Wednesday, May 10, 2023

The Golden Spike

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Today, May 10th, marked the 154th anniversary of the driving of the Golden Spike, the symbolic completion of America's first transcontinental railroad. The Central Pacific RR had been building westward from San Francisco while the Union Pacific RR had been laying track westward from Omaha. 

They met in Promontory Summit, in what is now the state of Utah, where Leland Stanford - Gold rusher, robber baron, founder of his namesake university and railroad owner who served as both Governor and Senator to California - used a silver maul to drive a golden spike into a laurel tie as the symbolic "last spike" uniting the east and west coasts of the United States. He missed, which didn't actually spoil the celebrations around the country. (The spike was immediately removed, the laurel replaced with an ordinary rail tie, and the whole thing hammered together rather more expertly, probably by one of the Chinese workers who had completed the final track section.)

It was probably the country's first "mass media" event. Reporters followed the track laying  - in modern parlance, we might say they were embedded - and newspapers were kept up-to-date by telegraph offices close by. The Civil War, which had ended just four years before, had left the country exhausted, broke and bitter; this, in contrast, was a feel-good story everyone could get behind. Western Union allegedly attached wires to the ceremonial silver maul, so they could flash the news around the world the instant the blow fell. Considering that, maybe it's not surprising Stanford's aim was  little off.

Ironically - or perhaps not, this is America, after all - a new line laid further south made Promontory Summit obsolete for all main line trains in just 34 years. The whole historic rail section there was taken apart in 1943, the iron needed for the war effort. In a nice note, the Promontory residents held a ceremonial "undriving" of the actual iron last spike, and then erected a modest monument to the event. The famous event wasn't forgotten, though, and in 1957 Congress created the Golden Spike National Historic Site in Promontory, Utah. Rails were re-laid, and a single golden-colored tie was set on the original spot where the two lines were finally united.

Here's where I confess I know some of this and have an interest because my dad was a HUGE train guy. If you have a train guy in your life, you know what I mean. He always wanted to visit the Golden Spike National Historic Site and never did, so I've now added it to my own bucket list.

Rail workers Wong Fook, Lee Chao & Ging Cui in 1919

One final historical correction of interest: the original accounts and early memorials of the Golden Spike ceremony completely left out the more than 12,000 Chinese laborers - some 80% of the entire work force - who had laid track for over six years to reach Promontory Summit. On the 145th anniversary of the celebration, Chinese-American photographer Corky Lee gathered over 200 Asian-Americans, including descendants of railroad workers, to recreate the now-antique trains meeting face to face - this time, with the people who actually made it happen front and center. 

Dear readers, do you have a quirky historical event of interest? And do you have a Train Guy in your life?

73 comments:

  1. This is fascinating, Julia . . . sad to say, there’s no Train Guy in my life.

    Perhaps Morgan Robertson's novella, "Futility," is more of a “strange but true” story rather than a quirky historical event; however, in the story, first published in 1898, a large, unsinkable ship strikes an iceberg in the North Atlantic. In Robertson’s tale, there were not enough lifeboats for the thousands of passengers aboard the fictional ocean liner Titan. The author revised the story in 1912 and published it as “The Wreck of the Titan” foreshadowing the sinking of the Titanic some fourteen years later . . . .

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    1. I've read about that before, and I think it's beyond quirky. It's really weird, isn't it? Too bad the builders of the Titanic didn't read it and pay attention.

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    2. Wow Joan, I had no idea - what an interesting story.

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    3. I hadn't heard that before, Joan, and it's eerie! It also goes to show the probability of an iceberg strike and the possible problems of not enough life boats for the ever-larger ocean liners being constructed were already out there. Many an author reads a few pieces of factual information and starts wondering, "What if...?"

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  2. That painting is so interesting. I count one ceremonial Indian, a token black man, and two or three women thrown in to soften the touch. I'm glad the Asian workers were recognized belatedly, but let us not forget all the women you KNOW were behind all those men, white and otherwise, and the natives whose land was stolen.

    I believe connecting east and west by rail also heralded standardized time zones. You can't have accurate timetables when a town in Idaho thinks it's four-thirty-eight and the one ten miles away in Washington maintains it's five-ten.

    My town has several train guys I was able to hit on for details in a few of my Rose Carroll books and stories. Bless them!

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    1. Edith, how are you? Better? All better?

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    2. COVID was negative a couple of days ago and is all gone, and my bad back this week (from sitting too much while I was sick, I think) is getting better, too!

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    3. Glad to hear you're well on the mend, Edith!

      The lovely thing about train guys (or plane guys, or WWII guys) is how very willing they are to share everything they know. You'll never meet people (well, mostly men) happier to answer questions.

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    4. Julia, unless they’re your own father who flew B-17 bombers over Europe - including D-Day - and never talked about his experiences. (My mom said when he got with other veterans, then he was chatty!). - Pat S.

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    1. Train guys are a subspecies, Dru; there are also airplane guys, Civil War guys, WWII guys, and I know one clock making and repair guy. It's a thing that happens to certain middle aged men: like salmon swimming upstream, they must develop a passion for A Thing.

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  4. No train guys in either one of our families, but we've had two friends in separate states who are train guys, and you are so right: They are absolutely fixated on trains.

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    1. My dad once researched and wrote a book on abandoned rail lines into the Adirondacks. My mom, bless her heart, actually went along on his research, which consisted of a lot of hiking along barely visible tracks. She loved him a lot.

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  5. My husband is a train guy. When we used to go camping it would be near a place where there were old trains. He wants to build a train set with all the scenery too.

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    1. He can also do it online, Queen! There are whole virtual train communities, with guys creating 3-d trains, scenery, stations, etc. When my folks downsized to a small townhouse, my dad got into this. Taught himself CAD in order to design and upload train cars!

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  6. I married a train guy 56 years ago. He chased steam engines everywhere and even worked on the Santa Fe railroad when he was in college. His grandfather was the station master in a small town in Kansas. When my husband was staying with his grandparents during WW2, he saw them loading boxes off one train and loading them onto other trains. He was an adult before he realized that those were coffins, and his grandfathers station was one of the transfer stations to send the soldiers home.

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  7. No historical event or train guy in itself.
    In the 1920s, my paternel grandfather (as lots of people from Quebec) emigrated to New England to find work. He settled in Amesbury, Mass and found work in connection with the construction of the Boston-Montreal railway line. I don’t know what it was exactly because I found this after he and my father were dead.
    Danielle

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    1. And Julia, this week theme of transport made me think of all the museums I visited ( being cars, carriages, trains, boats, planes ) wherever I was travelling. Thank you.
      Danielle

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    2. You must come and visit, Danielle!

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    3. I will Edith . Covid held me back a couple of years. It’s now a matter of organization and budget but it’s still on my bucket list.

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    4. Your grandfather could have done a lot of different jobs, Danielle. Up through the 1950s, rail construction was still very labor-intensive, with hundreds of workers involved at every step of the process. It would be interesting to research some of the history of the Montreal-Boston line and see what you can find out! (Or, at least I think it would be interesting. I am my father's daughter.)

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  8. Julia, a fine documentary was made about the building of the Transcontinental Railroad by the BBC, of all people. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=59J5aW7_zXk I used to show it to my 8th graders, only cutting slightly for time. My Chinese students always cheered at the end, though of course we discussed afterward whether this changed American feelings about Asian immigrants. (Answer: no.) —Selden

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    1. Very true, Selden. Thanks for the link to the documentary - I'm going to watch it.

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  9. Fascinating history, Julia.

    I know that the immigration laws kept Chinese women out so those men who built the railroads would go home afterwards to marry. The US has a miserable record for prohibitive immigration laws, and one only has to remember the plight of those fleeing certain death in the 1930's and 1940's to remain ever suspicious of our motives.

    As for a train guy, yes, there is an interest here, but not a passion. I'd say that Irwin is more of an airplane guy than a sports car guy. An engineer who designed turbines for commercial jets, I know he went to all the air shows and auto races he could before we met. There is an air museum near our international airport that is the best place to take your grandkids. Worth the trip, New Englanders.

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    1. Whoops. "An airplane guy AND a sports car guy."

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    2. Ross was an airplane guy as well, Judy. Every summer, without fail, we would trek up to the Owl's Head Transportation Museum for the annual air show.

      I forgot about sports car guys! have to add them to the list.

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  10. No train person in our family although the train was part of the heartbeat of our community at the end of the road/line. We lived in an ice-free port, so the rail line was depended upon for the delivery of goods, and more importantly coal all up and down the eastern Seafront. It was particularly important during the 2nd world war for transport of bunker, and care of seamen injured at sea.
    Some of the history that I found most interesting was that should a woman find herself in labour, she would hop on the train and go bumpity, bumpity to Glace Bay – at least an hour away – to give birth – usually for free.
    The line from Louisbourg to Glace Bay was well known for wild blueberries. People would board from all along the tracks to go picking blueberries, Signal to get off and pick blueberries and have a picnic, then get back on the return train and go home. It was well known as the Blueberry run and the crowds were huge.
    When we were kids, the line (unfortunately now long gone) ran in front of our cottage. Everyday, the train would blow the whistle for the bridge at about 10:30. It was still a steam engine at the time. We would run to the top of the hill and wave like crazy! My sister’s birthday was in July, so on her birthday, we would go down to the bridge, and I would take off my perpetually worn red sweater and wave it about. The train always stopped, and we would get on, take our seats (horsehair), and go in to town to pick up the other kids and bring them out to the party. Coming back, we would pay our dime for the fare, and enjoy the ride!
    Sadly, we lost Gordon Lightfoot last week. If you don’t already know it look up the Canadian Railway Trilogy. He captures the life and beat of the train.

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    1. Margo, you have a real gift for capturing a now-gone place and time. I know we've urged you to write a memoir before; I'm going to suggest it again.

      Gordon Lightfoot was one of my late husband's very favorite musicians. When I hears he had passed, I thought, "I hope they give concerts in heaven."

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  11. My uncle was the train person in my life and my brother to a lesser extent. I remember learning about the Golden Spike in grade school. Not sure why, perhaps it coincided with the National Park. I also remember that the Chinese workforce contribution to the railroad was heavily stressed.

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    1. I learned that as well, Kait. I know Chinese immigrants got a major upglow in WWII, because now we had "bad" Asians, in the form of Japanese-Americans, to contrast with them. I wonder if Chinese-American contributions began to be highlighted back then.

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    2. Good point, Julia. And very possible.

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  12. So interesting, Julia! It might have been lucky than Stanford missed: gold is very soft, and it might have smashed the poor thing to a blob.

    My dad was the youngest of three brothers. The middle one, Bill, worked as an executive eventually for B&O, Baltimore & Ohio, and I think he is the reason my dad became a telegrapher for that line, and later for Pennsylvania Railroad. Both lines had stops in Hamilton, where I grew up, crossing the main street several times a day, stopping traffic, sometimes on both lines at once. We could get trapped between the two, which were a block apart. Which was always a good excuse for being late.

    Uncle Bill was a real "train guy"; he was obsessed with travel and maps, and took trains as long as he could. Then he drove the highway system. If I needed to know the best way to get from Point A to Point B, he could be relied on to know. He also advised us to always stop at the first rest area in every state when we drove across the US. I still try to do this.

    By the way, telegraphers were vitally important to the railroads, in the days before electronic communication. If I remember correctly, they rode in the caboose, and used Morse Code to inform the next station of impending arrivals, local authorities of problems on the line, and to get back information about "hot boxes", if a car should catch fire. We kids knew how to alert the caboose operators of hot boxes.

    My dad played piano quite well, which I think probably helped with the dexterity and accuracy needed as a telegrapher.

    One of my earliest memories is of taking an overnight train with my parents, either to Philadelphia or Boston, we went both places. Mother and I slept in the lower bunk while my dad slept above us. One of these days I want to take a long train trip overnight again, maybe across Canada.

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    1. You're a train gal, Karen! What an interesting family history. One of my bucket list items is to take a sleeper car train in the US. I've done it in Europe, crowded in with three other college students, but it would be nice to have a more luxe experience.

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  13. My grandfather was a train guy. He worked for the New York Central as an electrical engineer and carried a train conductor's pocket watch.

    My historic place of interest is Marconi Station in the Cape Cod National Seashore. Marconi built the station and in 1903, achieved the first wireless trans-Atlantic transmission. During WW2, the Marconi Station was moved to Ryder's Cove in Chatham, where it played a crucial role in intercepting German U-boat communications in the Atlantic.

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    1. Margaret, I had no idea Marconi was connected (literally) to locations in Massachusetts! I just looked it up; Chatham has a museum. Now I'm going to put it on my list!

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    2. Our town had a Marconi tower, and a whole village of operators. It was a big deal with a hotel and tennis courts and 'Soirees'. We were just south/east of the under water cable that came from Ireland to Glace Bay, and my great uncle was a Marconi operator. I have a picture of my great Grandfather who was mayor at the time, welcoming Marconi to Louisbourg on the train.

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  15. Of course they left out the Chinese workers at the time of the event. So glad they were able to get those people recognition.

    My quirky historical event is the existence of the Corn Field Fleet in WWII. This provides some background to my newest Homefront Mystery, THE TRUTH WE HIDE. Think converted steamships, pilot training, Great Lakes, and Buffalo.

    My grandfather was a model train guy. Does that count?

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    1. It's not the hobby; it's the near-obsessive attention that's the common denominator, Liz.

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  16. I certainly have a train guy (actually two) in my life. I remember going to the model train store when I was pregnant to buy presents for my son's dad. When my son turned two, we went to St.Louis to visit his dad's relatives and took a ride on the recently restored Frisco 1522 steam locomotive. This was the first time I saw a group of train geeks (or "foamers" as the train crews call them) in all their regalia. Over the years we have spent a lot of vacation time chasing trains, camping in Eastern Oregon near train tracks and finding good light and picturesque spots for train photography. My son had a photo essay published on one of the fan websites of a train in the early morning light. When he comes home for 10 days later this month, he and his dad are going to go camp at Steck Park on the Idaho side of the Snake River and (you guessed it) watch trains.

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    1. Gillian, I'm so happy to see the train bug being passed down to a new generation. I've been worried that the internet age might mean the end of "Dad hobbies," but my own son is getting into the Civil War, so I suppose the cycle of guy life continues.

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  17. No train guy here but I fondly recall my first train "trip" when I was in kindergarten. We didn't go far at all, maybe only four or five miles, but the train did pass the plant where my father worked. I remember that when I got on the train I tried to figure out which side to sit on so I would be sure to see my father when we went by. maybe I was told to "just sit down," I'm not sure but I sat on the wrong side. As we went by I could see a bunch of men standing in front of the plant and waving. At least I saw that much. A bus was waiting for us at the next stop to take us back to school. The train
    discontinued that route only a few years later.

    When my children were quite young my mother thought they might like a train ride. My son was about two and a half and my daughter only a few months old so I don't know what she expected them to get out of the trip. But it was a fun thing to do as a family. I had packed a snack in my son's Sesame Street lunch box and that turned out to be the highlight of the half hour trip for him. When we met my mother waiting at the next stop for us he was thrilled and told her all about how "we ate on the train!" A couple years later that same child got lost in Grand Central Station but that's a story for another time.

    In our family there is a story of how my great grandparents went to the Philippines to teach in 1902. A couple months after they arrived there, my great-grandmother gave birth to her third child and then my great-grandfather died from one of those awful diseases of the time. What no one knows though is how did they get there? Obviously by ship from the west coast, but they lived on the east coast. I have more or less thought that they crossed the country by train but that certainly must have been rather uncomfortable, two young children and a very pregnant woman. I have no idea how helpful my great-grandfather was. He was a scholar who had studied at the Sorbonne in Paris and at Oxford. I picture him on the train, spending several days reading books as "preparation" for his classes.

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    1. Oh, my gosh, Judi, can you imagine? Pregnant, with two kids in tow, and your husband spending all his time in the train compartment/ ship cabin. Even today it takes almost four full days to make the train trip across the country, and who knows how long to get from San Francisco to the Phillippines! Did she come back right away, or did she stay as a widow and teach to support herself?

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    2. She felt she had to stay and finish out his contract. There is a stone in the local cemetery where he is supposed to be buried but I truly doubt it. There is a record of him being buried in the Philippines so I find it hard to believe that his body was dug up and shipped home. His disease was very contagious, another reason making that story difficult to believe. But his mother wanted him buried at home and that is at least how it looks. My great-grandmother didn't stick around her husband's family when she returned, but went to Glens Falls to her family. She lived there the rest of her life and that's where she is buried. I was very young when she died but I have a vague memory of her, most likely more from seeing pictures of her than actually remembering her, probably.

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  18. My dad was a train guy--when I was in grade school we often walked to the train station in the evening to watch the Southern Pacific Railroad's streamliner on its northbound run.--so I was an early convert. And then through a great piece of luck, I married a train guy.That meant lots of train trips across the US, in Europe and, thanks to the Britrail pass, repeated trips around Britain.
    He also built miniature stationary steam engines, so we visited many museums and steam fairs in England, where train guys perhaps have attained the pinnacle of rail and steam fandom.
    For a charming novel about British "boffins"and the model engineering passion, I suggest Nevil Shute's "Trustee from the Toolroom."

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    1. Looking it up right now, Anon. Thanks for the title!

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  19. In New York's North Country (specifically Chazy, NY) there was a train guy-William H. Miner. He was orphaned as a boy, adopted by aunt and uncle and grew up on their farm.
    As a young adult he followed an older sister and her husband west to Chicago, where he got a job with the rail roads. At some point he engineered a train car coupling that made the ride smoother - used first to protect fragile cargo (perhaps stuff in glass jars) and then to make passengers happier.
    Several patents later he was a wealthy man. He returned to the Chazy farm and added land to it. He built a mansion and a sizeable guest house, enormous farm buildings, carriage house, electric plant, his own rail siding off the main line. (300 buildings, 15000 acres, 800 workers)
    In 1903, Hearts Delight Farm was born. https://www.whminer.org/facility/hearts-delight-farm-heritage-exhibit
    The farm produced all sorts of high quality food shipped to the tony hotels and restaurants in NYC and Chicago. But Miner died, his widow struggled with the operation, the Depression came along, the buildings fell apart.
    There are a few outbuildings left and in one of them there is a terrific museum including a diorama.

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    1. JC, this is fascinating! I confess, I've only ever passed through the area north of Plattsburgh on my way to Montreal - this sounds like an excellent reason to stop and take in the sights and the museum.

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  20. I'd heard of the Golden Spike, but I didn't know where it was driven in and who drove it. Thanks for the story, Julia. And thanks for giving me permission to share a (somewhat) quirky historical tale. In 1405, as part of the various Swiss cantons' long fight to free themselves from Hapsburg control, 400 men of the Canton of Appenzell stood in the rain in a grassy field at a high mountain pass called Stoss to meet Duke Friedrich IV of Austria's 1200 troops. Many of the duke's men were in armor and wearing boots, and they were exhausted from climbing the mountain. The Appenzeller had no armor and were barefoot. Before they attacked the duke's troops with spears, axes, and halberds, they rolled heavy stones down the mountain into the armored men, who were having trouble keeping their balance anyway because their boots slipped in the wet grass. The Hapsburger archers also found they couldn't shoot their bows in the rain because their bowstrings were wet. In the end, the Appenzeller won with a loss of only twenty men; Duke Friedrich lost over a third of his troops. I know it's rather a bloodthirsty story to take pleasure in, but I always enjoy imagining those men in their bare feet charging an army three times their size.

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    1. It sounds like a rather more successful version of some of the battles my Scots ancestors fought against the English, Kim!

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  21. Rhys: I love trains-not examining steam engines like guys do but traveling by them long distance in Europe. The changing landscape, that brief close up of people’s lives is endlessly fascinating to me. I’ve traveled from London to Vienna many times, down through Italy, up to the Baltic. All fabulous. My kids all went around Europe with a Eurail pass when they were students. Very eye opening for them! And I adore going to Paris through the Chunnel. Only 2 hours door to door!

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    1. Yes, the Chunnel! What an amazing feat of engineering and efficiency. Hard to beat that travel experience.

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    2. Yes, the Chunnel is amazing, and it's so much fun to take the Eurostar from London to Paris (or vice versa.) I've traveled by train a lot in Britain and Europe, and lots of Amtrack journeys in the US, too. I wish the US would get more rail service going...

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    3. I've never been in the Chunnel! When I was going to school in London, it didn't exist, and the few times since I've been from the UK to Europe or vice versa, I've flown.

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  22. As I recall (and I admit that my memory can play games with me), many of the rail tracks were removed. not just for wartime supplies, but because the bus/trolley companies took them up to remove competition. Later when we realized that efficient rail lines were desirable, the cost of replacing them proved too much.

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  23. What a fun post, Julia. One of the top things on my bucket list is to take the Orient Express.

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    1. Wouldn't that be fabulous? Did you know that the train to Machu Picchu is operated by the same company? The cars are deluxe and beautiful, with tiptop service, although the trip only takes a few hours, so no overnight trips.

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  24. We had a freight line a couple of blocks from my childhood home (near the dairy where we got our milk in glass bottles - and this was a Los Angeles suburb). I remember standing and counting the cars. It seemed magical they were heading for somewhere distant and had come from somewhere equally as distant.

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    1. I think that's part of the magic of trains, Edith. They're right there, in front of you, as they go by, not five miles up in the stratosphere.

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  25. I feel like I've been rode hard and put up wet. But even my muddled brain thinks the railroad was being built eastward from San Francisco. Husband Frank loves military history and was really into the Civil War at one time. And WW2 since his dad was a fighter pilot. I like military history too but more the little things, the trivia that makes the soldiers more real. For instance, while camped by a railroad line south of Richmond, VA troops of the 4thTexas Infantry amused themselves stealing hats from passengers waving them from the train windows as they went by. So I love visiting Civil War battlefields but I grieve at the same time for all those lost.

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    1. (That was Julia's typo, Pat. Of course it was eastward from SF - otherwise it would have been a railroad into the Pacific Ocean.)

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    2. Whoops! Thanks for pointing that little blooper out, Pat!

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  26. Speaking of trains, the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History has a massive model train display, along with historical information about trains and the various kinds and gauges. The Museum itself is housed in Union Terminal, an Art Deco jewel of a building that once was the transportation hub of the area, and now holds the Amtrak station.

    The model trains in the display were originally a downtown holiday tradition at the Cincinnati Gas & Electric building, with tens of thousands of visitors each year. Several years ago the utility, now Duke, donated the collection to the Museum, and they've added to it substantially. The display, which includes miniatures of local buildings and attractions, is open year-round, but there is still a fun holiday display. Right now the Museum has a Lego display, but they've had a Lego area in the train room for years. Little (and big) kids love to spot the special characters, like King Kong, Batman, and Darth Vader, around the miniature town.

    A retired friend of ours is among the dozens of train guy volunteers who keep the tracks maintained and the cars oiled and shipshape. He and his wife have been trying to organize a group of us for a dinner train evening for years, but the very popular local train always sells out before we can get our group to agree on a date.

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    1. That sounds delightful, Karen, and I'm glad Cincinnati has it's original train station. So many architectural beauties were torn down in the sixties in the name of "modernization." Portland, Maine had a magnificent station and clock tower that was demolished in 1961... and replaced with a strip mall. On the plus side, outraged locals founded Greater Portland Landmarks, which has spearheaded some of the strictest historic preservation rules in the country.

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    2. Oh, there was a shopping area in the Terminal for awhile, including a Loehmann's!

      The city just restored this magnificent building, during the pandemic. That wasn't planned, but it worked out well.

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  27. My son was a train guy when he was little. He’d build elaborate Thomas the Tank Engine set ups. He knew all kinds of things about “real” trains, too. Somehow in the growing up process, he lost interest and all of the facts he once knew. I believe the brain space once occupied with train minutiae now contains WWII facts, especially about tanks! He was a military history major.

    I would also highly recommend the streaming series “Hell on Wheels” about the building of the Transcontinental Railroad. A dramatized version, of course, but many of the characters were real people. Very interesting and well acted. —Pat S.

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  28. I'm not a train person and no one in my family is, but I DO love to travel by train. Isn't there a rocky mountain amtrak ride that's supposed to be great? The idea of not having to drive and park seems divine. Best train rides so far have been the cogwheel train up the Jungraujoch in Switzerland. Breathtaking. And the Orient Express is on my "list"... maybe we could to a Jungle Reds trip??

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  29. Oh, what a fun blog! I love trains, although I once took the Lake Shore LImited from Boston to Chicago. Twenty-three hours! Which is a bit...too long. Although truly fun, in my little sleeper car. AND (I got a short story out of it, called All Aboard, which completely takes place on the train.) And oh, yes, my grandson and Thomas the Tank Engine. He had ALL the cars, played with it for hours, truly, hours at a time.

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