Robert Louis Stevenson reminds us in his poem, “From a Railroad Carriage,” of the beauty and adventure found in trains.
“All through the meadows the horses and cattle,
All of the sights of the hill and the plain,
Fly as thick as driving rain,
And ever again, in the wink of an eye,
Painted stations whistle by.”
Train fascination is nothing new. Mine began years ago in Xenia.
There once was a large train station that sat where the present day bicycle station now sits on a slight hill overlooking SR 68 and SR 380. The tracks crossed the busy highway high atop a large railroad overpass, and the large brick station gave direction to the five intersecting railroads.
The people sitting in the dining car were mesmerizing. Where were they going? Were they leaving a lost love, or seeking someone new?
We saw the young girl in the light sundress run to her boyfriend and watched as he grabbed the handrail on the train and pulled himself into the departing rail car for the long trip home.
“I’ll write you every day,” he shouted, as the high-pitched whistle said goodbye to the Midwest and the people he loved.
As the years went by, I always seized the opportunity to stop and watch a train, especially the rare passenger trains that traveled through the big cities of Ohio.
One afternoon while traveling back to Richmond, Va. from Washington, D.C. on Interstate 95, I decided to take an exit into a small town about 20 miles north of Richmond.
The center of town was unlike one I had ever seen before. Two railroad tracks ran through the center of the small village. The sound was slight at first, but within a few minutes two trains whistled by, one heading northbound to Fredericksburg, Va., and the other heading the opposite direction traveling to Florida.
Ashland became a favorite place for my wife Brenda and me during our years in Virginia. We spent many Sunday afternoons watching trains and enjoying countless stories shared by the waiting passengers.
Since moving back to Ohio over 11 years ago, we haven’t had the opportunity to see as many passenger trains as we did in Virginia. The Cardinal comes through Cincinnati, but it runs in the middle of the morning, not a practical destination for train watchers at that hour.
A couple of years ago, I stumbled across a website that caught my attention and interest. It is called Virtual Railfan. There are nine live streams of railroads from all over the United States.
Cameras are erected on the train stations in La Plata, Mo.; Ashland, Va.; Flagstaff, Ariz.; LaGrange, Ky.; San Juan Capistrano, Calif.; World Famous Horseshoe Curve in Altoona, Pa.; Deshler, Ohio; Chattanooga, Tenn.; and Fort Worth, Texas. This allows rail fans to sit at their computers watching trains, being transported to the far reaches of our beautiful country.
The rails hold the same fascination for me today as they did when I was a boy. I can start in the east and watch as darkness descends an hour or so sooner than in Ohio or Missouri. I’m fascinated to see the black street lamp light up the sidewalks around the station with a special, somewhat deserted glow.
On rainy days it is relaxing to watch the raindrops from the metal lampposts drip onto the sidewalk below.
We watch the passengers detrain as others board the large sleeping cars. The conductors point some of the passengers to the dining cars, while others are guided directly to the passenger cars.
Every evening in Missouri there is a large contingent of Amish families who board the Southwest Chief that runs daily from Chicago to Los Angeles to work the farms and make hay on the ranches of the west.
The cameras show lands where only trains go. The remote areas chronicled only by trains are not accessible to cars and trucks.
Our computers allow us to witness majestic western rivers, tall mountains, as well as the simple clotheslines in back yards, and the family-owned hardware stores in the center of small towns.
Recently, Brenda and I were in Walton, Ky. and had the opportunity to stop near the main line that runs through downtown. As one once said, “If the trains themselves were ever to vanish, the romance of travel would surely be lost.”
President Abraham Lincoln told the railroad builders in 1865, “The road must be built, and you are the men to do it. Take hold of it yourself. By building the Union Pacific, you will be the remembered men of your generation.”
Who would ever have thought that their work would be viewed and appreciated on a computer screen 153 years later?
Thousands across our nation do. Every day and night. Until it’s time to turn off the lights.
Pat Haley is a Clinton County commissioner.