Friday, February 20, 2015

Iron Roads Running

To me there is something almost soothing about old tools, old machinery. The feeling of history simultaneously impossibly far away and yet tantalizingly close. The scent of past use, dulled by generations of oil lamps, of echoing footsteps, hushed voices, tarnished brass fittings, of wood precious as carved ivory. This is the scent of history; comforting us by saying, one hundred years may have passed but what you were is still remembered. What you gave is still useful.

That is why you will find such things around the Range. There is a feeling of innate security in tools that were made to last. Cast iron, machined bronze, Brazilian rosewood, forged high carbon steel. When I hold them, use them, I still seeing the original owners life stamped into the tool, which cost a weeks pay in their time. A time when things were made to last, for a people that had faith in the future and the destiny of our country.

When I was a kid, log trains coming off the mountains would cut shadows across our property, dark forms that would slide over the wall above my bed, over the model boats and planes and trains my brother and I had built. And with the shadow came one of the first sounds of memory, the mournful wail of a train. In daytime, we'd ride our bides along the tracks, searching for diesel smoke in the air, throbbing engines, hoping for quick glimpse. When we did, it was glory, racing our bikes as if we could keep up with it, trailing as fast as we could pedal in wake of smoke that smelled of adventures we could only dream of, crickets sawing away in accompaniment in the summer day of childhood, slowly dying.

If we thought we could go all that way before sunset, and without getting caught, we'd ride as far as the local timber mill, which had multiple tracks running in. We'd sit, breathless as two trains would come in together, praying against a collision, only to have one veer off and stop, while a quarter mile of cars passed. I think of the missing man formation, in which a squadron of fighter planes performs a low pass, one separating and flying off to the heavens. A howling ballet, it's performers mighty machines. Both sights bring a lump to my throat.

We'd look for the engineer up in the engine, indistinct yet mighty, and we wondered who he is and what's in his heart as he holds the power in, his steady foot balancing on an engine that knocks and rumbles. We're not supposed to be her , this close to the tracks, this far from home, and we're going to be late for supper. But we know enough, having learned early on, that for something you love, for the ineffable feeling of rightness, of being exactly where you want to be, in tune with nature and yourself, accompanied by a trains whistle, there will be a price to pay, and it will be worth it.

Now, I'm grown and I'm free to wander the plains and the rails.

The last train trip was a short one when business took me up to Central Ohio and I made a trip on the Cuyahoga Valley train. There were other tourist things to do, yet this was a good day, a trek with a packed sandwich, sitting in a car generations older than I, restored to meticulous polish, watching the trees, the water and even an eagle nookery slide past. The line is run by volunteers, the cars kept up by donations, people who love the rails keeping it alive in a time where speed is of the essence and the old is often replaced by the new, not due to necessity but for the misguided notion that new is always better, that young is always the most desirable.

The extensive park it travels through runs clear down into Central Ohio, with glimpses of simple frame houses, bought at Sears Roebuck, generations ago, for the workers cutting the valleys through which the train passed. The train made stops where we could get off and visit where the trains are restored and maintained, walls of tools, lit by old lamps. Old shops in ancient buildings, the smell of wood and cast iron forever in the air.

Back on the train, the conductor gave us snippets of history over the loudspeakers; spoke of men cutting through the heavy hills of rock and the soil by hand with a brace of mules. (Abrasive Mules?) With the conductors words we could almost picture the mules and the men working, toiling in the cold and the heat and the abrupt change of seasons that is the Great Lakes, and it provided a frame to the landscape outside which was more suitable than the sleek, shiny cars we occasionally saw at the crossings. We could look out on the bare trees and picture those trees as new growth, leaves laid out like hands, gathering the rain and the wind that fueled their growth. We rolled past old buildings in which engine repairs had been made, are still made, the wind ripping the sound of our wheels onward and away, like scraps of paper on which history is written. That is history, the leavings and the shards, the remnants of people who toiled and dreamed and made something that for its day, rivaled any mode of transportation we have today.

One of the cars we saw dated back to 1918 and was used for carrying passengers in the time of WWI. What had it been like for those first people riding out on the trains that now rushed past us? I imagine myself as those people on the train, young men loading their simple gear and saying goodbye, heading towards a future that is ambiguous at best. I picture them boarding the train, in silence, commitment and perhaps fear, yet with a tremulous excitement for what they had accomplished to this day. What would have it been like for those first passengers, for those brave enough to make that first trip, for that moment of exultation when the cars pushed on up an incline constructed in sweat, blood and mud, the trains whistle throwing up an appeal, a defiant cry to the land, "I am this nations' future and I will be heard".

Today that rallying cry was but an echo so I leaned back my head against the seat, and closed my eyes, feeling the train through my bones, its song lulling me back to a day not long distant. I heard the tracks and the whistle, the sound of a eagles cry as it raced the wind behind. Then I didn't hear anything outside at all, only the rhythm of the wheels, rocking me gently, the scent of hard steel coming up out of the darkness, in the valley below, to quicken something in me as old as time.

The ride was over too soon, and time to head back. The long drive back home was mostly in silence, thinking of a simpler time, of sights and sounds of places we are blessed to know, of shiny trains buoyant in the sunlight, the whistle of the train winding through the misty valleys of our past.


  1. I have lots of tools from my Dad that date back prior to 1920, a Coleman Lantern he purchased in 1924, (still burns great) a 12 gauge & 410 single shot that do not look very new but they are still good enough to light your night and kill a mess of quail or squirrel, and they will be passed down to my son when I leave this world.

  2. I live in western PA, not far from the Ohio border. There is a lot of history around here, from the original oil fields to steel mills and early settlers. Perhaps that's why I developed such an interest in history, at such a young age.


  3. Brigid, your post brought this to my mind immediately. I have loved this for a long time. Paste in the link and enjoy. It's safe...

  4. I grew up to the lonesome wail of a train. It is something I miss. I live four blocks from the train going through town. It is too close to hear the sound as a wail. Beside, it is in a cut and barely audible.

    Old things hold a charm for me. Mended old is better than new, shiny perfection.

    My father never told me he worked for a railroad. I found that bit of information from the SS office when I was not even looking for information about him..

  5. Beautiful post. Thank you for saying what I never could.

  6. A slower and simpler pace of life... Thanks for the glimpse into the past!

  7. There was a radio DJ of years gone by that used to set his clock by the passing whistle of the train that passed by on the rails by his studio. At the prescribed time he would stick his mike out the window and sure enough here cam the train a puffin and a whistling. There was a different precision back then. There is an old roundhouse here in town being restored and it is fascinating to hear some of the stories from the old timers that would go down there and play. Usually one of their friends father worked there.
    There are a variety of trains that operate on special occasions in you neighborhood plus the tourist roads.

    Cool stuff...... thank you.

  8. Interesting that you mentioned the 1918 passenger cars on the railroad. I have spent most of this cold weekend time traveling via you tube. I watched quite a few videos on the Battles of the Marne and Verdun. I then watched several on the Battle of Belleau Wood. Hard to think about those brave, young men swinging up into a rail car, looking back and then never again seeing home and loved ones on this side of the veil. God bless all who go in harm's way for us.

  9. Can you guess the movie?
    I love the list of stops.


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