Trains, especially the old steam locomotives, hold a fascination for us all. Ask anyone just why and I doubt if they could tell you. But, let one of the few locomotives still running pass by and watch everyone stop and look until it is totally out of sight.
The chug-a-chug-a of those monsters rumbling down the tracks, the smoke blowing coal black from their smoke stacks, steam hissing from the massive cylinders just above the rails that propel the huge drivers connected to each other by cross members that look more like giant scissors as the train rushes by.
The children, always the children, standing beside the tracks anxiously awaiting the first distant blast of the steam whistle, arms working furiously as if they themselves were pulling the cord and ringing the big brass bell. The anticipation on their faces and the excitement in their eyes was electric and contagious. I’ve never seen a child disappointed by an engineer yet. They all knew how important their jobs were at that particular moment in time and they never failed to please. They always had a smile and a wave and would blast the whistle for the kids and grown-ups alike and ring the big brass bell until well out of sight. They were more than mere engineers and firemen aboard those thundering beasts, they were goodwill ambassadors spreading cheer and happiness across this great land one child’s smile at a time.
I was one of those kids. I would stand beside the tracks and wait for a train to pass, sometimes for hours, just to get to hear that whistle. To smell the unique smell of the steam locomotive. It’s nothing like the diesel engines of today. There was a mixture of boiling water, lubricating oil, burnt coal, soot and cinders. It was the combination of all these aromas and sounds that made the steam locomotive unique. Even after all these years, I can still remember the smells from those wondrous days gone by. I wish my children had had the opportunity to experience those smells and sounds and the pure joy we, as children, experienced in the simple passing of a train.
When I was a small child growing up in Chicago, my dad and I would ride one of those trains downtown from the Mars station on the west side of the city. The Mars station was so called because the Mars candy company was on the far side of the tracks. You could smell the Mars candy bars for blocks before ever getting close enough to see the factory or the station.
On the week-ends, dad and I would hop on the train into the Windy City instead of driving the car. Not always but, definitely if we were going on a Saturday and planned to do any walking while down there. It was too much trouble to find a parking space even then. Then being the mid-1950’s. Besides, riding the train was exciting. The belching steam and smoke from the old locomotives had it’s own appeal that is hard to explain but, if you’ve ever watched a film noir where the two lovers are saying good-bye as the young man prepares to go off to war. The steam from the engine engulfs them as they embrace and kiss on the station platform for what might be their last time. Very romantic and, very real. Well, the steam part anyway.
Personally, at the tender age of eight, I was not much interested in the romantic side of railroading just yet. All I cared about was the train. Whether I was walking the rails, kicking up the blackened cinders along the right-of-way or balancing myself on the rails to see how far I could get before slipping off, trains always intrigued me.
I can remember walking to my dads plant following those rails. Dad was the manager of the Special Parts Dept. at Arnold Schwinn Bicycles through the war years and up to his retirement in 1968. I loved going there to visit dad, his foreman Ed Sherlock and, once in a while, the big boss as well, Mr. Frank Schwinn.
A little story on the side, if you will. Years after this story took place, when I was ten or twelve, my dad sent me a bike from the factory to one of the local dealers near me in Southern California for assembly. It was to be my birthday present. The reason I say ‘was to be’ is that I had to send it back about a week later.
You see, my dad sent me the prototype of the then not so new Schwinn Paramount right out of the showroom. It was solid chrome, everywhere, and when the old man, Mr. Frank Schwinn, got wind of it, he raised holly hell. He called my dad in on the carpet and read him the riot act.
Now, dad and Mr. Schwinn weren’t exactly drinking buddies but they knew each other quite well. Dad would always call the boss Mr. Schwinn when in public or, like now, when he was in hot water, but Mr. Schwinn would always call my dad Walt. It would be oh hell Walt this or oh hell Walt that. He respected my dad or he never would have put a man with an eight grade education and the equivalent of a GED in charge of the most important department in the whole factory.
Mr. Schwinn told my dad that I could have any bike off the line, equipped anyway I wanted and that would be fine with him but not the prototype of the Paramount. That I would have to send back. My dad told him not to worry, he would have me take it to the dealer and re-box it for the return trip. Then he threw in, just for good measure, you know, Eddie said he didn’t like it anyway. Mr. Schwinn was not amused but, dad was right, I didn’t like it.
I was a big kid even then and the Paramount was too light. I liked a heavier bike. One that felt like you had something under you that you could control. I guess that’s why I drive a Lincoln Town Car instead of a Toyota. My dad replaced the Paramount with the Schwinn Continental. That was the big brother of the Paramount. Looked just the same but was made of heavier materials with slightly larger tires. Not the skinny things they put on the Paramount to cut down on wind resistance. Dad put all of the stuff from the Paramount, gears, brakes, pedal straps, everything. It was the only Continental so equipped for many years. Mr. Schwinn said give the boy what he wants so, dad did just that. Now, back to the original story.
When I would get close to the plant following the main line, I would veer off on the siding that would lead directly to Schwinn’s private loading docks. Trains were still the primary means of cross country shipping at that time. The interstates and the trucking surge were still, mostly, in the planning stages but there were thousands of miles of track leading just about everywhere.
Dad knew of my train fascination so one week-end we went for one of our usual Sunday morning drives for a morning newspaper. Those little excursions usually took a few hours because dad and I would go sightseeing around the city. We would go down to Maxwell Street and look at the drunks lying in doorways or staggering from one pile of garbage to another. Or a prostitute making her way home after a hard nights work. We’d go to the flea market and walk around looking at the wares of people just getting by on nothing or near nothing. It was sad but dad had his reasons for showing me these things. He never explained it then, I was too young. Years later he would say, “Remember when we went to Maxwell Street and the people we saw there?” It was then when he put the words of wisdom to the images still fresh in my mind.
On this particular Sunday morning, we did none of those fun things. Dad wasn’t messing around this day. We were heading someplace in particular and he was wasting no time getting there. From previous trips to the city I could tell we were going somewhere near the stockyards or rail yards but I couldn’t tell exactly where. When we got closer, I figured it had to be the rail yards and I was right. Dad said he had to stop and give one of the engineers that picked up the freight cars at the plant some instructions but it wouldn’t take long and we could be on our way.
When we arrived at the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy rail yard, dad pulled up to the gate and asked the guard for directions. The guard pointed to a huge locomotive sitting with a steady double cush-cush, cush-cush emanating from it’s massive boiler as it sat ready but idle on the tracks. It was one of the largest locomotives I had ever seen. There were no cars coupled to the tender just the locomotive and tender alone. It was a beautiful sight.
Dad drove up to the locomotive which kept getting bigger and bigger as we approached. He stopped the car and got out. I watched him climb up the steel ladder of the thundering beast.
When he climbed back down and returned to the car he said, “How would you like to see inside the cab of that thing before we leave?” I was so excited I couldn’t even speak. I jumped out of the car and headed straight for the ladder at a full run. Dad caught up with me at the last moment and gave me a boost up to the ladder or I surely would have ended up underneath the massive engine.
The locomotive was enormous and as black as the coal it ran on. If it was like so many of the engines pulling freight and passenger cars locally, it was an E-2 class also known as a 4-6-2. Meaning the front truck had four wheels, there were six drivers that propelled the train and two wheels on the rear truck under the cab. The front and rear trucks were meant to help guide the locomotive around turns and keep it from jumping the tracks. A real problem before their invention and that of the engineer controlled air brakes.
When I climbed into the cab I was all eyes and didn’t know what to look at first. The engineer shook my hand and said, “Welcome aboard, Eddie, are you ready for your ride.” I looked at him with eyes so wide open I’m sure he thought they would fall right out of their sockets. I said, “Ride, what ride?” “Oh, your dad didn’t tell you, huh? Well, we’re taking this engine to the shop for an overhaul. It’s all the way at the end of the line. You don’t mind do you? It might take a while.”, he said with a sly smile.
“Mind? Mind? Who me?” I thought I had just gone to steam engine heaven. I don’t know what I said to that engineer or if I said anything at all. All I remember were a couple of toots on the whistle and we were on our way.
The ride lasted, well, I don’t know exactly. I do know that it was one of the greatest experiences of my life. A once in a life time thing that just a fraction of the kids in my generation ever got to do and very few if any of the generations after. The steam locomotives were officially retired from service on September 28th, 1959. It was the end of the steam era for Chicago and the beginning of the diesel era, like it or not. You can still see these great monsters in person every once in a while if you’re in the right place, at the right time. You can see many more on static display around the country but it’s just not the same.
I can look back some fifty plus years ago and, as a small boy, I can say that I once sat on a real engineers lap. I held onto the well worn brass throttle of a real locomotive rumbling down the tracks and leaned out of the engineers window for all to see. I pulled on the wooden handle of the rope leading to the whistle and waved and smiled at the kids lining the tracks. I could easily see the amazement and envy in their eyes as we roared by. I rang the big brass bell for them and all the kids that would never get this experience. I rang that bell just as hard as I could and smiled as big as I could. For a short time in my then young life, I became a small part of the history linked to the great steam locomotives of a now by-gone era and I owe it all to my dad. He made it happen for me. Just for me.
As for my dad, he wasn’t perfect and some would say far from it. He was tough but fair and he often drank too much but he loved me and that’s all that counts in my book. That ride on the train was just one of the many things we did together. It was an age when many things were made possible with the simple shake of the hand over a beer. It was a time when people trusted each other and extended that hand in friendship expecting nothing in return except for you to do something for someone else if given the opportunity and most did just that.
Now, I don’t know whether I ever said these exact words to my dad or not but God only knows I should have. A little late but, here goes. “I love you dad and thanks, ………….. for everything.”
“Clear track ahead Conductor.”
“Let’s get’em on board and close it up.”
“Right you are.”
“All ……… aboard that’s gettin’ aboard!!”
Until we meet again down track.
Have a nice day!