All Aboard: Old timers tell of an era when farmers relied on trains, a time when the sound of a steam engine meant goods and passengers moved to the rhythm of the rails. American trains still haul mountains of grain and other commodities, but the period when the railroads were the circulatory system of agriculture is gone. Just as “video killed the radio star,” trucks have turned most local rail lines into relics or bike paths.
A few main arteries still pump the goods, and some states such as California and Illinois are trying to revive rapid transit lines, but even passenger service is on life support in the United States. The rails that linked small towns and rural areas have faded to nothing but the ghostly sound of train whistles in the night.
My rural home state of Iowa had an extensive rail service at one time. Most towns grew around train depots, and even though no one would call them “rapid,” the trains carried people, corn, and cattle throughout the state. Iowa now has fewer than 4000 miles of roadway track, down from a peak in 1917 when 10,500 miles of rail crisscrossed Iowa (iowarail.com).
Nearly a century ago, residents of my small hometown of Zearing (population 511) could board the M&St.L for the 25-mile day trip to Marshalltown. One resident used to speak of shopping there with his mother, and he remembered the trolley cars that lumbered along the busy streets. Shopping bags in hand, they hopped a train to get back before dark.
Farmers would drive their herds to the sale barn in town and then load the cattle onto trains bound for the Union Stockyards in Chicago (photo above). The farmers might ride along in the caboose, with its basic accommodations: pot bellied stove, cot, spittoon, and maybe a pint of whiskey.
Traveling salesmen could arrive at small town depots and hire a dreyman (driver with horse and wagon) to help them sell their wares. Others used trains for a bit of diversion. According to a Hardin County resident, a seemingly flat stretch of rail near his farm was actually a long uphill grade. Train engines would slow to a walking pace as they pulled heavy loads into town, and a barefoot kid could hop on for a short ride.
By the 1930s Depression Era, the rails were hauling more freight and “non-paying passengers.” Cold, hunger, and railroad detectives made it uncomfortable for the hobos, but when times were tough, some weren’t picky. After World War II, trucks and cars “derailed” certain facets of America’s train system, especially passenger lines. Many of us have no memories of train rides in our home state, but I recall one journey in the late 50s. Our elementary class boarded the Rock Island Rocket for a trip that was probably only twenty miles or so. The wailing train whistle and the rhythmic click of the tracks lulled us into thinking trains were here for good as their parallel rails seemed to meet at some magical point on the distant horizon.
Not many years after that, passenger trains had faded into a less-than-magical place, so the only other rail ride I had in Iowa came aboard a 1964 International Harvester pick-up. A high school friend figured the rail company had set the gauge of the tracks to match his dad’s truck, so he would line it up for a late-night run. He perfected the driverless vehicle routine: set the choke, shift into first, ease out the clutch, and let the slightly deflated tires hug the tracks while we all rode under the moonlight in the truck’s box. Even grain trains were scarce on that line by the late 60s.
Today, monster trucks carry corn and soybeans to huge grain elevators or docks on the Mississippi River, and slatted semis transport cattle and hogs to packing plants. One Amtrak passenger line cuts through our state, and the key freight lines haul everything from cars to coal to ethanol.But times change. This week the old one room train depot in Zearing (photo right) was carefully jacked up and moved to a permanent museum site in a neighboring town. The station is gone, the tracks have been pulled up, and farmers have moved on to other modes of transport. Passengers and livestock no longer get “all aboard” for a ride to Chicago. The train has left the station. by dan gogerty