I have indeed been very lucky. With Time and Machines, I have been able to connect.
For there have been more than a few moments when I was able to experience a direct connection to the past. And the past was that of my family; people who came before I did by a good number of years.
Yes, the railroad will loom large in this tale. Be it the place or the people, the railroad plays a part.
A good start came in the fall of 1980. Having finished my first full year of employment at AAA, I decided to head off on an adventure. The first time that I was solo, visiting places I had never been. But there was a moment on a September evening, aboard Amtrak’s “San Francisco Zephyr” when it was about to depart Sparks, Nevada; continuing on its journey to Chicago. In that moment, I was making my first ride east of Sparks. And I was about to follow the same route my great-grandfather made countless times in his career as a locomotive engineer from Sparks to Carlin. It was pretty simple stuff, but pretty heady. And it was indeed special. I knew it then and was filled with excitement. So much that I don’t think I slept at all that night.
Now in years since, I have made many trips east of Sparks, with friends and solo by automobile. Oddly enough, I have not made the same trip again by rail. There always lies hope of it. But I have visited many locations along the way that my grandfather and his family members visited during their years in the Silver State. Some of those were to places where I know family had been. Palisade, Nevada, for example. Today, it is pretty much a siding on the railroad. A cemetery overlooks what had once been a town site. Here is a view from the Barriger Library of what the town and surrounding area looked like sometime in the 1930’s. (This gallery offers more images from the same collection.)
All of the structures seen are gone today and have been for a number of years. Since discovering this image, I have found a great deal more information that links members of my family to both the standard gauge railroad (the Southern Pacific) and the narrow gauge railroad (the Eureka and Palisade) seen, not to mention businesses and properties in and about Palisade.
Standing in about the same spot as the photo shows, again, it did not take a great deal to connect with those people at the moments their lives were experienced here.
Starting in the mid-1970’s through the late 1990’s, I volunteered at a railway museum between San Francisco and Sacramento. You name it, I did it. Steam, diesel and electric trains. Track work, restoration projects, train crew with and without passengers, ticket sales, gift shop sales… it never seemed to end. On the Museum’s demonstration railway and then the adjacent former mainline railway the Museum eventually acquired, it was bringing history back to life that offered some of the most satisfying moments.
A few of them come to mind. The first was in the early 1980’s, on an early morning getting a steam locomotive ready for the days operation. Again a connection, as here I was doing much the same tasks as my great-grandfather had some 80 years earlier when he had been a young locomotive fireman with the Southern Pacific. I knew that I was proud of him for what he had done back then; and I hoped that he would have been proud of me carrying on, doing what he had all those years ago. (He had passed away over a dozen years before, but he lived his life as a railroader. So much so that he carried his railroad watch for reference, even though he had not used it for many years in railroad service. That watch is deservedly treasured by another grandson named for him.) A later chance meeting led to a connection with another retired locomotive engineer who had worked with my grandfather, in the late 1940’s after World War II, when he was starting his railroad career. He had some good stories to share from those years.
The second moment came in the mid-1990’s towards the end of a long day. The group I was part of had been out on the railroad doing work on the track, getting a little used line ready for a special passenger excursion as part of an upcoming convention of railway museums. I was running a diesel locomotive on a train carrying everyone back from the work site to the museum. As the train rumbled along at the mighty speed of 15 miles per hour, I was again connected to the past as I was doing what my great-grandfather had.
When I graduated high school in the summer of 1977, a career on the railroad looked promising. Along the way, other things got in the way and I never did make that job choice. I look back at times and wish I had. Part of me understands, but then reality comes along and reminds me I would have been laid off during the recession of the 1980’s and probably would have been soured against the industry. While I still have an interest in railroading today, the experiences of the railway museum and private railroad car operations have offered some fantastic times with some truly amazing people.
That is where the third moment comes into play. One of those days as a steam locomotive fireman, I had the pleasure of firing for a gentleman who had not only been a locomotive engineer but who had actually run the locomotive we were on that day in service on the Western Pacific. We didn’t go very far or very fast that day, but for him it had to have been a trip back in time. And I was glad I was able to share it with him.
We do not always get such opportunities. All of these moments are the kind of memories worth having. Special they are and I am glad to have been in the right place at the right time. With the people and the machines that made them happen.