Thursday, February 28, 2008

When the railroad ruled America.

When the railroad ruled America, even small children knew it ruled by physical size and technological supremacy, not merely because its corporate owners and stockholders controlled state legislators and members of Congress. After the Civil War, the locomotives grew ever more massive, towering over anything but trees and two-story buildings, and the trains grew longer and longer, until by World War I mile-long freight trains crept along the rails, which were shared by ninety-mile-an-hour express passenger trains composed of a few Pullman cars each eighty feet in length. Long before small towns and farmhouses boasted electric light, the nighttime passenger train advertised its incandescent brightness, and while farmers heated kitchens with wood and bathed in tin tubs, Pullman passengers swept past warmed by steam heat and luxuriating in hot showers.

On cold winter nights the throaty roar of the steam whistle echoed for miles along valleys and across prairies, and the brilliant locomotive headlights stitched the countryside like so many lighted needles poking the darkness. Humid summer nights made the whistles sound almost mournful and kept the smell of coal smoke lingering long after the slow freight or air-conditioned passenger train had become only a pair of red lights twinkling miles off or a faint throbbing sound finally overwhelmed by crickets or silence.

Every freight train rolled emblazoned with boxcars labeled for places as mysterious or mundane as Bangor & Aroostock, Moscow, Camden, & St. Augustine, Illinois Central Gulf, the Milwaukee Road, and Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe, or they carried names less easy to find in schoolroom atlases, names like Cotton Belt, Nickel Plate Road, Old Colony, Southern Pacific, and Grand Trunk Western. Every mail train rolled like lightning, never stopping at small towns but instead flinging out a sack of first-class mail even as a pistol-packing railway post office clerk leaned from an open door and swung the hook that grabbed and pulled in the sack of mail hanging from a crane by the depot platform. Every passenger train -- from the local puffing asthmatically to the transcontinental express roaring from city to city without pause -- offered the spectacle of escape into the metropolitan corridor, into modernity.
John Stilgoe, Outside Lies Magic 42-44 (Walker & Co., 1999).

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