My parents had a secret love affair—with trains. Having travelled thousands of miles by rail together, as well as individually, they loved to talk about their rail journeys.
In retrospect, their fascination with train travel wasn’t surprising. Railroads reigned supreme in my parents’ day. Trains were everywhere and united almost everyone in the same way personal computers or cell phones do today.
Trains, particularly steam locomotives, were omnipresent in the lives of all the members of my parents’ generation, and played a significant role in the events of that period. By shrinking travel time between destinations to mere hours instead of days, weeks or even months, railroads seemed to control even time itself.
The Overland Limited
My mother rode the Overland Limited, a passenger train out of Chicago’s Union Station, on her way west to meet my father in San Francisco. Named for being jointly operated by three railroads on its route between Chicago and the Bay Area of Northern California, the Overland passed through some of the most scenic terrain in the country.
During their rail journeys on the great streamliners of the following decades, my parents preferred to ride in the dome lounge cars where they were afforded views unlike anything that could be seen from the highway. Without the worry of making a wrong turn or taking their eyes off the road and risking their well-being, the dramatic sweep and breadth of the landscape’s beauty could be viewed meditatively for hours from the safety “bubble” of each dome car.
I remember my Dad talking about this time as one in which travel was more about the journey than quickly reaching the destination. Things were done at a much slower pace back then, and getting there was half the fun!
Journey to San Francisco
It was early in the autumn of 1945. My Dad was coming back from the Second World War in the Pacific and the bloody horror that was [the battle of] Okinawa. Mom had spent the summer working as a soda jerk behind the counter at a Walgreens pharmacy in St. Louis, Missouri, saving her earnings to make the journey to San Francisco and welcome my father back home to a loving and peaceful domestic life.
Mom had no intention of looking back, either. As much as she loved her parents, California held a fascination for my mother that went way beyond words and left her with a yearning for something more, something she’d only had glimpses of but was determined to find—something more than the hardscrabble existence the farmland of Southern Illinois and her parents had to offer her.
Riding west on the train alone was quite a brave thing for my mother to have done during that time. Mom must have been nervous, too. It was her first real solo venture into the world west of the Mississippi (or east, for that matter) and the possibility of both good and bad outcomes must’ve seemed wide open.
Demobilization of the country’s military forces had begun almost immediately after the war’s end, congesting the rails with the transport of service members. With the civilian passenger trains taking on the overflow of troops, reserved seating went to military personnel.
It was a special time during that early postwar period. The excitement in the air was palpable as American servicemen and women reunited with their loved ones once again. Mom said she was fortunate in keeping her seat in the Coach car most of the way to San Francisco, thanks to the kindness of the strangers she briefly came to know, and would never forget, on that solo rail journey westward.
In the leisurely quietude of that first early morning rail journey, Mom sat watching the ever-changing pageant of scenery from her window in the Coach car. She could see the front of the train snaking around the mountainside as the engine pulled the passengers through a succession of tunnels, including one that was more than six miles (about 9.7 kilometres) in length. Her car eventually reached an elevation of more than 9,000 feet (about 2,743 metres) at the summit and further into the Western United States.
The cities, small towns, farms and villages of the Iowa-Nebraskan plain appeared like a painting, passing pristinely and seamlessly into the slowly evolving panorama: rich woodlands, quiet lakes and the surrounding meadowlands finally gave way to the jutting and jagged Rocky Mountain Ridge line, forming the Continental Divide. This provided viewers with more stimulus and restorative sustenance than a year’s worth of psychotherapy!
The elegantly vestibuled Overland Limited was, at that time, considered to be the most luxurious train in the world, and the standard-bearer of excellence on the Southern Pacific Railroad’s historic Overland route, making the trip from Chicago to San Francisco in less than three and a half days (84 hours).
The stylish Pullman, Coach, and dining cars exuded the luxurious Art Deco of the early 20th century, in what was really the Golden Age of rail travel. Services provided by conductors in dark navy blue uniforms adorned with gold trim and porters in white dinner jackets weren’t reserved only for first-class passengers, either; the high style of the period, augmented by live or recorded music from the 1940s, remained fluid throughout the train.
My parents, especially my mother, loved to talk about those early years when they were in their twenties, the country was at war, and the American citizenry was doing its best at home and on the war front. And talk of the “iron horse,” especially Mom’s first solo rail journey, always seemed to enter the conversation.
Mom’s memories recalled from those years (and any period, really) were always positive and cheery, but she definitely had her favourites, and anyone who spent much time with her found that out pretty quickly.
Her descriptions of each dining car’s impeccable standard of service, including sparkling glassware and genuine silver settings, always included the phrase “moderately priced,” though the service seemed to rival that of the dining salons of the world’s finest hotels.
My teetotaling mother’s recollections had a radiant quality—an added luminescence of excitement. There was something jazzy and Gatsby-esque about them that made you more tolerant of her tales, which were frequently shared and often included a visit to the Club car, where a bartender behind a wood-panelled quarter-circle served cream sodas to the passengers. And her memories remained clear, up until my father’s death, when the darkening of dementia set in.
The real romance
The “iron horse” was definitely my mother’s preferred mode of travel. Dad’s, too. The attraction to trains was mutual. For, although my father had a seemingly innate love for cars and might’ve preferred driving, his desire to travel by rail was just as strong.
Indeed, my parent’s love for trains was no dalliance or passing fancy—it was an affair of the heart that grew stronger with the years. Mom and Dad continued their rail journeys, going back and forth by train between San Francisco and Chicago (and Los Angeles on the Daylight Limited, later called the Coast Starlight) throughout the late ’40s, ’50s and on into the ’60s, when rail companies were spending huge sums of money to attract a travelling public that was being lured away by automobiles. And though not a through line, my parents would occasionally take the Frisco line (also known as the St. Louis-San Francisco Railway) on occasion, or some other route altogether, as long as it was on the “iron horse.”
Although they’d sometimes try taking other lines en route to Illinois or home again, the option of riding the rail amid the varnished mahogany walls, vintage music, mirrors and murals of the Overland Limited always held sway. Mom and Dad took that Overland Route at least twice a year to visit family and friends or just to “get away” for a while.
Train travel offered an escape, the same as any drug or video game would today. It was an outlet and a break for them from the day-to-day routine. But in the final analysis, their mutual enchantment with rail travel served a greater purpose, uniting both in what was really the only romance that mattered—theirs!
Read the previous article in this series, THE FORTUNATE SON: Casualties of war and my initial introduction to hate crimes and racial injustice»