I regularly read the opinion pieces at spectator.org and found this yesterday, Midnight Train to Georgetown.
I couldn’t resist responding and a short comment turned into this longer reminiscence.
Your article is reminiscent of a virtual hymn to the long distance passenger train published in Life magazine August 2, 1968. It was written by Ray Bradbury and included the observation that if we killed off all the passenger trains we would have to invent them all over again for the pleasures they provide.
He’s right. I have been fortunate to ride many long distance trains, trips that provided delights and surprises. Aboard the eastbound “Saint Louisan/Gotham Limited” from Harrisburg to New York, my cousin and I had the run of two deadheading Pullman sleeping cars thanks to my conductor Uncle, P.E. Gamber, her father. Later, as a college student, I rode the observation car of the all-Pullman “Broadway Limited” with an unobstructed rearward view of the infrastructure of the mighty Pennsylvania Railroad — stone arch bridges, flying junctions, interlocking plants and a four-track speedway. On other trains, rounding Horseshoe Curve, one marvels at 19th century engineering that made America’s growth possible.
In the darkened observation car of the “Denver Zephyr,” in the middle of the night, I conversed with the conductor, an amateur historian. As we raced through southwest Nebraska on the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy mainline, he pointed out the moonlit hills and described the Indian wars that raged there.
One afternoon and night out of Chicago, on board the “North Coast Limited,” I raised the window blind in my Pullman bedroom to see a yellow fox jumping over a log along the shore of the Yellowstone River. I’ve seen the Milky Way from the comfort of a dome car at Sandpoint, Idaho. I’ve seen the farms and plantations of Virginia from a speeding “Crescent Limited” in the early morning; Lake Pontchartrain’s gentle waves in the approach to New Orleans on the Southern Railway.
In the middle of the night, lifting the window blind approaching Memphis on “The City of New Orleans,” the Barnum & Bailey circus train waits in a siding for us to pass.
Eastbound on the “Lake Shore Limited,” the boisterous conductor waxes loud with tales of the great days of the past and tells me about the regular appearances of Lowell Thomas on the “Twentieth Century Limited.” When he realizes my enthusiasm for railroading, he gestures me off at the station stop at Erie. We walk forward to the three locomotive E-units. As a way of proving his authority, I conclude, he yells up to the engineer, “Hey, let this guy ride up here.” And I do, all the way into Buffalo, with a fascinating conversation with the crew who recalled the glory days “over on the big four” that paralleled our approach into the city.
Given the randomness of dining car seating, I was paired with a beautiful co-ed on the northbound “South Wind” out of Florida. Eastbound to New York on Amtrak’s “Broadway Limited” I enjoyed dinner with Johnny Roventini, the “Call for Philip Morris” page who became a corporate symbol for the cigarette company for several decades, along with his normal-sized brother. On another day, cruising along the Juniata River on the Pennsylvania Railroad’s former Middle Division, I recognized Rogers E. M. Whitaker, a writer and editor for “The New Yorker,” famous for writing about railroads under the nom de plume, Frimbo. I invited him to lunch in the dining car and had a wonderful two hours of conversation about railroading.
I have about 1.7 million frequent flyer miles on Delta Air Lines because, in business, I had to get there with speed. But every mile on a passenger train beats the airways every time.
I would say to the unexperienced, “If you’ve never been lulled to deep sleep by the gentle swaying of a Pullman sleeping car, you have missed a unique pleasure.”
Thanks for your article.
Tags: amateur historian, Amtrak, Broadway Limited, City of New Orleans, Crescent Limited, denver zephyr, Johnny Roventini, Lake Shore Limited, North Coast Limited, passenger trains, ray bradbury, Rogers E.M. Whitaker