A while back someone posed this question to me:
“Why are you so interested in railroading?”
Considering how much of a passion it has become at times for me, there isn’t any easy, “go to” answer. I could say I was born to it. With so many family members who had a connection to the railroads in one way or another, that is understandable. Like the photo above, on the Southern Pacific at Crows Landing, California on the line between Tracy and Fresno, in 1906. It came from a family collection and one of the men pictured in it may be a distant relation.
Throw in an almost insatiable curiosity about the American west and that plays a part in my interest. Some of the first trips I took once I had my drivers license were out to see trains. Not even to photograph, just to watch as they rolled by.
I have, over the years, been to places in search of railroads – both active and abandoned – that I never would have gone to for any other reasons. There was one instance where I wandered into a bar in very rural central Nevada with a friend. We were both amused as the topic of conversation from the locals turned to snakes and the size encountered. All the more amusing as we had our own encounter earlier that morning along the Walker River following an abandoned right of way – where rails had last been seen in the late 1930’s.
Yes, as a hobby, I can honestly say railroading has not kept me off the streets and out of bars.
Model railroading came early, as a grandfather introduced me to the world of Lionel trains. High school years saw me join a Boy Scout Explorer Post sponsored by a local model railroad club. Imagine being able to share my interest with other people (yes, both boys and girls) at both the model and prototype level. It was a dream come true! Eventually I became a member of the model railroad club and continued in many roles for almost 30 years. I still have a small collection of models but enjoy a friend’s garden railway instead of the club railroad.
Upon graduation from high school, I briefly considered a career in railroading. Having family still in the business, I thought that was a good choice. Yet at the time, everyone I spoke to advised me to get some college years instead. Good advice as the economic downturn of the 1980’s came and went. Being a low seniority railroader, so would my career choice. College it was and a 25 plus career with AAA before I retired and went on to explore other career opportunities.
Participation in the model club led to involvement in a local railroad museum. Another 20 years passed with all kinds of railroading. Steam, diesel and electric train operations; restoration and maintenance projects; marketing and sales experiences – including ticketing, gift shop sale and special event planning… it seemed that the opportunities had no end to variety!
Good friends and good times came from all the hard work. One particularly memorable evening found me running a diesel electric locomotive on a train back to the museum after working on the railroad some 10 miles away from the museum. It was as if I had come full circle from my ancestors working on the railroad to running that train. As the sun set that evening, there was just something right about my place in the cab as we rolled along.
The opportunity that led to that evening has changed. While no longer a volunteer at that museum, I have helped out with other museums from time to time including one in Hawaii. And I have a good group of folks that help out on excursions on chartered private rail cars from time to time.
Still, I stop and watch as a train rolls by. Something about the story that makes it worth watching. You see, railroading is really the story of the people involved. Sure, machinery is fascinating. But without people who make the trains move, it is just so much cold steel sitting there, looking pretty. Nope, people make the trip. People order the goods that the trains take from point to point. People ride the passenger trains going from place to place. And people make it all happen. Each with their own tale of why they do what they do.
And that’s just the start of the story. Fascinating does not begin to describe it for me.