All the Romance of the American Railroads

The train was slowing down.  They slid past sidings full of empty freight cars bearing names from all over the States – ‘Lackawanna,’ ‘Chesapeake and Ohio,’ ‘Lehigh Valley,’ ‘Seaboard Fruit Express,’ and the lilting ‘Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe’ -- names that held all the romance of the American railroads.
‘British Railways?’ thought Bond.  He sighed and turned his thoughts back to the present adventure.

From:  I. Fleming, Live and Let Die, 1955

It's been a long time since that unexpected piece of prose landed in the novel, Live and Let Die.  It was a romantic look at the American Railroad experience from an unexpected source, though its heartfelt poetry is undeniable.  It's easy to imagine yourself in Bond's place, rolling south along the Eastern Seaboard as those names that speak of far away places on 40 foot boxcars flick by outside.  Now, more than 55 years later, all of those names are consigned to the historical record.  In some bit of irony, the fictional character of James Bond has outlived them all.

Two pictures here show two distinctly different places and days but share the same story.  On a cold and sunny day in Bovill, ID the remnants of the Milwaukee Road's line into the forests of the Idaho Panhandle is remembered by a set of forlorn highway flashers.  The little town of Bovill itself feels tired and run down as well.  Milwaukee Road mallets used to ply the rails here, and passenger service extended from the mainline at St. Maries, serving the old logging communities.  For many years the rails to Bovill have been paved over, only recently have they been deactivated all the way from St. Maries South.

 On a blisteringly hot day, many miles removed from the cold winter winds of Bovill, an old passenger station stands in the small Kansan town of Bazine.  The side door is still clearly marked, and on the peak of the A-frame wall the old Santa Fe emblem is just legible.  A 100 degree wind howls about the old building and down the vacant streets of the small prairie town.  The main street is wide by today's standards but sized to turn the horse-drawn transportation of an era long ago.  Like Bovill, the best days are behind the small town and what's left recalls something that hasn't been seen in a long time.

The past decades have changed something.  It's something you can see in the empty towns that dot the big prairies of the west, or those forgotten logging towns of the Rocky Mountains.  It's seen in the abandoned railroad stations that cling to existence along rusty rails that used to glisten on blistering sunny days.  Where interurban lines once crisscrossed Midwestern corn fields, or where a casual rise in the ground still extends to the horizon line.  "All the romance of the American Railroads," on which Bond mused so long ago, is gone.  Although that is likely only a small piece of the overall puzzle that finds small towns vacant, jobs evaporated, and branch lines abandoned.


From my perspective, the decline in the romance of American Railroads began in 1970 with the formation of the Burlington Northern Railroad, the first Mega Merger, which eliminated with the stroke of a pen, the Great Northern, Northern Pacific, Chicago Burlington & Quincy and Spokane Portland $ Seattle railroads. And by default, The Pacific Coast Railroad.

Almost simultaneously, in 1971, the Florida East Coast, paralyzed by a contentious and deadly labor dispute that began in 1963, was the first to cut train crews from five positions: engineer, fireman, head-end brakeman + conductor and brakeman in the crummy, down to an engineer and conductor. And in doing so, derailed the caboose.

So what are we down to now, seven "class one's?" There were more than 100 when I first photographed a locomotive in 1957.

So I ask "what is the excitement of shooting a BNSF locomotive, that has been shot by 20 other rail fans, possibly the same day 100 miles apart?"

How many shots of a toaster oven do you need for your collection?

We even have so called "foamer's" (they seem to relish what sounds to me like a derogatory name - associating foaming with rabies), reinventing the names of historic landmarks like the Willamette Pass into some goofy name that no one, including elder rail buffs and former SP employees I know in Springfield Oregon, have ever heard of!

Last year, when traveled to Seattle to shoot the rail-barge operations of Alaska Railbelt Marine for my blog, on my return home, I was waiting for a ferry in Edmonds, adjacent to the BNSF mainline. No less than five trains passed the waiting lot I was in.

And I never even looked up to see what was passing by...

That is my reality of the "romance of railroading..."
oamundsen said…
Leland and Robert: I enjoy the writing of both of you and hope you understand how much your work is appreciated by your readers. Robert, not only is the mega railroad boring graphically, the lack of alternative routing, the loss of different engineering perspectives, management styles & opportunities, the concentration of financial risk/opportunity all seem to be very acceptable for maximum efficiency/investor return.
Maybe that is all for the better, but to me the lost human content of the equation is painful.
Anonymous said…
No question, the combined geography and history lessons we used to get at every grade crossing are largely gone. But there is a little romance still hanging on in pockets here and there. Most who have heard of it at all know the Strasburg RR as a tourist ride. But that's not the whole story. Check this video for a little modern romance:
LinesWest said…
Thanks for the video and thoughts on this subject - I enjoy reading them and the steamer brought a smile to my face.

I grew up after the BN was compiled, so I never really knew the original lines and have often wondered what a real mix of equipment would be like. I remember many years ago picking out a derelict gondola, still wearing "Canadian Pacific" in the script style. I thought that was pretty great at the time. Or while I was going to school in Pittsburgh, the local steam plant would take coal cars off the CSX that would have some fallen flags among them like Reading or even the occasional Clinchfield. The unit trains have taken care of most of those I think. I was also always on the look out for heritage passenger equipment in Amtrak's Chicago yards. There was a brief period where the Texas Eagle was running a High Level diner from ATSF days. I even remember the number: 39981. Who knows where it is today?

The modern "toasters" don't really do much for me either. My favorites are still the SD45s, and the 6 axle alcos that I've never spent much time around (though I understand they were kind of a beast to work on). With that said, I do appreciate the throwback paintscheme the KCS runs through town here now. If you're going to have a fleet of toasters, the Southern Belle paint helps.

Best to you all,

Popular posts from this blog

Down the Yard Throat

The Milwaukee Road's Goodnight

Something to Ride Against