What is it about railroads that is romantic? Ships I can see, particularly sailing ships. A sailing ship under full canvass is a thing of beauty … at least to me. How can you look at a clipper ship or barkentine, masts raking the sky, wind singing through the rigging, big-bellied sails drawing full, able to go anywhere there’s enough water to float her. I recall sitting on the Admirals bridge of the U.S.S John F. Kennedy, interviewing Admiral Crenshaw, who told me that “if we want to go over there, we go over there”. Such is the nature of sailing ships. To me, they epitomize freedom.
A train, on the other hand, is tied to its rails. It only goes where the railroad owns right of way. It’s as blue collar as a sailing ship is glamorous. And yet, we’re drawn to them.
I’ve written before about my paternal grandfather who was a brakeman (I think) for the Monon Railroad in Indiana. He must have just worked on the yard engines, because he was never away from home for long periods like I expect train crews are. The train ran right through downtown, as it did in so many little Midwestern towns. There was a time when the railroad was the only connection to the outside world for many of those little towns … and maybe that’s why trains are seen with such romance.
Then, too, there’s the folklore surrounding the hobos. The itinerant migrants from the depression that would hop an open boxcar and go wherever the train took them, dodging the rail yard security and vanishing into a community. The hobos, from what I understand, were mostly honorable men (and a few women) looking for work when very little existed. But to them, the rails meant freedom, and the ability to move about the country with no resources. The fact that it was not exactly legal is almost immaterial. In fact, it adds something to the mystique.
My first wife’s father rode the rails to the west coast after canoeing from Cincinnati to New Orleans in the 1930s. From there he shipped out on a banana boat as a deckhand. He kept a journal, which his second wife burned after his death. I never understood that woman, but she didn’t have any regard at all for Wes, and that was sad.
Like most guys, I had an HO gauge train set. I loved to watch the trains run in circles around the big table dad had built in the basement for the trains. There were two an “L” shape … one held the trains and one the slot cars. With all the asbestos wrapping the pipes in the basement … well … but I didn’t scratch it off or eat it. My cousin Mike still has boxes and boxes of train stuff, and now with his GarageMahal may actually have a place to put it all up.
All that to say, when I was wandering around Amelia Island yesterday, and there were all these boxcars off on the sidings near the port, it captured my imagination. Whether it was subliminally remembering my grandfather, a flashback to playing with the train set in the basement, or simply the way the rails and the cars formed patterns and lines that beg your eye to follow … I had to capture them.
Trains, even freight trains, are romantic. They evoke the kind of wanderlust that was felt when the train was the only way to move people or things efficiently from coast to coast. Who hasn’t heard a far-off train whistle and felt a twinge, an urge to go where ever the train was going? To see the country at ground level away from the homogeny of the interstate highways, but without the traffic of America’s back roads? Maybe that’s why the railroads capture out imagination … and why they drew my photographers eye.