving at Chicago’s LaSalle St. Station the following morning at 9:00 A.M. Central Time, averaging 60 miles per hour." (From Wikipedia)
When I was eight years old, my mother took me on the train to visit my Aunt Helen and Uncle Bob Stewart in East Orange, New Jersey. Although I found the mohair-covered seats quite scratchy and rough, I forgot all about my discomfort once we were underway. It was fascinating to watch the train’s passage through the country side and its stops at stations along the way. The highlight of my trip was traveling on Horseshoe Curve outside of Altoona, PA. Sitting with my nose pressed against the window, I was so excited I could hardly sit still. Thrilled and impressed by what I saw and bouncing in my seat I appealed to my mother to share in my enthusiasm. What a sight! Because we were seated near the middle of the train, we could see both the locomotive and the caboose at the same time. I recall counting the cars I was able to see from my seat; there were freight, coal, and passenger cars creating a necklace traveling around the track built into the mountain. The entire experience provided an unforgettable memory.
During my high school years, my friends and I were part of the loyal entourage traveling by train to such “foreign” destinations as Latrobe, Turtle Creek, McKeesport, Swissvale, and Greensburg to cheer on our Wilkinsburg Tigers’ football team. Buying a game ticket included train fare. Those were special train rides, with the high school marching band and cheerleaders accompanying the fans on the train. It was controlled mayhem as the band played the school fight song and the cheerleaders incited us to boost our team with our loudly vocal backing. I can’t help but wonder whether people in the towns where we traveled could hear us.
Although I have not traveled by train for many years, I still embrace the memories, and recall the reminiscence of train trips and childhood dreams.