ROMANCE AND REALITY
As a kid, I often spent the night at my grandmother's apartment. She lived on the outskirts of a small town in Ohio. Her small apartment complex was brick, ranch style, and surrounded by fields. That's all changed. Now homes have swallowed up the green spaces.
But the trains are still a part of the landscape. There's a track that crosses the highway just a short distance from Grandma's old apartment. It's an active track with frequent trains rolling east and west.
On those sleepovers, I would lay still on the couch in the front room with the door opened to the night. Listening hard for the rumble on the track. For the first blast of a whistle in the distance. When it came, I would follow the trumpeting shriek as it became more strident before hitting the railroad crossing over the highway. Those trains in the night caught my imagination. As a young girl the romance of distant destinations thrilled me. So each time, I hopped onboard and traveled with those trains in my dreams. Even on the edges of sleep, the thwacking of the wheels on the track lulled me, cradling my flights of fancy. It's a powerful memory intrinsically linked to my grandmother.
I no longer live where I hear train whistles in the night. But the romance of those locomotives still holds strong.
So how I could I resist.
When. Terry and I had to pick up our daughter from the YMCA camp near Boone, Iowa. Boone. Home to the Boone and Scenic Valley railroad featuring a steam engine that gives regular passenger rides. So it was all board for the three of us.
The railroad was originally built in 1893 and headquartered at Fraser, Iowa...a booming little mining town at the time. From there the tracks went west hauling freight and passengers. In 1907, the track was electrified.
That lasted for nearly 50 years until extreme flooding on the Des Moines River wiped out the power plant in Fraser. After that diesel engines took over.
By the early 1980's, the line's usefulness was at an end. It was being discontinued. But the newly formed Boone Railroad Historical Society pulled together the funding needed to purchase 11.3 miles of the track.
It's a gorgeous section of the line too. The track rolls through the Des Moines River Valley crossing the Bass Point Creek High Bridge, the Des Moines River, and the YMCA camp.
Terry, Eden, and I rode in the "valley view seats" which basically means you're sitting outside on benches. It was blazing hot that day. But I knew once the train got going, the "natural" air conditioning would cool us off.
The ride would take us up to Fraser, Iowa and back. It's about 45 minutes one-way with the train going about 10 to 14 miles per hour.
I was sitting next to a little kid wearing a Thomas The Train t-shirt and I think I was about as excited as he was.
The train pulled out at exactly 1:30 p.m. with the train conductor bellowing his best "All Aboard!" These guys dressed the part too. They looked fabulous in their bygone days-era uniforms.
The steam locomotive was called the 8419. It could have been pulled straight from the pages of the "The Polar Express." A glorious beast. Straining and spewing black smoke into the air. She gathered momentum and we set off swaying back and forth through the Iowa countryside. It was perfect. Idyllic.
The first half of the trip I could glimpse the 8419 as she rounded a curve.
Crossing the Bass Point Creek High Bridge was an act of courage for several passengers next to me. The bridge is the highest single track interurban railroad bridge in the United States. It was built in 1913, soars 156 feet high, and is 784 feet long.
Standing in the outdoor car, you had the sense of being on top of the world. On each side you were higher than the tops of trees seeing vistas stretch for miles. I heard several passengers exclaim they were conquering their fear of heights!
After the bridge, we past the Y camp, crossed the Des Moines River, and stopped at Fraser. Here’s where the whole train romance thing falls apart ...just a bit.
The steam engine disconnects from the front of the train, chugs around to the back of the train, and reconnects to pull us back to Boone.
Two things to know. First we are now only a few cars back from the 8419. Secondly the ride home is more of an uphill climb.
So as we head back, the 8419 is doing its own “The Little Train That Could,” impression and belching out thick, black clouds of steam and cinders while grinding up the track. Remember this engine is fueled by coal and that black stuff has gotta go somewhere.
Leaving Fraser, the train is engulfed by a leafy tunnel of trees. That dense canopy pushed the clouds of cinder down on top of us riding in the outdoor seats. Looking up it resembled a tornado spinning sideways. The cinders rained down leaving everyone with little black polka dots. Combined with the heat of the day, the dots soon became streaks of black as passengers tried to brush themselves off. The soot was everywhere. In your nose, ears, hair, and coating your clothes. Sort of like going to beach, rinsing off in the water but still finding sand in weird places when you get home.
It was impossible to avoid the mess. The train chugged on, the cinders got larger, and the black smoke formed a ceiling over our heads. I finally called it. (Which I should have done way sooner than this), and sought shelter in one of the covered cars. Pretty soon everyone (except Terry) got the same idea and the valley view seats were abandoned (except for Terry who gamely tried to hang on).
The rest of the ride back was uneventful. But it was impossible to reclaim our valley view seats after the train cleared the trees and the smoke (and cinders) went back up, up, and away. Big, black chunks of coal covered everything... the seats, the walkways, and wherever else it could stick.
Back at the depot, it was pretty easy to spot those who rode outside and those who didn't. We tried to clean up a bit in the depot's washrooms, but man it was a mess. We looked like we had been down in the coal mines.
So while it is very romantic to chug off into the sunset riding a real-honest-to-goodness steam engine, the reality is a bit more rugged.
But frankly nothing could dissuade me from my love of the railroad. The next time I drift off in the nighttime hours and hear a train whistle in the distance, I know I'll dream again of clacking wheels and whistling engines.
But guess where I will be riding.
In the caboose.