Friday, September 26, 2008

Streamlining Into the Past

The year was 1934. Tough times for trains. Tough times for everyone. In the heart of the Great Depression, the unemployment rate was 25%. American railroads had laid off about one million people, 40% of its work force,

Even before the stock market crash of ’29, railroads had been hurting due to the rise of the automobile. Car registrations increased almost tenfold in ten years. Passenger and freight revenue both shrank. The Depression just deepened the wound.

Then came the Burlington Zephyr. Along with the Union Pacific’s M-10,000, which actually made its debut two months earlier with a nationwide tour, the Zephyr helped revolutionize train travel and industrial design. That spring the gleaming stainless steel passenger train set a new nonstop distance record for trains, traveling a thousand miles from Denver to Chicago in 13 hours, a blistering average speed of 77.5 mph.

The era of streamliners and diesel-electric locomotives had arrived. Even steam got streamed. Many steam passenger locomotives added sleek new hoods, including the prestigious New York Central’s 20th Century Limited and the Pennsy’s Broadway Limited. The Norfolk and Western’s beautiful J series locomotives joined the parade. By the late 1930s the ten fastest trains in the world operated in America.

It was a short celebration, however. Not even the sleek new equipment could stop the demise of American passenger travel. How ironic that the automobile, which drove the railroads out of business, now costs so much to operate that the nation is yearning to ride the tracks again. Will it ever become more than talk, here in Roanoke and elsewhere? We will see. It’s a beautiful image, however: new coaches filled with people rolling right by our VMT, the J-611, and the ghosts of passengers past.

That original Zephyr train made Chicago its destination one final time. After 26 years and over three million miles of service, it entered its retirement home at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry.

Next week I will relive the original historic 1934 trip and it will take me only 20 minutes. At the sprawling museum I will board the revered train for a tour and computer-simulated ride. The train won’t actually go anywhere, of course, except back in time.

My real train ride will also take me into the past as I roll through the mountains of West Virginia and the plains of the Midwest. I will relive the days of the streamliners while riding their heir, Amtrak, the stepchild of the divorce between America and its longtime great love, still valiantly chugging along in a country that has forgotten its transportation roots.

During that journey, including the hours of layover in Chicago on my way to visit family in Missouri, I will experience railroading past and present, large and small. The Museum of Science and Industry also houses The Great Train Story, an HO-scale layout that includes about 58 scale miles of trackage, depicting the train journey from Chicago to Seattle.

I will ride. And look. And remember. And dream.

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Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Regarding Henry

Two weeks ago my wife and I headed for Florida to take our daughter to college. As if 863 miles of driving weren’t enough, we got to travel through tropical storm Fay. After moving Anna into the dorm, we headed north just in time to navigate through Fay again. Ah, the women in my life ….

This blog isn’t really about a Fay, however, but a Flagler. Henry Morrison Flagler. American entrepreneur. Partner with John D. Rockefeller in Standard Oil. Perhaps the most important figure in the development of Florida’s east coast for tourism. Owner of the Florida East Coast Railway which, in an amazing feat of railroad engineering, he extended all the way to Key West.

In Florida you find Flagler’s name everywhere: schools, streets, buildings, museums, hospitals, even a county and a beach. The main address for our daughter’s school is 901 S. Flagler Dr., which her dorm room overlooks. With her roommate she has already gone “hot-tubbing” nearby at The Breakers, the renowned beachfront hotel the man built at Palm Beach in 1896.

(When I tell Anna how proud I am that she picked a school with a railroad man’s name in the address, she just rolls her eyes.)

It’s no wonder Floridians toast Henry Flagler’s name. He built resort hotels and provided the means for northern tourists to reach them. He constructed roads, bridges, canals, public utilities and newspapers. He encouraged fruit farming and settlement along the railway line. His gifts helped build schools, churches and hospitals.

Even after a hurricane put the “over-the-seas” railroad out of business in 1935, Its bridges and roadbed became the foundation for car and truck traffic through the Keys.

Driving back toward Virginia, I thought about Henry Flagler (when the weather didn’t demand my full interest). I also thought about Roanoke. Florida before Flagler and Big Lick before the N&W were similar: largely unknown, undeveloped, and unappreciated. (Miami wasn’t even incorporated until Henry got his hand on it.)

And I thought about the differences today in the two areas’ attitudes. In Florida, Flagler is celebrated ubiquitously. In Roanoke, the railroad heritage is seen by so many as a quaint and insignificant factor, a historical footnote with little relevance for the present.

When the news broke several months ago of VMT’s financial troubles, much of the public reaction was not “We must do something” but “They ought to do something” or—worse—“Who cares whether they do anything.”

The Roanoke Times’ coverage epitomized the view that museum leadership needs to get its act together before expecting anyone else to lend a hand. Largely ignored in articles and editorials were courageous efforts VMT personnel already had put forth or the significant extenuating circumstances. And little was said of the need for the community as a whole to own this rail heritage as a core part of our identity.

Public and private donors will give tens of millions of dollars to build and promote an art museum that, regardless of its real or imagined benefits, is still a generic attraction that would seem as much at home in dozens of other cities. On the other hand, much of our community seems unconcerned about an organization which preserves and interprets Roanoke’s historic legacy and which is intrinsically linked to a group of other attractions (Norfolk Southern operations, the East End Shops, Hotel Roanoke, the O. Winston Link Museum, the Rail Walk, restored N&W buildings, etc.)

No community can live in the past. Few places thrive, however, when they ignore it.

Someone recently wrote to criticize VMT’s apparent lack of interest in salvaging the remaining Virginia Scrap Iron & Metal yard locomotives. The comments reminded me that even some of the wonderful people who do care about the museum’s future are unaware of how difficult our situation remains. Saving those locos is a wonderful goal and we appreciate so much those who leading the charge. It’s hard for us to raise money ourselves for new acquisitions, however, when we are struggling to meet an operating budget that has been cut to the bone.

Citizens of this region have a choice. We can own and celebrate our rich transportation heritage or we can treat it with apathy and neglect. Florida and Henry Flagler show us which path is the wise one.

A footnote: I collect songs about trains. I recommend three songs for you who like music and are interested in Flagler’s achievements. Last Train to Paradise by Chris Foster and Oh Henry! by Chris Kahl cover the building of the FEC Railway across the Florida Keys, and Hurricane by Steve Gillette and Cindy Mangsen describes the railroad’s destruction by the category five Labor Day hurricane of 1935. All three songs are available at various download sites.

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