When Your Spirit Whispers

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JUNE 14, 2012 1:09AM

Thoughts Of Trains _ Remembering An Era

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My grandmother’s two story “farmhouse style” Victorian on Collett Street, where I grew up, sat just two blocks east of major north/south railway lines that carried the Illinois Central trains of “The City Of New Orleans” fame. One and a half blocks north, Collett Street was intersected by the New York Central railway line. On the next street to the east, and three blocks north stood the C&EI Railway Station that took us directly into Dearborn Station in Chicago.

I shared a bedroom with my sister Sandy and my brother Steve. My parents occupied the other first floor bedroom. At the back of the house, behind the living room was the focal point of the house, a large kitchen with a formica table surrounded by matching chrome and vinyl chairs. I attribute this time in my life to the unfolding of my psychic awareness. In the wee hours of the morning I would be pulled half way out of my dreams by the aroma of bacon, eggs, coffee and black pepper wafting from the kitchen. That was the smell of my father preparing for work. Black pepper was his signature. Without black pepper, the odor of bacon, eggs and coffee could have been almost anyone else. 

From this hypnagogic state of awareness, I would be pulled from my body by the sound of freight trains coupling and uncoupling their loads in the distance. As the heavy metal wheels rolled across the tracks, they would squeal, as if to warn of the impending collision. Then came the unmistakable crash of metal upon metal, followed by a moment of silence, broken by the sound of a voice, first soft, then louder and faster. “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can!” The rhythm of the rails.

To a landlocked boy on the plains of America, following the lines of the tracks as they worked their way towards convergence at the horizon, was no different than standing on the shore looking out over the ocean. At the other end, exotic places and interesting people waited to stimulate the imagination.


The C&EI depot was a favorite hangout when I was growing up. During the few moments the train stood in the station, passengers embarking and disembarking, I would survey them from the platform. Where did they come from? Where were they going? 


Put a penny on the track


Kneeling beside the cold steel

I am overcome

By the fragrance of creosote 


Putting my ear to the rail

My mother's voice warns me

Of imminent danger


Box cars

With odor of grain

Lure me inside


My stomach full of butterflies

Imagines the door closing

A secret wish to escape

To anyplace but here


The railroad men

With greased


Will take me under their wing

And we will eat supper in the caboose

I will sleep beside them

And awaken with black grease

On my body


Perhaps I will go with the sailors

In the shiny silver train

Sit in the dining car

With white linen tablecloths

Then stow away in the upper berth

Where a man with tattoos

Will hide me beneath his sheets


Standing in the dark

With red lights flashing

Bells ringing

I watch the train pull away

I take inventory of the passengers

Giving them a past

A destination

A life better than mine 
BoxCar copy
Revisiting my childhood in the 1970s
CEI copy
Ruins of The C&EI Depot 1970s 
Demolition of Dearborn Station Train Shed 1970s 

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By destroying our passenger rail system, we really missed the boat!
Some sweet history here, SpiritMan; what an intriguing piece. R
Great poem and I relate. Reminds me of a Ronnie Van Zant song. I have written a lot about trains--poetry.
Oh you're so right! and Arlo! rated. :)
Excellent post, particularly "put a penny on the track" and "the fragrance of creosote." I hopped freights in 1967, when I was immortal.
Being of not only a similar age but of the same landlocked Midwestern bent, I have stood looking down the mainline of the Illinois Central and seem the ghost of New Orleans and the Great Lakes. Many a Lincoln cent has met its demise at my hands too. I believe that it was a mistake to murder passenger rail here. We hitched ourselves to air travel in the age of cheap oil and now we are stuck with less service and infinitely higher tickets. A modern rail system would be competitive with any flight of less than five hundred miles.
Trains were once the high end technology of yesterday and still hold our fasination or at least mine. Thanks again and Bravo on the Ed Pick.
Thank you, Robert!
Lots of lumps in the throat being evoked by your words and images. Railroad history & culture was different in the UK where I grew up - but also similar. In the mid 1950s, I & my friends would also put pennies on the track. I didn't hear the sounds till later than you - the tracks were not close to my home. When I moved to London in 1958 (age 13), I watched the remaining steam trains and "new" Diesels running to & from London on the main line through Wimbledon, taking numbers, dreaming dreams. I love riding the trains, Metropolitan line, District line, deep Tubes, and British Rail mainline, to school & then work, and just for fun. Such a sense of history, technology, inter-connectedness.

Freeways and cars have a kind of magic (MG, Jag, Ferrari, etc.) & convenience, but not that sense of national inter-connectedness. We all lost something real & deep, when we neglected & destroyed the trains.

Short-sighted individualists don't get the train thing & never will. Great post.
They are threatening to cut our commuter buses to Denver for lack of cost effectiveness. I guess SUV's, gas, stress, and commute time away from families with the enusing pollution, oil glut, ulcers, accidents, divorces, and latchkey kids are more cost effective than buses OR the trains we keep asking for. What a loss!
Even now when I hear trains going by at night, I remember listening to them in the distance when I was a kid. I remember stopping at the lights, waving to the trainmen, counting the freight cars, always wanting to be anywhere but there. /R
The northbound trains that stopped in Danville carried a lot of sailors headed to the Great Lakes Naval Academy. When I was a child, there were no Interstate Highways. The trip by car from Danville to Chicago was more than a half day event. The train was the only way to go.

There was something magical about the experience. You get in at your point of origin, then step out at your destination, while someone else does the work. It was like a primitive version of "beam me up Scotty."
If you saw a kid exploring the depot around lunchtime on a summer day in 1979, that might have been me. With hair and mustache like yours but messier.

I had a very boring summer office job (calculating linear regressions by hand because hiring a summer student was cheaper than an Apple PC). Walking and looking around sights like this is what kept me relatively sane in those days.
I loved railroads as a kid and I still respond to the romance of them now. Maybe it was tales from the Great Depression I heard in my childhood of how jobless people rode the rails in search of work, dodging the "bulls". Maybe it was when I discovered labor history in high school and was enthralled with the brave IWW's, the "Wobblies", who jumped aboard freights on their way to the next free speech fight or organizing drive.

Maybe it was living near the B&O railroad and seeing those trains flying over the viaduct. Later as an adult, I got a job as a truck driver near that rail line and I would walk to work next to the tracks with rail fantasies in my head.

Whatever it was, trains have always been a part of my life and Istill love to look at the freight cars moving past next to the CTA Green Line when when I board that to travel downtown. Thanks for this wonderful essay and collection of rail lore.
trains are one of my favorite muses
well done!
One of my favorite topics. This is, quite simply, one of the loveliest posts I've seen on OS. Thank you for this remembrance and the poetry that you wove from your memories. I've always loved that Guthrie song! R.
Train travel is my favorite mode of travel and it has taken me through Europe, Communist countries, UK, Turkey and North America. I remember the syeam engines of my childhood and cherish the memories they evoke.

This is such a wonderful post on a great topic.Thank you for your poem, photos, and the links too, Spirit Man!

Yeh! Always enjoy a piece on trains; my one brother and I played at/on/by the tracks a lot. Got stuck in a coal car one day, played hell gettin' out. Got caught up on the signal trestle one day too, omg! - laid flat, and thought we would surely blow off as the train roared by under us, swaying that big platform so, we stayed on the ground after that! The pooled water always yielded huge pickle jars full of tadpoles we'd take home, watch turn to frogs, and - release! Great story, and so nice you went back, have pics, even tho in runs. They will live in ya forever. Nice, SM -- R.
We did miss out. The same may be said for LA's (and Denver's and about 40 other cities') trolley system(s).
Love the poem. It's as if I'm there, bending low over the track as you lower the penny.....

P.S. you're psychically inclined????
Great writing! I've always loved trains and your story evokes the best of railroads and train travel. I like the slower trains where you can look out the window and get a clear view of the world. Not the same with all the high speed travel these days. Sure, you get there faster, but is faster always better? Thanks for a great read.
Might I add Steve Goodman's "City of New Orleans" to your list?
I still love the trains!! That sound of the wheels on the tracks just makes me wanna sing, but I don't, cause well, noise pollution is a crime!! ~LMAO~

Seriously, great piece!!!

RATED!!! Tink Picked too!! And a well deserved EP and Cover spot(not that any of your other posts weren't worthy neither!! :D)
Beautiful post, SpiritManSF...hopefully a greener version of our rails will make a comeback someday.
Nice post.

I am old enough to remember traveling by Train and staying in a sleeping coach. Eating in dining cars. One time the train was stopped in the middle of Kansas because grasshoppers were covering the tracks. It was fun spending days seeing this country from ground level for days upon days.

Things change as better modes of transportation are created, we gain things, but we loose things in the process. I think we have lost a sense of wonder just how fast we travel in today's world.

I remember my first airplane ride. People dressed in suit and ties because it was a big deal to fly. Now we take for granted how relatively easy it is to travel from coast to coast.
Very nostalgic and relatable for those of us who lived near the tracks or flattened pennies in just this manner. I love trains and rode the Penn Central back in the day, too many times to count. A dream of mine is to take a luxury train trip from SF into Canada, something that has been on my deep bucket list since I was much younger. Someday, it will happen. Thanks for such a meaningful post and era.
I love the old photos. what a shame that we have lost this important part of America's heritage. I hold a glimmer of hope that we'll get it back one day. but it's just a little glimmer.
Glad I finally got over here, what a great piece. I appreciated the photos as they were taken around the time of my freshman year of high school. I road the Illinois Central into the city of Chicago for my summer and break jobs at Marshall Fields. I knew those rails well being a south suburban girl. I have ridden trains all my life at different times to work. They are efficient and someday we should return to them, it would help the environment. Thanks for this great, great post.
I know if I get lost I can always find the Santa Fe railroad line and follow her home. I really did love how you wrote this I could smell the bacon and hear the trains as they rammed into each other to go places unknown.
OH you made me tear up! I grew up taking trains to the South to see relations and West to go go Disneyland gorgeous trains with glass domes to let you see the Southwestern splendor. My daughter and I took trips to Chicago on trains, in sleepers where we had little "slumber parties" in our bunks, eating junk food and laughing and talking 'til we fell asleep.

I even took the famous Broadway Limited--train of the Hollywood stars--to New York, to spend New Years Eve in Times Square. Met one of my old beaus on that train...

I used to see passenger trains all the time here in Tucson, headed east and west. Now...I almost never see one. No more waving and wishing...

I simply do not understand how America could be the only country that just lets its passenger rail system go. I plan to do a train ride through Alaska before that one's gone, too. It makes me sad to think that my descendants may never get to ride the train. Beautiful memories you stirred up, my friend...
Far after you did, I lived for a while in the landlocked midwest, in Indiana. The closest active airport was about an hour away, but there were a lot of trains in the area, so that was the background noise we heard, including in the middle of the night from the track that was half a mile from my house. I didn't think in terms of escape - my job put me on a plane about twice a month - but the sound of trains is somehow more comforting than the sound of planes. Even though, where we were, they could be dangerous. While we lived there, they moved tracks out of downtown. While they were still there, a lot of people raced across tracks before they got held up by a couple of hundred freight cars. Our area saw fatal accidents about twice every three years. Patience is a virtue and sometimes a survival strategem.

Love the music. I've heard Arlo do City of New Orleans and I even got to hear Steve Goodman do it once (he wrote it). I've seen Pete Seeger do Wabash Cannonball.
Loved this. Your poetry was the icing on the cake. My hubby takes a commute train everyday into the Bay Area. After trying every sort of commute: driving, carpooliing, commute bus--he finds the rails the best way to relax to and from work. I'll be showing him your post tonight.