Railroad Stories: Railroad Towns Grew and Prospered Because of Trains

Railroad towns, such as Cedar Rapids, Iowa, grew and prospered because of trains. Now, motorists sit and fume while long freight trains lumber through the heart of downtown. Occasionally, the city council huffs and puffs with indignation. Policemen ticket trainmen for overlong halts on crossings. Then normality returns. The latest attempt to make lemonade out of a lemon has been to plant flower beds along the tracks.

Freight trains were the ride of choice for unemployed men who were looking for work during the Great Depression. They frequently dropped from the train – or were thrown off and asked townspeople for handouts of food or money.

I like to watch the passing freights and dream of far-away places with strange-sounding names. I am old enough to remember when any conveyance, aside from a horse and buggy, was a breathtaking adventure. Trains were the stuff of fantasy.

The plush seats seemed to me to be the epitome of opulence. They marched, two by two, down each side of the aisle. I was fascinated by the fact a seat could be reversed to provide a cozy nook for four. Even a small child or two could be accommodated.

The Mark Twain Zephyr ran between Burlington, Iowa, and St. Louis. The glass-enclosed dome car was introduced in the 1930s, and it gave one the feeling of being a Rockefeller to ride there at no additional cost. One had a panoramic view of the countryside.

No one that I knew ate in the dining car. It was considered too expensive. If one began a lengthy trip, it was with a well-stocked food basket that was expected to suffice until one’s destination was reached. Sandwiches, fried chicken, deviled eggs, cookies and fruit were staples. Beverages depended upon vendors who boarded the train at stops.

Travel has never been an impediment to my ability to sleep. I sleep like the proverbial top. Once, I was reading an exciting mystery when the conductor told me to put out my light.

“It’s 8 o’clock,” he said, “and time for God-fearing people to be asleep.”

Another time, a conductor was assisting passengers to detrain. He grasped my arm with such vigor that my feet never touched the steps. When he let loose, I went flying, to land in an ignominious heap on the brick walkway. With visions of a lawsuit no doubt dancing in their heads, the trainmen rushed to pick me up. I assured them I was fine. A couple of weeks later, a rail-road representative phoned to check on me.

In the mid-I930s, IS-year-olds were not sophisticated. When I was to travel from Mobile to Keokuk, Iowa, I had to change trains in St. Louis. My family was afraid I would get lost, and I was firmly instructed to go to the Traveler’s Aid office when I got to St. Louis.

I obeyed, and the lady in charge was all atwitter. She said Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt was in the station and asked if I would like to see her. I had never seen a famous person, so the aid lady and I peeped into Harvey’s Restaurant and caught a glimpse of her eating breakfast.

The Roosevelt family came to Burlington when their son Elliott married Miss Ruth Googins. Today, it is claimed that no one in the hinterlands knew that President Roosevelt’s legs had been totally incapacitated by infantile paralysis, as polio was called then. Anyone who was at the railroad station that day could see he was standing only because his son James was on one side, and an aide or secret service man was on the other side, holding him upright.

It was exciting when political candidates made whistle stops and appeared on the rear platforms of their campaign trains. I saw President Truman and his daughter, Margaret, when his campaign train stopped in Iowa City, Iowa. Someone presented Margaret with a sheaf of red roses.

Dwight Eisenhower’s campaign train stopped in Cedar Rapids. Possibly the crowd’s welcome was a trifle warmer for Mrs. Eisenhower than for her husband, as she had lived in Cedar Rapids as a child

Sometimes I wake in the night when a wandering wind blows chill, and I hear a train whistle. It’s a freight, but I wish I were on a train – going anywhere.

Ruth Gash Taylor
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.