By David Nilsen
When I was a small child we lived in a trailer park and had little money. On certain Friday nights my parents and older sister and I would walk out the front gate of the trailer park, cross the road, hike across a marshy field, climb a steep railroad right-of-way embankment, find our way through the woods, and emerge behind our town’s Pizza Hut, our final destination, for a night away from government issued rice and a drafty trailer.
Once there was a freight train sitting on the tracks, stretching interminably in both directions, motionless. As I spanned my short legs across the buckles between two cars, it lurched and began to move. Another time, as we walked along the right-of-way for a distance, the blast of a freight diesel’s horn shattered the air behind us. A train had snuck up on us and was only a few hundred yards away, barreling toward us. I panicked and leapt down the incline, nearly plunging into a waterway below except for a discarded railroad tie snagging my clothes on the way.
My mother has family in Phoenix, Arizona, and the summer after I turned five my family and I boarded an Amtrak in Indianapolis and rode it all the way west. My mother and I did the same again when I was twelve, and I still remember watching the endless prairies and scorched scrub deserts rolling by, the forgotten alleys of American cities opening and closing to view from my window seat. Traffic halted for us and we halted for nothing. I think most passengers enjoyed the scenic vistas most; I savored the freight yards, the yard diesels stained black from exhaust going about their endless rearranging of goods and raw materials out of sight of everyone but me. I stepped over my mother sleeping in her seat late one night and made my way to the dining car. The only other passenger there was an old man, and we both sat in silence and watched Grumpy Old Men on a small television.
There is a romance to the rails that has never left me as I’ve grown older, that has never left this country as it too has aged from its early push westward. When I see a crossing signal descending in front of my car with lights flashing, I’m not annoyed by the delay. I look down the tracks and I wonder where the lumbering beast is coming from, where it’s going to. I harbor fantasies of jumping a freight without knowing where it’s going, hopping off miles later before a yard bull catches me.
Brian Solomon’s North American Locomotives: A Railroad-by-Railroad Photohistory (625.26 Solomon), a new book from Voyageur Press, is the perfect book for those of you like me who secretly hope those crossing guards will block your path when you approach a railroad crossing. The newest of Solomon’s train books (he’s written more than forty on the subject) is oversized and filled with countless gorgeous photographs of trains from all eras of train travel. Focusing on the diesel era, the book provides information on many of the locomotives shown, as well as historical information on all the major railroad companies from American history.
The information is great, but the main event here is the photographs. Mostly full color but also featuring some great black and white images from the early years of train travel, these pictures are beautiful. If you love trains, you need to come to GPL and check this book out in person.
You can find North American Locomotives: A Railroad-by-Railroad Photohistory in the Greenville Public Library at Greenville Public Library.