An American Motif: The Steam Locomotive in the Collective Imagination

 

images Like the giant reptiles, the great steam locomotives no longer roam the earth.  Those massive hulks of sooty iron, cluttered with snarls of piping and valves, were the consummation of crude mechanical power.  Though technology, like evolution, has since turned from quantitative to more qualitative experiments, many still recall boyhood treks to the station to watch the snorting monster come wailing out of the night like a stricken beast, its swivel‑eye flashing and the beam darting crazily about.  As it coasted the last quarter mile, its dark shape looming ever larger, one was aware only of the earth’s tremor, then the pounding side rods, a fierce hiss, and an insane symphony of squeals.  Suddenly it stood motionless against the stars.  The earth strained against its weight.  A slow and even panting—pam‑pah, pam‑pah—whispered enormous tension, fantastic power.  And with a glow of hellish fire from the very soul of the machine came a rhythmic surge and release, like the sub‑bass of a cathedral organ—whohhh‑whump.  They were impatient sounds; one felt the monster must move on or explode all over to the countryside.  Perhaps an endless stretch of rails lay ahead, rising and failing over hills and valleys, through all the cities, hamlets, and outposts of the world. 

Small‑town boys snuck off to the depot to see the machine’s great dark mass paused against a moonlit landscape, to hear the hiss of the injector, the roar of the flames dancing in the firebox, and the uneasy rhythm of the compressor.  It was as if the iron spirit of Yankee know-how had taken mortal form somewhere out on the dark land—a firey, black behemoth of uncertain intent—bursting on the town like some nightmare visitation, only to vanish again into the night.

If the symbol of nineteenth‑century England—with her princely isolation from the squabbles of Europe, her long tradition of self-government, and her dominion over the sea—is the clipper ship under full sail, the image of nineteenth‑century America is the steam locomotive, careening full throttle across the open plains.  Not only did this noisy iron brute, with its fire, soot, and belching smokestack, personify the Age of Steam, but the energy, bigness, and intensive work, the obsession with time, and the straight and narrow practical mission made this ultimate crude machine—the apotheosis of barnyard tinkering—the classic American icon.

In 1825, when the seventy‑six‑year‑old John Stevens built the country’s first locomotive in his back yard, America was a society of informal, locally autonomous, island communities.  To reach the outside world, one traveled in clumsy wagons over path-like roads and drifted down broken stretches of waterway.  By the 1870s, a vascular system of rails had created a national market, and the term “United States” was no longer plural.  By speeding the pace of westward movement, and by creating vast new markets for mass produced goods, the railroads, more than any other factor, accelerated industrialization and urbanization in nineteenth‑century America.  The railroad not only created the new economic order but was itself the first oligopoly, and thus the first object of federal regulation and the first major battlefield for organized labor.  The railroads raised cities in the wilderness and left bypassed towns in economic ruin.  Preferential freight rates produced oil and steel barons while keeping the South in preindustrial poverty.  And at every point where the railroad touched and transformed the nation, its symbol was the steam locomotive, personifying not only the headlong advance of the railroad empires but the unchained force of industrial expansion itself.

As though aware of their allegoric function, the locomotives grew ever larger and more powerful, Union Pacific’s “Big Boy” reaching three quarters of a million pounds, while the Mallet Triplex, with its 24 driving wheels, produced nearly 200,000 pounds of tractive force; and the wheels on some stood seven  feet high.  Out of the huge foundries of the Baldwin, American, and Lima locomotive works rolled these titanic machines, embodying a new breed of businessman, a new civilization, reaching westward, driven by the Puritan vision of the New World “City on a Hill.”

The locomotive incarnate was James J. Hill, builder of the Great Northern Railroad, a violent, rough‑hewn, thickset, one‑eyed man with a massive head and long, shaggy hair, alternately called the “Empire Builder” and the “grim old lion” of the great West.  Born with nothing, Jim Hill became an intolerant despot with incredible energy, a frontier character in a frock coat who died with fifty‑three‑million dollars.  The last and greatest of the railroad Titans, Hill was no armchair mogul.  He had an encyclopedic knowledge of the harsh, desolate, northern regions spanned by his transcontinental rails.  When Great Northern’s twentieth‑century streamliners whistle “for two thousand miles across the top of the United States,” said Stewart Holbrook, “the echoes scarcely find a swamp nook or a mountain valley that Jim Hill himself did not know at first hand.”  He would climb down from his private railroad car in a blizzard to crawl under a stalled locomotive, or to relieve one of the older shovel‑stiffs, all of whom he knew by first name.  And when he said “Give me enough whiskey and enough Swedes and I’ll build a railroad to Hell!” he captured the romantic image of rugged American expansion.

But on the underside of the vision, the railroads dominate the imagery of American folksong, representing the restless mobility of the uprooted souls who drove the spikes only to ride the boxcars of Hill’s “railroad to Hell.”  Deep in the national memory is the clickityclack of frantic migration, and the long, lonesome whistles fading into the distance, leaving the countryside in eerie silence.  “The blues,” wrote Alan Lomax, “might be said to be half‑African and half-locomotive rhythm.”

The blue‑noted whistles made a man miss pretty women he’d never seen.  Boys in hick towns, lost on the prairie, heard the locomotives snorting and screaming in the night and knew they were bound to small‑town stagnation only for the lack of a railroad ticket….  Americans had always had an itching heel.  When railroads came along, they began to travel so far and so often that, in the words of the old blues, “their feet got to rolling like a wheel, yeah, like a wheel.1 

Railway songs reflect the two faces of railroad history.  The blacks, coolies, and hard‑drinking Irishmen who laid the rails are long forgotten.  Their memorials, as Lomax said, are the ribbons of glistening steel that span the continent like a great harp; and their epitaphs are the wisps of song that linger over the land: “In eighteen hundred and forty‑seven / Sweet Biddy MacGhee, she went to heaven / If she left one kid, she left eleven / To work upon the railway.”

The archetypal hero of the railroad’s underside is John Henry, “the steel‑drivin’ man,” a six‑foot, two‑hundred‑pound black who helped build the Big Bend Tunnel on the C&O road.  In the early 1870s, the C&O was pushing its line through the most rugged part of the mountainous West Virginia wilderness.  The mile‑and‑a‑quarter tunnel, cut through solid rock, is only a minute of lost reading time when flashing through on a modern train.  But at the time it was the most difficult tunnel ever cut by man.  Tunnel blasting was a dark, hot, murky, foul‑smelling process.  The high ring of hammers on steel echoed through the cave above the work chants of hundreds of blacks, their bodies gleaming in the dim flicker of burning lard oil and blackstrap.  Such infernos could kill four hundred horses and half as many men, and the ring of steel hammers was said to haunt the tunnels.

Using a twelve‑pound hammer, John Henry sunk six‑foot spikes into the rock to make holes for the explosives.  Witnesses said he could out‑sing and out‑drive any man on the job, and could go ten hours without missing a stroke.  “I’m throwin’ twelve pounds from my hips on down / Jes’ listen to the cold steel ring!”  When the foreman brought in the newly developed steam drill, John Henry challenged it to a race—a black David against the industrial Goliath.  John Henry “drove fourteen feet while the steam drill was drivin’ only nine,” and he cried, “You can’t drive steel like me, Lawd, Lawd, you can’t drive steel like me!” “He drove so hard,” says the song, “that he broke his poor heart, and he laid down his hammer and he died.”  In truth, he was killed sometime later, crushed by a slab of falling rock, and probably dumped with the other dead men, mules, and horses into the fill between the mountains.

They took John Henry to the tunnel
And they buried him in the sand
And every locomotive come roarin’ by,
Says, “There lies a steel‑drivin’ man.”

 

As the hero of the railroad’s underside, it is appropriate that John Henry triumphed over a steam‑driven machine.  But on the upbeat side, where success stories like that of Jim Hill and his Great Northern reflect American energy, optimism, and faith in technology, the archetypal folk hero is Casey Jones, the “brave engineer,” who must “bring her in on time” or die at his post “with the whistle in his hand.”  If John Henry was the victim of industrial society, Casey Jones was its champion.  In his blue, pin‑striped overalls, with a solid gold watch chain, a red bandanna around his neck, and a wad of tobacco in his cheek, the brave engineer was once the hero of American youth.  Keen‑eyed, his soot‑lined face tanned to leather, he risked washouts, defective rails, and bad bridges in an age without modern signaling systems.  Supplanting the soldier and the sea captain, and anticipating the astronaut, he was the man with “the right stuff,” racing his great machine through the stormiest night to bring her through on time.  Farmers set their clocks by the train whistles.  It was the railroads, in fact, that divided a reluctant nation into four time zones.  The obsession with punctuality makes little sense unless one grasps the extent to which the train became the symbol of time as America sought to impose order on its new urban‑industrial sprawl.  It was as if the country were forever checking its steel pulse, fearing for the vitality of the great industrial golem wrought by the railroads.  To be “on time” was the engineer’s sacred mission.  He put her through or failed spectacularly, to fade into folklore with the cowboys, sailors, loggers, and bandits of American balladry.

John Luther Jones, called Casey because he came from Cayce, Kentucky, drove the Illinois Central’s crack passenger run, the Cannonball Express, between Memphis, Tennessee, and Canton, Mississippi at the turn of the century.  A lanky, black‑haired, gray‑eyed, six‑foot‑four Irishman, Casey loved to lean out and see the side rods of his engine moving so fast they looked solid.

Little more steam an’ a little more coal.
Put your head out the window, see the drivers roll.

 

Engineers were known by their whistles, and Casey could make his talk.  The country blacks along his route loved to hear the shrill, minor keyed “KAAAAAAAAAASEEEEEEEEEE JOOOOOOOOOOONES” moan across the Mississippi night.  The big, laughing Irishman, roaring recklessly past their fields, was the image of power and freedom.

The switchman knew by the engine’s moans
That the man at the throttle was Casey Jones.

 

Late on a spring night in 1900, Casey finished his run into Memphis and was asked to return the 188 miles to Canton, replacing a sick engineer on a train already 95 minutes behind schedule.  The bighearted Irishman agreed, provided he could use his own locomotive.  Roaring south in a heavy rain, he made up 60 of the 95 minutes in the first 100 miles.

I’m going to run her till she leaves the rail,
Or make it on time with the southbound mail.

 

Heading for Vaughan, 14 miles north of Canton, he had cut his lost time to two minutes.  He stood up and hollered to his fireman over the boiler head, “Oh, Sim!  The old girl’s got her high‑heeled slippers on tonight.  We’re going into Canton on time!”  It was the last thing he ever said.  At Vaughan, a southbound freight moving onto a 1000-yard passing track had lost a coupling hose and left four cars on the main line.  Casey’s Cannonball thundered into the curve approaching Vaughan, his drivers pounding the polished steel at 70 miles an hour. 

From his side, fireman Sim was first to see the red lights of the caboose up ahead.  “Look out!  We’re gonna hit something!” he yelled, and swung down low off the locomotive, jumping for his life.  He heard Casey kick the seat out from under him and grab the air brakes, slowing the train to 50 miles an hour when Sim leapt.  By the time the engine plowed through the caboose, Casey’s engine‑handling skill had slowed the train to a speed which left no passenger seriously injured.  Only Casey was dead, lying in the overturned engine with one hand on the air brake, one on the whistle, and an iron bolt through his neck.  “The marvel and the mystery,” wrote one reporter, “is how Engineer Jones stopped that train.  The railroad men themselves wondered at it.”  It was left for Wallace Saunders, a Negro engine wiper who cleaned up Casey’s cab after the wreck, to put the event into song.

Fireman jumped, but Casey stayed on;
He was a good engineer, but he’s dead and gone.

 

Yet it was John Henry and not Casey Jones—the hobos, drifters, and steel‑drivin’ men rather than the dutiful engineers—who inherited the music of the rails.  American folksong has always leaned toward tales of the common man beating the raw land into shape.

If I die a railroad man,
Go bury me under the sand
With a pick and shovel at my head and feet
And a nine‑pound hammer in my hand.

 

The “insistent hammer of steel wheels is the bass note in the fugue of the American struggle,” wrote Kenneth Allsop; it has shaped and colored American music itself, “the train rhythm boogie of wandering saw mill and turpentine camp pianists, the desolate rasp of a hillbilly harmonica blowing like a whistle.”

More common to railroad songs than steel drivers and track liners are the solitary migrants, haunted by the sound of “a lonesome freight at 6:08, comin’ through the town.”  Sometimes unloved (“The longest train I ever did see / Was a hundred coaches long / And the only woman that Iever did love / Was on that train and gone”), sometimes lost to those who loved them (“I looked down that track, far as I could see / Little bitty hand was wavin’ after me”), their lyrics longed for faraway places, for things lost, for the inexpressible.  They were songs of restive discontent, of that “bittersweet sense of immense emptiness ahead and behind,” songs to accompany the rhythm of the wheels and the long, lonesome whistles, lost on the wind.

Heeeeeeeaaarr the whistle blo‑oooow
Clickity‑clack, clickity‑clack,
The wheels are sayin’ to the railroad track,
If y’ go y’ can’t come back,
If y’ go y’ can’t comeback.

 

It is ironic that the railroad became the icon of the alienated, having begun as the image of cultural progress.  Allegorizing the rapid invasion of industry in the nineteenth century, the sudden intrusion of the locomotive upon an idyllic, arcadian landscape has been a common theme in American literature.  “But, hark!  there is the whistle of the locomotive,” wrote Hawthorne, “the long shriek, harsh, above all other harshness….  It tells a story of busy men, citizens, from the hot street, who have come to spend a day in a country village, men of business; in short of all unquietness.”  The whistle penetrated Walden “like the scream of a hawk”; “we do not ride on the railroad,” complained Thoreau, “it rides upon us.”  But if Hill’s “railroad to Hell” was taken literally by romantic dissenters, as in Hawthorne’s “The Celestial Railroad,” most nineteenth‑century Americans saw the locomotive not as a hissing serpent defiling Eden, but as the snorting steed astride which man would triumphantly reenter Paradise.  The ultimate compromise between these visions of Paradise‑lost and Paradise‑to‑be‑ regained was to view the Machine not as the invader but as the creator of the Garden.  From the outset, the myth of the virgin American land as the New Eden—a new beginning for mankind—was threatened on one hand by the reality of a hostile wilderness, and on the other by the encroachment of technological society.  The salvation of both the Machine and the Garden lay in the view that technology had in fact imposed an Edenic order on the wilderness, inaugurating a pastoral “middle way” between savage nature and decadent civilization.  The theme of the “machine in the garden,” as Leo Marx calls it, has been rife in American art and literature, where the machine has most frequently been the locomotive.  One of the better examples is George Inness’ painting The Lackawanna Valley (1854),where an unobtrusive little train puffs through an arcadian landscape like some benevolent robot come to administer the millennium. 

The evolution of the railroad from the object to the icon of alienated dissent parallels the cultural shift from the age of steam to that of electricity.  The former, associated with coal and iron, was based primarily upon the steam engine, while the latter, associated with such things as alloys, synthetics, elasticity, electronics, and automation, was born with the dynamo.  In the steam age, the machine was a super‑beast of burden requiring the physical degradation of men for its operation; the tasks accomplished were primarily those which could have been achieved by a sufficient quantity of manpower; most machines were but an extension of man’s larger muscles.  Early in the electrical age, on the other hand, machines began to do things that no quantity of men could do, becoming not only extensions of the finer muscles, but of the eye, ear, and even the brain itself.  Mammoth mechanical brutes like the locomotive, the essence of which did not extend much beyond the valves, pistons, and vapors visible to the eye, gave way to small and delicate contrivances with obscure magical powers such as the ability to duplicate the human voice, capture living motion on a two dimensional surface, or dispel darkness at a finger’s touch.  In place of the traditional image of crude power achieved through complicated snarls of tubing, valves, and cogwheels, was a new concept of the machine: the achievement of spectacular ends through inconspicuous means.  The heat, sweat, and grime of the steam age gave way to images of the electronic age: the glistening, flawless, indestructible, mathematically perfect shapes of mass‑produced alloys and synthetics, the cool glitter of a metropolis at night, the ballet of the astronaut on the surface of the moon.

By the 1960s, the steam locomotive had become a quaint, nostalgic image, while the railroads themselves fought for survival in an age of internal combustion and jet propulsion.  An irony of history is that the steam locomotive became a mechanical counterpart to John Henry, losing the race to the far more economic diesel, a coffin‑shaped rectangular solid emitting a monotonous hum, probably designed by a no‑nonsense, cost‑cutting committee from a quick sketch out of some bureaucratic suggestion box.  Resembling a real man’s paper weight more than anything else, it represented the kind of functional outlook that might date the New Age from the inception of margarine or plastic flowers.  In contrast, the steam locomotive had an individuality; each railroad designed its own engines, and the duties of each were highly specialized—from squat switchers, puffing and bellowing as they reshuffled cars, to the mighty freight locomotives, sending their smoke and steam to the heavens as they thundered out of the yards.  There was something prim, delicate, and feminine about these powerful, rugged machines.  “With a skillful hand at the throttle,” reminisced one engineer, “a steam engine would almost seem to prance as it took off in a cloud of smoke.”  And like faithful horses, they were responsive to proper care, performing beyond their designed capacity in times of emergency.  Yet the hard economic fact is that by the time the diesel took over, the steam locomotive had outlived its age by three decades.

Although the number of steam locomotives had peaked at 65,000 just before the first diesel was introduced in 1925, the real decline began in the late 1940s when wage‑price spirals pushed the operating costs of the railroads beyond the rates allowed by the ICC.  Then came the coal strike, raising the price of coal to prohibitive levels and virtually shutting down the railroads.  General Motors began to make diesels.  Diesels neither burned coal while they sat nor hung a pall of smoke over the city.  They had interchangeable parts and were all-purpose; one diesel could perform the tasks of every type of steam locomotive, which cut switching costs in half.  The steam locomotive was a flailing wildly plunging mechanical monster, guided only by the rails.  The massive side‑rods churned and pounded the drivers against the track, requiring huge crews to repair the beat up rails and roadbeds.

In June, 1948, the American Locomotive Company built its last steam locomotive, becoming the first to produce only diesels.  The last built in the United States for main line duty was delivered by Baldwin to the Chesapeake & Ohio in 1949.  The prosperity of the mid‑fifties brought a new wave of diesels, forcing the retirement of most steam locomotives by 1957.  In long funeral processions bound for the steel mills, the old veterans of the rails were led over landscapes that had echoed their rhythms for as long as anyone remembered.  “Now only the slow droning of the diesel at the head of the train could be heard,” wrote a photographer of the event, “while the dead engines squeaked and groaned and swayed as the train moved slowly along.”

The greatest of the steam locomotives were the 386‑ton Union Pacific Big Boys, which ruled the Wasatch Mountains and the high plains of Wyoming for two score years.  One day in July 1962, on the outskirts of Cheyenne, the last Big Boy, eating coal by the thousands of tons and evaporating water into steam by the millions of gallons, went to pasture.  It was a symbolic moment.  On the eve of a disastrous decade, America stood at her peak in the cycle of empires, transformed from a scattering of settlements in a few generations largely by this one simple machine.

Yet its passing was unnoted.  Now the small boys watched shimmering jetliners float gently to earth.  Or perhaps they only saw them on television.  Like the astronauts who went all the way to the moon but could not touch it, TV has spawned a whole generation of terrestrial astronaunts who cannot touch the world.  Their elders, meanwhile, recall the steam locomotive as the last great crude tool that man held with his naked hand.  One could witness the transfer of power from steam cylinder to pistons to straining side rods to six‑foot driving wheels; one could feel the reverberations, hear the screech of the flanges on the rail, smell and taste the tang of smoke.

Suddenly they were gone.  A mythic trace hung in the air, floating in the wind like the white feather of steam at the turret, or the side‑rod rhythms of a hobo’s harmonica.  A few hundred were saved, making tourist runs from museums.  But like the sterilized display in the Smithsonian, they are corpses polished and painted beyond recognition by the mortician.  Model railroaders support a multitude of clubs, shops, and magazines; but the models will never chuff, belch, clang, and scrape through the mountains, pulling 130 cars from Omaha to Cheyenne.  And there are no boys at the crossings with visions of faraway worlds as they watch the rumbling, clacking boxcars marked LACKAWANNA, ROCK ISLAND, ROUTE OF THE EAGLES, GREAT NORTHERN, DENVER AND RIO GRANDE, FEATHER RIVER ROUTE, TEXAS PACIFIC, and THE ROUTE OF THE PHOEBE SNOW.

Yet the old men in their engineer’s caps run their model trains in the old mail room of the depot.  The O‑gauge locomotives go round and round and round and round.  In and out of the tunnels.  In and out, in and out.  Here the meaning of things is frozen in timeless perfection—no surprises, no ambiguities—like the bright engine in the Smithsonian.  They know that their iron idols have passed, with radio serials and traveling circuses, into the freeze frames of Americana, and that even the aura lost its life once the locomotive, like buffalo nickels and breakable records, was no longer a common fixture.  And perhaps they agreed with Arlo Guthrie, when he sang farewell for the “City of New Orleans”: “All the towns and people seem / to fade into a bad dream.”  But like the steel rail that “still ain’t heard the news,” they will never catch the conductor’s line, “this train’s got to disappear in railroad blues”2

As the engines gather rust in the long grass, the men who rode them pine away on the back porches of America, the old dreams dissipating with the smoke of cheap cigars, like that wisp of idle steam at the turret of the once‑proud machine.  In their youth they had lain awake listening to the whistles fade into the unfathomable expanse beyond small‑town nights.  The locomotive was to the continent what the moon was to the cosmos: a piece of the infinite mystery passing nearby.  But just as the railroads had reached the Pacific only to close the frontier and spawn Los Angeles, so the monster Saturn rockets put man on the moon only to destroy its mystique.  Both are examples of historical eversion—of a process reaching its extreme only to become its opposite.  At the end of a four‑hundred‑year conquest of nature, the late twentieth century turned from outer toward inner space.  From the barren, gray expanse on the lunar Sea of Tranquillity, “Spaceship Earth,” floating in the black sky, had been the only colorful object in sight.  Perhaps that final phallic act, tearing man from Mother Earth, ended his adolescence.  And as the astronauts looked back through space with a deeper sense of man’s identity, we also looked back in time to a lost innocence at the dawn of that adolescence, when the locomotive engineer was every boy’s hero and the moon was still far away.

Our idealized past was indeed an expansive, optimistic age—a product of the four‑hundred‑year boom produced by the per capita increase in land and bullion following the discovery of the New World.  It gave man the audacity to tear the earth from the center of the universe and to impound both nature and society in a watchwork world.  It was an age of rash confidence—the adolescence of the West—devoted to reason, progress, and the perfectibility of man, but obsessed finally with power, nationalism, romanticism, and revolution.  What better legacy than the locomotive—dark, steaming hulk, builder of nations, yet powered by precise forces, paced by a pocket watch?  It could have been conceived by Newton, designed by Franklin, and orchestrated by Beethoven, embodying both the spirit of Napoleon and the soul of the Jacksonian common man.

We long for the lost innocence of our collective childhood.  By the 1950s, the fragmenting, depersonalizing effects of modernity had reached the man in the street and nostalgia permeated mass culture, from adult Westerns, biblical epics, and Disneyland’s Main Street, to the dream of pastoral suburbia and the reemphasis on God, country, and family.  Thus the locomotives loom out of the past, sent to the steel mills in the same decade that value consensus was being relegated to campaign speeches and children’s literature, the antichambers to oblivion.  When we try to recall the last twilight image of American innocence, it is the steam locomotive that looms largest in collective memory, put to pasture at the very moment when all our myths were fast evaporating.

It is the function of symbol and myth to resolve rationally contradictory cultural values into a single paradoxical reality.  The “machine in the garden” remains the most apt description of an image in which the drive to power and the vision of technological utopia are harbored within the safe consensus of a universe familiar as an old song.  It is the incongruous image of a millennial mission within an eternal Eden, the hope of escaping history while taking refuge in its preordination.  The aura lingers ghostlike in and about the abandoned piece of machinery, tombstone to a vanished age, gathering, as one mourner wrote, the “brown‑red rust of many seasons, the wind out of a bleak fall sky flapping the remnants of its cab curtain, rustling the weeds around the driver flanges.”

Perhaps she retains in her molecules some memory trace—some holographic image of sitting at the station awaiting her last run, alive with the whisper of leaking steam, the thumping talk of cross‑compound air pumps, and the full‑throated roar of her open blower.  Then came the relentless hammering of her heavy bell, and a great, heaving chuff.  And another.  And another, and another, belching smoke to the heavens.  She could be the last steam train pulling out of the modern age, hauling a hundred cars laden with the leftovers of an abandoned era: flat cars full of hulking iron machinery, hoppers heaped with wood stoves and washboards, a parlor car lilting with ballroom dancers, a club car crowded with corner druggists and country doctors.  On the platform, a suspendered old stationmaster peers over spectacles at this pocket watch as he enters the departure in his large logbook. 

To the east, the first stars hang in the deep purple sky like the lanterns of some celestial stationmaster whose heavy ledgers hold the fate of each life.  The Rotary band plays Sousa’s “King Cotton” march as the caboose recedes with the old brakeman on its back porch, puffing his cigar and tapping his hightop shoe.  Out from the town, past the scrap yards, onto the open land clatters the old train, rolling out under a harvest moon (big yellow moon, old devil moon, not gray desolation littered with NASA’s debris), moving along a moonlit lake, out across the western horizon, bisecting heaven and earth against a red sky.  Then inching into the dark hills, and gone.  Vanished forever, like those fresh green forests along the Atlantic, and the buffalo on the plains.  And far away, over the rustle of dry grass, a long, ghostly whistle, lost on the wind, leaving the land in desolate silence.

[This appeared in the Southwest Review 71 (Autumn 1987), 440-54. Submitted by the editors for the Pushcart Prize.]

 

Comments

  1. Ginnie Mickelson says:

    Wyn,
    Your essays are so rich with imagery. I read them, then read them again, simply to feel the texture of your writing. The steam engines always bring me back to my childhood. Thanks for including the farewell to “The City of New Orleans”, my favorite Arlo Guthrie song.
    Ginnie, who still visits the steam engines at Roaring Camp in Felton CA.

  2. Reid Isaksen says:

    I lived in Felton for 23 years, and walked the old tracks over to Roaring Camp often. Oh how I loved the steam Locomotives… Great writing, Wyn.

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