Volume 7, Number 5 - Fall 1980

Railroad Memories

My first memories of the steam snorters of yesteryears was what seems to me a very long time ago. My father being an itinerant minister of the Methodist Episcopal Church, our family abode was frequently changed, due to the appointive system which is a part of Methodism. The mode by which this was accomplished was the packing and shipping of our household goods and chattles, loading them into a box car and waybilling them to our new destination. Then following them as soon as possible buying tickets for the whole family at the local railroad station and boarding the first local passenger train that would make connections at the proper junction points or terminals with other trains to be ridden toward our home to be. I say toward, due to the necessity of transferring from that train or railroad line to another train or railroad line in the process of getting to where we intended to go. Our tickets were through tickets so that we did not have to buy tickets at these transfer points. Our hand luggage and any items shipped by express were checked or waybilled and traveled in the baggage car and express car ahead of coaches composing the train. Also, there was generally a United States Mail car coupled into the train ahead of the express car and just behind the tender (coal car, which carried the fuel for the coal burning engine in a huge front compartment and water in a huge tank behind the coal compartment.) There were pipes connecting this tank to the boiler in the locomotive which was propelled by steam. The locomotive’s smaller front wheels were known as pony wheels and were also guide wheels. Behind them were the large drive wheels connected together by strong steel side arms in such a fashion that when the back wheel on each side of the locomotive turned it turned the wheel in front of it. I am not mechanic enough to write of the mechinism by which the steam from the boiler was transferred to the cylinders on the side of the locomotive generally at wheel level and thence into the driving mechinism. But those locomotives were impressive sights to me and it was with a great deal of respect and a certain amount of fear that I stood beside the tracks with the rest of my family and watched them come roaring toward us, hissing and snorting steam, their side arms pumping up and down with thrusting forward and backward motion, slicing the air as it came. It’s smoke-stack sometimes poured out black smoke and its triangular shaped cow-catcher slightly swayed from side to side. I was generally deafened by the clanking as it rushed by us and we felt the breeze of the slowing cars behind it.

To me that was always a thrilling experience before we ever boarded the train and a fitting introduction to the deep satisfaction that I was to experience from the ride that was to follow. I say satisfaction for there is no other delineation which could possibly describe my fascination and total involvement with riding in a railroad passenger coach as a small boy. The feeling did not leave me as I grew into young manhood and advanced into middle age. It would still be mine were I able to travel by rail today. Those railroad coaches became a sort of social factor in the lives of those who traveled in them. Conversations were carried on by people who were strangers to each other. And oftentimes laughter could be heard in different sections of the coach. If we were going a long distance, mother always packed a lunch or several lunches to provide meals which were eaten on the train. There were no plastic sandwich bags or thermos bottles. Mother always saved shoe boxes for the lunches and if we were to be intrained for more than one meal, there being several of us, she used the number of boxes necessary to carry ample provisions. How I did enjoy those meals, it seemed I had everything I could wish for, the comfort of a plush seat, fast locomotion, with scenery flipping by the window, good sandwiches, a banana or an apple for dessert and the sprightly conversation of our family. Wonderful memories were treasured until the next train ride.

I remember a journey into Minnesota from northwest Iowa with my father when he took me from one car into another, sometime prior to 1905. There was no vestibule between the coaches and access to the other coach was across the undulating, swaying platforms between coaches. It was exciting to feel the wind whipping around us as we made what seemed to me a precarious passage and walked through the smoking compartment of the next coach.

At one stop I saw for my first time the coupling of more cars into our train.

When my father became the pastor of the First Methodist Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, it was by train that we moved from the plains of northwest Iowa to the almost semi-tropical climate of the near south, into an entirely different culture


than we had known. It was on that journey that I awoke on the train sometime late in the night, or was awakened by an older brother to see the cab of a large locomotive on the track opposite our seat. The door to the fire box was open and the fireman was shoveling coal into the maw of the monster and the glow of the fire lit the night in a most erie fashion. I was loath to leave that scene when our train began moving again. Our first stop was in Clinton, Iowa, where our grandparents lived and where we visited for several days. It was there that I rode my first inter-urban train on the Mississippi line that then ran from Clinton to Davenport, Iowa. My sister and I kept up a lively watch and conversation as we speculated as to whether the passenger train on the Milwaukee Railroad across the river in Illinois was going to make it into Davenport before the inter-urban did. When we left Clinton, it was on a night train. There had been some confusion regarding our tickets. When the train stopped at the station it was an all pullman and ours were day coach tickets. I well remember mother talking to the conductor in low tones while the rest of us stood bewildered. Mother was in charge of all of us as father had preceded us to Little Rock to make arrangements for our arrival there. I do not know to this day how she managed it, but she persuaded the conductor to allow us aboard to get to the junction point where we were to catch the Illinois Central train going south. We arrived at the big St. Louis Union Depot at night after traveling most of the day through Illinois. To me that waiting room seemed a most magnificent place, with its cushioned seats and large numbers of travelers passing through the concourse.

We arrived in Memphis, Tennessee, sometime the next morning where I experienced my first real discomfort of the journey. To get from one depot to another it was necessary to board a transfer passenger car. It being a warm autumn day the windows of the car were all open, also the doors at either end of the car. When we boarded it there was no locomotive attached. However a switch engine soon approached with a brakeman riding the front step by the cowcatcher. It slammed into the couplings with a jolting force which nearly knocked us off our seats and chuffed out a cloud of smoke that filled the car; leaving everybody coughing and wheezing, then chuffed us across the maze of tracks to the station from whence we were to catch the train which would head for Little Rock, Arkansas. What a haven of refuge it seemed to walk into the quiet, comparatively cool comfort of the day coach of that train. As I remember it that was an Iron Mountain train. I must have slept much of the way from there into Little Rock for my memories of the journey from Memphis are vague. My Father met us at the Little Rock Union station and took us by street car to our new home at 114 East 14th Street.

After a two and half year stay in Little Rock our family moved to Cabool, Missouri. That journey is still vivid in my memory. It was an April morning when we boarded an Iron Mountain passenger train for the ride into the show me state. Ensconced in a comfortable seat beside my brother, six years older than I, he told me that we were sitting in a millionnaires palace, and so it seemed to me at the time. It was also when I first became conscious of Dining cars connected to the train service. A negro waiter, or cook, I know not which, was leaning out of the window of the back car of a passenger train waiting on a nearby track, and I asked my brother what he was doing there. I was informed that the car was a traveling restaurant and that he was one of the major domos of that particular car. It whetted my appetite and gave me dreams in new dimensions of riding on the rails. It wasn't long until we were in motion and I was seeing the last of that southern city that I was ever to see. And the romance of railroad transportation was enveloping me and gliding by me in seemingly moving landscapes of fields, woodlands, streams, roads, fences, animals, barns and homes. We passed through swamps, the stench of which I’ve never forgotten; by upland farms where rail fences snaked their way around fields and stretched over hills and through valleys. We stopped at stations of typical Arkansas type, where waste cotton blew between and along the side tracks and people waiting for the train were both black and white although they always boarded separate cars of the train. As the day waned at each stop there were more whites and fewer blacks as we approached the Missouri line. Late in the afternoon they were all white at each succeeding stop.

But the Iron Mountain train did not carry us all of the way to our destination. We had to change trains at Hoxie, Arkansas, with a two hour wait in a dreary depot until the Frisco Local Passenger train, old Number 104 picked us up to whisk us on into Missouri and on to Cabool. At Mammoth Springs rain began to fall and we went the rest of the way through a drenching rain with water rolling down over the windows to blur our vision


of the landscape. I remember how comfortable I felt to be in the coach with the rain falling outside.

The discomfort came when we had to alight from the train at the Cabool, Missouri depot and take shelter in its waiting room until our father could make some arrangement for our accommodations for the night. But that is a different story. Sitting there listening to the interminable clicking of the telegraph I had no dream of how very much that Frisco depot was going to mean to me in the years ahead when as a farm boy I was to deliver express packages, cans of cream, baggage and freight there; and at other times meet incoming relatives, and at other times bid outgoing relatives and friends goodbye on its brick platform.

The comings and goings of the passenger trains in the Ozark towns of that day were social events, especially so of day arriving trains.

On main street in Cabool we were always aware of approaching train time. A sort of restlessness took hold upon the people and there was a gradual movement of groups and individuals toward the depot. Generally three quarters to half an hour before the train was due quite a concourse of people would be gathered on the platform and within the depot engaged in conversation. Some were standing beside suitcases or other hand luggage but many were there simply to visit with friends or relatives and some simply to watch the incoming and outgoing train to see who got on the train or who got off. It was a continuing stimulation to those who participated in it, and there was always the dream of far away places to which those shining tracks led. Our farm home was about one mile south of Cabool and we could always hear the whistle of those steam locomotives as they rounded the curves into the town, their high pitched sounds echoing among those hills. We quit the field when No. 104 came in on its way to Springfield and the on to Kansas City, we knew that it was nearly dinner time when 103 came in on its way to Memphis.

When college days arrived I began riding those trains back and forth and as a student pastor they were frequently my mode of transportation. It was during the year of the great railroad strike and trains ran late. Sometimes I waited for a belated train four or five hours. I will never forget the comment of a drummer in the Missouri Pacific station in Galena, Missouri, when the train was nine hours late, "I’ve been on the road twenty five years and it seems to me that twenty of those years was spent just waiting for Missouri Pacific trains."

I remember the high wooden trestles along the Missouri Pacific line that ran through Branson. I also saw them filling those in with dirt brought from a neighboring hill in dump cars and seeing the clay and rocks sifting down among those wooden timbers. I thought of that scripture passage, "If you have faith as a grain of mustard seed, you shall say unto this mountain, be thou removed into the midst of the sea and it shall be done." Railroads were in the mountain moving business.

There was a great deal of sociability among the travelers who rode those passenger trains, especially the local trains. Oftentimes the buzz of conversation wafted through the car and there was also the diversion of the news butch, selling papers, candy, and fruit. Some of us often rode a night train to avoid hotel bills. It was no trick at all to carry a pillow in your luggage and curl up in the seat and sleep your way across the land. Those who could afford it rode in comfort in pullman cars.

My memories of trains would in no wise be complete without those clustered around the Kansas City Ozark and Southern, which the Mansfield Newspaper Editor once designated as the Kissing, Coons, Owls, and Shoats. At the time of its construction its promotors talked big about where it was going and did their best to get people to invest in their promotional scheme. They even built a few depots in some of the towns they were supposed to go through. It never went through any town. It did go between two towns, Mansfield and Ava. Its curves were so sharp that the smallest Frisco locomotive had great difficulty in negotiating them. I don’t know whether they ever owned their own locomotive or not, but I do know that at one time they rented one from the Frisco.

Its passenger service was a bus on flanged wheels, comparable in size to a modern school bus. I rode it to and from my preaching appointments in the Ava Methodist Church. Sometimes it didn't run. Then the alternative was to hire a jitney to get back to Mansfield.

But the most beautiful journey I ever traveled was on that short line one early October day when the woods were aflame with autumn colors, and the day was pleasantly warm with sunshine and a gentle breeze. The tracks wound through the woods along the line and there was a closeness of the timber to the tracks, and the breeze was redolent with the aroma of those autumn woodlands. Sumac near the tracks was flaming red, sassafrass was brilliant,


there were many hickory trees among the oaks. All of their leaves were bright yellow, mingling with the russets and mauves of the oaks. It was a veritable fairy land the like of which I have never seen before or since. It colors my thinking of the Ozarks, its trains, its people, for it was a sociable group of people with whom I rode that railroad bus.

When I think of our United States railroads my thought goes beyond my experiences in using their facilities to the people of far vision, high enterprise, great courage, tenacity of purpose and tremendous endeavor, who laid their shining ribbons of steel, criss crossing the continent, across the prairies, over the rivers, and through the mountain passes to help in taming the continent and give access to its fartherest reaches: using comparatively primitive equipment and horse power in their construction. I think of the human energy which went into the projects, and what the coming of the railroads meant to the communities they served and still serve. To many communitys in the rocky hills and valleys of the Ozarks they meant quick access to the outside world and an inflow of cultural opportunities. Where can there be found greater romance than that?

Editor’s Note: President Brown writes that reading the DuBois Railroad Story reminded her of the Mansfield-Ava Train. She continued, ’My husband said that he had ridden it and had to get out and go ahead on curves and signal the engineer when the train was about to go off the track. The track was still there the first time I rode the train with him about 1925 or 1926.’


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