In an era of jet planes and SUV’s most of us have forgotten, or never known, the importance of the railroads in helping America become the nation it is. While the preferred Christmas gift for most youngsters today is the most recent incarnation of a smart phone or the latest violent video game, once upon a time, little boys wanted nothing more than to get a model train under the tree, whether it was a Lionel or an American Flyer.
My introduction to trains came from my summer vacations in the Catskills. There was a bridge and if you walked over it, there was a stretch of railroad track – coming from somewhere and going to somewhere else. One day I walked along it for several miles. It seemed to be never ending with as much track ahead of me as when I had started my journey. In my eight year old mind, the railroads introduced me to the concept of infinity.
This was a freight line, and as endless as the track itself seemed, the number of cars it carried were nearly as much so. I remember watching one day from across the road as a train pulled through. It took more than ten minutes from the time the engine made its appearance until the caboose signaled that its mission on this stretch of track had been completed.
I remember feeling overwhelmed that one engine, as mighty as it looked, could muster enough power to move all those cars. I knew exactly how long this segment of its journey took because I was wearing my Christmas present – a Mickey Mouse watch with a bright red plastic band.
It was many years before I learned that the reason we have a “standardized system” of time was because of the railroads. Before their initiatives, first in Great Britain and later here, most communities observed “sun” time, with noon being the moment that the sun was highest in the sky, in the same way that pre-industrialized man had kept time for millennia.
In the interest of commerce this was overthrown, although not before much controversy, by the establishment in 1918 of the “Standard Time Act” by Congress. That divided the country into the time zone divisions that we know today. The railroads had adopted a standardized time system in 1883 – thirty-five years ahead of those who made it official in Washington. Commerce, via the railroads, helped push America forward once again.
Because of the monumental cost of building out a railroad, none of this might have happened had it not been for the incentives that the railroads received from government. In the case of one of those railroads, The Illinois Central which became known as The Main Line of Mid-America, those came in the form of land grants made by the State of Illinois to the railroads’ founders. Both Senator Steven Douglas and President Abraham Lincoln lobbied in favor of this award.
The Illinois Central was given land from its main terminal in Chicago to the most southern part of the state, Cairo. This was known as the railroad’s Charter Line – and in return for its receiving this land, it was incorporated into the Illinois State Constitution that, in perpetuity, the state would receive six percent of all revenue that was derived from the railroad’s operations along this stretch of track. Without this “gift” it is unlikely that the railroad, which served a vital role in both Illinois’ development as well as that of the Midwest, would have been built.
For those of us who are used to catching “Flight 229” or some other number which is equally impersonal, it might seem amusing that the railroads used to give their trains specific names. The Illinois Central’s most famous was “The Panama Limited” which ran from Chicago to Louisiana. It was later renamed, “The City of New Orleans” and became the subject of a song by singer/songwriter Steve Goodman, a Chicago native who died at the age of only 36 of leukemia.
I heard him perform this at “The Earl of Old Town” – a saloon on Chicago’s near North Side that, like Goodman, passed into history in 1984 after a wonderful twenty-two year run – but not before bringing us artists like him and Steve Prine and Bonnie Koloc. You could also catch John Belushi there doing some impersonations if you were lucky.
I don’t know why the Christmas season always causes me to think back to the time when I was a kid. Looking in the store windows with their displays of villages all snow covered and the little electric train pulling into the station, ready to unload their gift of friends and relatives for the welcoming residents to greet. Or maybe it’s standing with my Mickey Mouse watch with the bright red plastic band to see how long it would take the freight train to pass by.
Those were simpler times – before we had to deal with mass shootings and mass mania. I can’t speak for you, but I miss them.