“She’s comin’ around the mountain”

There is a spot southwest of Pioneer Bluffs and just north of Matfield Green where, when looking north, the railway track owned and operated by the Burlington National Santa Fe comes around a bend hidden by a hillside. It is a fascinating experience, hanging out at that precise spot, anxiously waiting for the first tremor in the ground and for the first whisper of the diesel engines that cause it — then watching it, the slowly advancing moloch, as “she’s comin’ around the mountain,” this freight train pulled by two, three, even four diesel locomotives each 73 ft long and weighing 480,000 lb. After the engines come at least one hundred flatbed, coal, or stacked container cars, while the tail end of the 13,000 ft long snake is formed by two more 73 ft long locs that aid to the progress by pushing. For the trains are long enough that after climbing a hill the front engines already on the descending slope need the brakes, while the remote-controlled rear end, still on the ascend, needs more power to continue the push.

The huge train slowly approaches and with it the sounds intensify. Even when not running fast, the noises the train produces become substantial, the thumping of the engines, the rattle of the metal parts — it is a cacophonous madhouse yet lasting only a few minutes. Then, as subtly as was its approach, the snake disappears out of sight, into silence, only to create new havoc in Matfield Green and beyond.

The ultimate train watching spot is the balcony cleverly protruding from the house that Bill and Julia McBride built along the railroad track. They are from Chicago, where Bill was a design partner in the architectural firm he co-founded. The McBrides bought the land, with its own railroad crossing, and created a contemporary “green” home the design of which was based on an old barn. The balcony extends to almost over the track. “The noise,” says Bill, “well, you get used to it, and the house is well insulated, so inside it’s no big bother.”

The noise is unimportant. I know, because my house in Matfield Green stands maybe 250 yards from the tracks. During the day, I seldom hear the trains, although every 24 hours there pass 60 to 70, and at night only when, with all the windows open, I am awake already. The sounds never wake me up. The noise is not important. The sight is, for watching the long trains pulled and pushed by so much power never gets boring — it is like the waves at the ocean side, ever fascinating to observe as they come rolling towards the beach. Seeing a long train silently crawl through the prairie three, four miles away from my viewpoint is just as thrilling.

By now, I have learned to love the trains and their sounds enough to feel disturbed when for some extended time (there is no regular schedule) no train makes itself heard. I start wondering, is the American economy finally hitting rock bottom, has globalization reached a dead end? Are the Chinese holding back deliveries until America has paid off all of its debts? Funny, already in the early 1900s there were dreamers in Kansas who wanted to build “a short line to China,” and there were tracks near Matfield Green called “the Orient grade.” Believe it or not, these were paid for by Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands, who invested heavily in the Kansas City, Mexico & Orient and other American railroads. So important her support was, they put her portrait up in the railroad president’s office in Kansas City. And a town was named after her, DeQueen, not on the Orient itself, but along another line, in Arkansas. The next little town on the railroad promptly named itself: King.

The McBrides (and their son Luke, whom by building at that spot they gave the great present of his own real railroad, no miniature) are still fascinated by the trains and well they should be, because with the land they bought, they, together with good friends, also obtained ownership of the former bunkhouse which the railroad built in the 1920s to provide for its mostly Mexican line workers — “Las Casitas,” as the long, cast-block building was known. It’s the only one left where in the past they used to be lining the tracks every so many miles.

The McBrides transformed this “Mexican shanty,” now ‘Matfield Station’, into a couple of comfortable (guest) apartments. From its front porch there is a wide view of the South Fork’s valley with Pioneer Bluffs and its “prairie plantation house” and the high prairie of the Flint Hills in the distance. From its back porch you can almost touch the trains as they thunder past. If you raise your hand to greet the engineer, he will play you a tune by honking the train’s so universally familiar sounding horn.

Sixty to seventy freight trains each day. One hundred wagons each, and if they “piggyback” the containers, that makes 60 to 70 times two hundred = 12,000 to 14,000 giant loads on their way on the single track that near Matfield Green becomes double in order to allow them to pass one another. Most trains indeed haul loads from China, the freight containers carrying names such as Ming Yang, Xin, CSCL, Cosco, China Star. Hyundai from Korea is often present with boxcars full of new, and more and more popular, automobiles. Only the coal still seems to be American.

The BNSF of course isn’t the only transcontinental railroad (there are four big ones in America), but here it is the predominant one. It is owned by Warren Buffet’s company, Berkshire Hathaway, which bought 74% of the stock for a mere $44 billion. It owns a rail network of 32,000 miles, all west of the line Chicago-New Orleans, in twenty-eight U.S. states and two Canadian provinces. It has 6,600 diesel locomotives and at least 200,000 freight cars out at all time, carrying coal, steel, lumber, chemicals, cars, agri products, or consumer goods, either in truck trailers and containers, or in boxcars. Which means that the BNSF alone each day keeps 200,000 to 400,000 truck-trailer combos away from the American highways and interstate routes. The huge company is the result of the merger of 400 railroad lines, a process that took 160 years.

In 1859, the same year that Charles Rogler came walking from Iowa to the Flint Hills to found the ranch at Pioneer Bluffs, Ohio lawyer Cyrus K. Holiday, who had moved to Topeka to help stake out that town and who guided it to become the state capitol, started talking of a freight and passenger railroad that would follow the old Santa Fe wagon trail to the Southwest. He succeeded. This railroad eventually became the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe, one of American history’s great railroads. Its tracks had reached California by the 1880s. In those early days, railroads easily declared war on one another to get extensions of their tracks and the business that came with it. The Santa Fe under William B. Strong, whose name lives on in nearby Strong City, found itself in direct confrontation with the Rio Grande railroad. Both companies wanted to get into New Mexico by the Raton Pass. Both hired their own private militias to help them gain terrain, and kept open warfare going for many years. Later, the battle was continued in the courtrooms of the West, as well as by rate wars. Ultimately, the Santa Fe won. Much later, the battling companies merged.

Americans have grown up with the railroads. As these grew, so did the country. The railroad became deeply buried in the national consciousness and helped shape social and cultural life. Long gone are the days that along the Kansas Pacific tracks there roamed large buffalo herds and the engineers obligingly slowed their locomotives so that passengers with rifles could shoot from the open windows. Long gone are the days that an American city court would be adjourned so that everyone, judge, jurors, lawyers, loafers, could go down to the depot to watch the train go by. Long gone are the days of the thousands of small town stations where the action was, the perfect spot for “retired gentlemen, idlers, champion talkers, cracker-barrel philosophers, opinionizers, wine bibbers and track walkers, boomers, off-duty brakemen, and hoboes” to assemble, as well as “that gaggle of young lads drawn thither to watch the trains go by.” Girls were less in evidence. Many a teenage daughter was forbidden to hang out at the depot “since it might be frequented by traveling salesmen and other fast talkers.”

Not that there were no fast talking women around the depots. Devious, openly flirting women, taking advantage –which means: taking the watches, the wallets– of gullible males such as the one Fred Wilson wrote a song about as early as 1866:

I travel for a firm in Wonsockett,
In the cotton and woollen trade,
And never had cause for a moment’s woe
Till I met a fair young maid
Who served in a first class restaurant
On the Chicago and Alton line,
Refreshment room I ought to say,
But that mistake is mine.

Luckily there were a few good women too. Kate Shelley was the fifteen year old “lass who tore off her bloomers to signal a train speeding toward a washed-out bridge.”

Those days are long gone. Passenger trains altogether stopped running. In Kansas, the last one ran out of gas (or rather diesel oil) in 1967. The “dynamic force giving motion and life” to American society, this “booster spirit,” oh so fast became practically obsolete. It started with what was first seen as “that rich man’s toy,” the automobile. Then came the flying machine. The train managed to fight these innovations off for a long time, but not past the late 1940s.

In the years immediately after WWII, the railroad had still lots of dramatic and sentimental value. It was the time of passenger trains called ‘Empire Builder’, ‘Zephyr’, ‘Super Chief’, ‘Silver Dome’, and of catchy railroad tunes, such as Glenn Miller’s ‘Chattanooga Choo Choo’, which sold millions (another tune, ‘The Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe’, sold rather less). Yet there wasn’t a strong enough basis to guarantee that passenger traffic would have a future. The new national passenger line Amtrak came too late. And railroad stations no longer stood the chance of becoming temples of commerce and oracles of the American way of life. They became mere monuments, if they were left standing that is. Several became museums, others were reinvented as shopping malls. Amtrak now operates a diminutive system of passenger trains. It never got the money from Congress to do the job right. While most European and many Asian countries with great vision have created and are extending fast tracks for hi-speed intercity and international trains, in America intercity and interstate rail progress is nonexistent or minimal. One might say the contemporary Amtrak could use a Jay Gould, who, “always looking for a sick animal to rescue,” saved the Texas and Pacific in 1873.

Although personally I believe it is altogether too late for passenger lines to return. America, having failed to keep up to standard main parts of its infrastructure already, simply does not have the money to pay for the enormous investments needed. And when, not long ago, the Obama government made huge sums available to stimulate the economy and “to rebuild America,” most bucks were handed to what I call “the asphalt mafia” to add even more roadways and make, often not urgent, repairs to existing road infrastructure. Passenger rail transportation received a mere $8 billion, or roughly speaking a dozen investment bankers’ bonuses, distributed to various states.

In Wisconsin Scott Walker advertized, “If I’m elected as your next governor, I’ll stop this train,” with similar threats to be heard in Florida, in Ohio. Then California governor candidate Meg Whitman didn’t believe the state can afford the costs of high speed rail and pointed out that the so-called high speed intercity between Boston and Washington averages 75 mph. The one proposed in Ohio is expected to reach 79 mph ¼ if it gets the green light. They did better in England in the 1880s.

The railroads manage to retain at least the affections of quite a few Americans. To them, railroads and trains remain to have a sentimental, dramatic value. In the area of Matfield Green I know of more than one person who bought property along the track because they are train lovers. These buffs recognize the locomotives, some of which have a long history, and spell the two national magazines devoted to trains and railroads. Our neighbor Phil Miller traveled many times to New Mexico, each time passing through our former domicile, Abiquiu, on his way north to Chama, where he worked as a volunteer on the restoration and maintenance of old steam locomotives serving the narrow gauge railroad that carries day trippers through the scenic mountains of north-central New Mexico to Antonito in Colorado — a spectacular ride.

He and other lovers of trains past and present luckily can find solace by watching scores of movies on the big screen, or at home, in which the train and the train station or the scenic ride play a substantial role. ‘The Great Train Robbery’, ‘The Lady Vanishes’, ‘Orient Express’, ‘Ministry of Fear’, ‘From Russia with Love’, ‘Stambul Train’, ‘The Cassandra Crossing’, ‘North by Northwest’, ‘How the West Was Won’, ‘3:10 to Yuma’, ‘Bad Day at Black Rock’, ‘Once upon a Time in the West’, ‘High Noon’, ‘Brief Encounter’, ‘The Sting’, ‘A Passage to India’, ‘The Taking of Pelham 123’. The list is endless and, amazingly, unlike the passenger railroads themselves, continues to grow.

Who knows what wild or romantic railroad scenes are still waiting for us? Meanwhile, who can forget the farewell scene in ‘Anna Karenina’? Who can forget the moment in ‘Some Like It Hot’ when Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis become aware of an undulating Marilyn Monroe approaching on the platform; her sparkling evasive action when the steam is pulled; their giggling all-night party in the sleeper? Ton Haak, Matfield Green, KS, November 2010

Ton Haak,
Matfield Green, KS, November 2010

Main history source: George H. Douglas, ‘All Aboard’ — New York, 1996

Photo: Floyd Beck, Wichita / Matfield Green