Railroad Stories: Passenger Train Travel Exciting

My son returned from a trip on Amtrak and told of the excitement of his passenger train travel. He told of incredible sights of Western mountain passes and valleys. He spoke of gourmet meals as the train sped through California.

I have trouble reconciling this experience with what I see around me. The tracks that hummed during my childhood are overgrown with weeds or have been transformed into hiking trails. The railroad station in Marion, Iowa, where a school friend joined me on our trip to college, is now the centerpiece of Marion’s park and it is used as a community center. How many old depots are now restaurants or shopping malls?

I also have trouble reconciling my son’s experience with the trains of my youth. They were meant to carry freight and people, often in that order, and no one expected extras. They were dependable, and they took us places we would never have seen without them. They were noisy with their clickety-clack over the rails, ringing crashes as cars coupled, and long, mournful whistles that echoed over the fields. They were often sooty with coal dust that blew in through open doors and windows from the coal hopper, but despite their noise, dirt and general discomfort, we didn’t complain. Trains were our lifeline to the world.

If it had not been for the Hiawatha that streamed through Iowa into Chicago, I probably would have gone to school, married and lived all my life within 50 miles of my childhood home. Because of the train, I went away to college in September 1947, and I have lived in a city ever since. I got on the train in a small Iowa town, and after five hours, got off in the heart of Chicago, on Michigan Avenue.

On the trip to college, my best friend and I had five suitcases between us. They had been no problem on the train, when we had the aid of a porter. Getting them onto a crowded bus was quite a different story. We had to transfer three times.

On later trips to the city, we had a unique way of signaling the train. The Hiawatha ran through our farm, and my stepfather would go to the field nearest the track and wave a kitchen towel. Then he scurried back to the car and drove me to the station. There was the train, waiting for me, a smiling porter on the steps, ready to give me a hand.

Upon my return at the end of college, having collected a few possessions along the way, I now had a small trunk of belongings. It had been picked up for me and was coming on a later train. When the stationmaster called and announced that my trunk had arrived, I asked when it could be delivered. I saw my stepfather bend over in amusement and embarrassment. Of course, no one expected such personal treatment in rural Iowa. I was sharply reminded that I was no longer a city girl.

Donna M. Cole
Cedar Rapids, Iowa

Back in 1955 a call went out from the editors of the then Capper’s Weekly asking for readers to send in articles on true pioneers. Hundreds of letters came pouring in from early settlers and their children, many now in their 80s and 90s, and from grandchildren of settlers, all with tales to tell. So many articles were received that a decision was made to create a book, and in 1956, the first My Folks title – My Folks Came in a Covered Wagon – hit the shelves. Nine other books have since been published in the My Folks series, all filled to the brim with true tales from Capper’s readers, and we are proud to make those stories available to our growing online community.