The Trains of Christmas

        The party would be in full swing before we got out of town


One of my most vivid memories is of coming back West from prep school and later from college at Christmas time. Those who went farther than Chicago would gather in the old dim Union Station at six o'clock of a December evening, with a few Chicago friends, already caught up into their own holiday gayeties, to bid them a hasty good-by. I remember the fur coats of the girls returning from Miss This-or-That's and the chatter of frozen breath and the hands waving overhead as we caught sight of old acquaintances, and the matchings of invitations: "A re you going to the Ordways'? the Herseys'? the Schultzes'?" and the long green tickets clasped tight in our gloved hands. And last the murky yellow cars of the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul railroad looking cheerful as Christmas itself on the tracks beside the gate.

When we pulled out into the winter night and the real snow, our snow, began to stretch out beside us and twinkle against the windows, and the dim lights of small Wisconsin stations moved by, a sharp wild brace carne suddenly into the air. We drew in deep breaths of it as we walked back from dinner through the cold vestibules, unutterably aware of our identity with this country for one strange hour, before we melted indistinguishably into it again.

That's my Middle West--not the wheat or the prairies or the lost Swede towns, but the thrilling returning trains of my youth, and the street lamps and sleigh bells in the frosty dark and the shadows of holly wreaths thrown by lighted windows on the snow. *


*Reprinted by permission of Charles Scribner's Sons from THE GREAT GATSBY by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Copyright 1925 Charles Scribner's Sons.


This passage, written by Fitzgerald in the mid-Twenties, is perhaps the most famous evocation of what was, until recently, a nearly universal American experience. For college students before and after, the approach of Christmas meant identical happy throngs down at the depot, and a train ride home that differed very little in its essential features from one generation to the next.

As a student in the years 1960-65, I reversed the direction of Fitzgerald's migration, my school being in Iowa (the University at Iowa City) and my home in Ohio--Cleveland. Iowa City is served by the Chicago-Omaha main of the Rock Island, a road with which I was well-acquainted. Since childhood I had been riding it west for summer visits to my Iowa grandparents; there was a pleasing symmetry in returning east on it, in winter, to the home in which I had also become a visitor.

The RI was, even in those late days, still very much in the passenger business. Streamliners plied twelve of its fourteen states; Iowa alone boasted eight pairs, running over four different routes. Our line had three of these: the Corn Belt, Rocky Mountain and Des Moines Rockets. Never mind that they weren't as glamorous as their cousins on the Milwaukee or the Q; or that they had become, in the years since their last refurbishing, even a little down at the heels. They still  offered all the essential services, including a chair in the parlor car for only $1.55 above coach between Iowa City and Chicago. Speak, memory...

            It is four o'clock on a clear and cold December afternoon in Iowa City. Classes have been out since noon, and everyone going east is down at Wright Street Station to meet No. 10, the Corn Belt Rocket. (Westbound students will have to wait until six and the Rocky Mountain.) There are between five and six hundred of them spilling out of the depot and huddling for warmth on the wavy brick platform. That many are innocents as regards train travel is evidenced by the mountains of unchecked baggage, and by their wonderment that the RI should be running a little late.

Your hero and his friends, more rail-wise, sit in a dumpy bar across the street drinking 3.2 beer. Our unchecked baggage consists of a half-dozen brown paper sacks. The talk is literary--we were all writers in those days--and very much for the benefit of our female companions, whose seductions either have already been accom­plished or await resolution in the New Year.

(Vanished with the varnish are those long locks and languorous limbs! O, where are the girls of yesterday?)

Traintime... the sun reddening and lowering over the tree-dense valley of the Iowa River. Out of the west comes a keening triad wail, and then the headlight appears oscillating around a curve. Simultane­ously, the crossing bell at Clinton Street sets up a tinny clatter. A mock cheer goes up among the air-age students, but they press respectfully back from trackside, jiggling their suitcases in their hands.

Make way for the Rock Island!

Tolling, magnificent, No. 10 brakes into station with an x-ing sound, leaking oil and steam, its maroon-nosed engine trailing a string of silver cars with names like Grinnell, Mesa Verde and Kaw Valley. Even before it has squeezed to a stop, the crowd has begun surging toward the vestibules in jostling wedges. The object is not just to get a seat for oneself, but for all one's friends.

No wonder the trainmen look apprehensive.



The party would be in full swing before we ever got out of town. Or parties, I should say--a half-dozen clusters of good fellowship in each coach. If you could not find a seat where you wanted, you just pulled up a suitcase; after a while, there seemed to be as many people in the aisles as in the seats. Beer-drinking was general, and cries of "Have you got a church key?" were heard as often as the engine singing for th.e crossings.

The train crew, not having much choice in the matter, were tolerant if not cloyingly friendly. Their forbearance said that this, too, would pass: come January, they would be back at their real job of moving empty cars over the road.

No. 10 ran off the fifty-four miles to the Mississippi River in just 56 minutes, including a stop at West Liberty. (Change cars for Minneap­olis and St. Louis, Zephyr Rocket fans!) This was our last interval of daylight, the flicking yellow stubble fields (corn dusted with snow), browsing cattle and wooded hills reassuring of all we knew was lasting and true. By the time the old river town of Davenport appeared, the color of rust on its hill, it was nearly dark.

Rock Island, on the other side of the river, had a strategic im­portance beyond its status as division point on the namesake road.

For the railfan, there was the westbound Rocky Mountain Rocket parked on an adjoining track, its gay yellow windows as crowded with faces and life as our own. Side by side, the two trains were like a couple of oldsters who succeed, by mutual encouragement, in evok­ing an earlier and more prosperous day.

For the hungry, there was the dining car even then being switched into the consist. Plenty of time for even this crowd to eat before Chicago!

And last, for the thirsty, a little brightly-lit tavern just down the street from the depot where supplies could be replenished during the 15-minute layover...

After Moline, there was a good hour of non-stop running through the brittle Illinois night (and through the Christmas lit towns with Indian names: Geneseo, Annawan, Tiskilwa) while long queues fed slowly into the diner from either end. When one was finally seated, it was sweet to be flush and able to order the steak, with wine, for oneself and one's girl. You felt like and were, for a while, one of the first citizens of the Republic. For who could have had it any better than we did?

Bureau . . . Ottawa . . . Joliet. Back in the coaches, the cele­bration had become somewhat quieter. Sporadic attempts at song by the girls ("Oh, we'll fight-fight-fight for Iowa, best in all the land, corn on every hand . . .") dissolved in laughter and disputes about the words. Suitcases were upended for card games, transistor radios crackled. Some even read or napped as the air blued with after-dinner smokes. Like the Rocket itself (slowed to half its former speed, picking its way among flying suburban expresses), we were winding down in anticipation of Chicago. 


Just as many would consider Chicago the quint-essential Ameri­can city, LaSalle Street had represented for me since boyhood the Great American Train Station. (I had not seen all that many, it is true, and when I finally laid eyes on Union, I had a new candidate. But more of that anon.) With its many arrivals and departures--and, whenn nothing else offered, the El passing outside and shaking its great high windows--it made my home Cleveland Union Terminal, a much grander structure, seem somnolent by comparison.

Never was this more true than at Christmas time with its great crowds. "Like wartime," a stationmaster told me once, an impression strengthened by the ubiquitous uniforms--Navy blues, especially, from Great Lakes--of servicemen on leave. Now, as then, the marble concourse and cross-vaulted ceiling were murmurous with a com­mon purpose: it was holiday, and everyone was going.

There was a tree, of course, and usually a choir singing from the red-carpeted risers set up in front of the windows. Much of the audience was made up of LaSalle's permanent population, the dere­licts who never seemed so pathetic as at this time of year. What must have been their thoughts as they watched the holiday thousands entraining for far firesides and families!

On my own now, and with a couple of hours to kill, I would wander around looking at the people and catching up on the train-off notices. (One year, I remember, the Rock Island proposed combining the Golden State with No. 39, formerly the Imperial, on the latter's 52 ½-hour schedule. Happily, it was not allowed.) There was also an arrival or two to watch, trains I knew I would never ride, like the Twilight Limited from Detroit. (Great name, disappointing train.) Then it would be outside into the garish Chicago night for a walk around the block and a look into Grand Central and Dearborn stations.


I cannot imagine anyone caring, but I found Grand Central a depressing cathedral, from its grime-blackened battlements to an interior where, in daytime, the stained-glass window arches admitted a holy light. (The blue neon B&O sign on the tower was, however, neat.) Even at Christmas time, it seemed more suited to the interment of saint than railway carriage--a place from which all commerce had departed. Indeed, a look at the skimpy board showed this to be very nearly the case. Even the bums had withdrawn their patronage.

From the outside, dilapidated Dearborn seemed to be collapsing before one's eyes, while the inside might have been done over by Greyhound. Still, the place was redeemed for me by the waiting room's picture-window view of the shed and of the exotic equipment of the likes of Wabash and Santa Fe. Throw in a couple of off-breeds such as Monon and Grand Trunk, and one knew he had been in a train station.

One year, with the snow drifting gently down, I finally hoofed it over to Canal and ,Jackson for my first look at F. Scott Fitzgerald's train station.

Of course, this was not really the Union of which he wrote, but its successor, having opened for business the same year "The Great Gatsby" was published. But since that time, almost forty years had passed as in a dream, and Union Station became once more old and dim. Time travellers from two hundred years hence would have found no important difference save in scale. The same holiday hundreds crowded the concourses, the ghostly voice of the stationmaster intoned the old place names of the Republic. And the cars of the Milwaukee Road were still yellow, "looking cheerful as Christmas itself on the tracks beside the gate."

I love the architecture of the Twenties, of which Union is such a splendid example (and CUT another): its still-heroic dimensions, its gay yet majestic profusions of brass and gold leaf. Union is so tall because, when it was built, men were still able to look up without feeling small. In 1977, nothing could bespeak our diminished self-regard so eloquently as the eight-foot ceilings of the terminals from which we embark--ironically--to fly.

I wandered around for an hour or so, trying out the place from its many angles, stairways and balustrades--always, somehow, looking up. Then I slipped through the gates for my first on-the-spot inspec­tion of the likes of a Milwaukee Road Skytop observation lounge. and the magnificent maroon-and-red of the GM&O. The Limited was just unloading, I remember, and this was a thrill for one who had always admired from afar the road that named its other trains, too, with such heroic simplicity: the Mail, the Abraham Lincoln, and the Midnight Special.


By now the hour would be getting late, and it was time to hustle back to LaSalle Street and Nickel Plate No. 6, the City of Cleveland.

Why Nickel Plate, with the New York Central loading on the next track.'?

Part of the answer lay in one traveller's emotional preference for something small done exceedingly well. For, if the New York, Chicago and St. Louis was in fact a big-time road--a Central with the fat trimmed off--it had a distinctly small road feel, its single track moseying over the 340 miles of woods and fields between Chicago and Cleveland and hitting only one good-sized town, Ft. Wayne, along the way. Its passenger trains were not long, or glamorous, or many; but they were clean and bright, and their crews unfailingly friendly.

(I never met a rude conductor on the NKP, or was banished from a vestibule. Whether this stemmed from innate goodness, company policy, or the employees' knowledge that they were only a train-off or two from riding in a caboose, I cannot say.)

I liked the intimacy of the partitioned coaches--restrooms were located in the middle of the car--which gave you the feeling of going down the pike in your living room. And it would have taken a hard­hearted man to resist the Bluebirds that rode on the point until 1962.

Charm aside, there were good practical reasons for choosing the NKP overnight between Chicago and Cleveland.

Most important was the club diner-lounge that welcomed you aboard for drinks at 9:30 pm, a good two hours before departure. The Central's entry, No. 90, offered no such service--which also meant no breakfast into Cleveland the next morning. True, it was scheduled to arrive at 6 a.m., vs. the NKP's 8:10, but experience had taught me that this carding was more theoretical than real at Christmas time. No. 90 was a big mail and express hauler: on at least two occasions, in '63 and '64, it was still loading (more than an hour after its scheduled departure) when the NKP tugged out of LaSalle Street on time.

A final argument for the NKP eastbound was that one always rode the Central back. Even before the former dropped its daylight run in '63, the Central's No. 59, the Chicagoan, was so fast and excellent as to be obligatory.


Picture me, then (as I like to picture myself, these trainless Christ­mases since), taking an easy chair in the lounge of No. 6. We are still standing in station. The sober Filipino waiter advances and, when I order a beer, asks to see some identification.

This is a moment fraught with peril. All Fall I have been drinking on the draft card of an ex-GI buddy whose physical attributes do not exactly tally with my own. That is, he is tall, heavy and dark, whereas I am short, slight and fair. In Iowa City--where the bars are dim, crowded and not too particular--these discrepancies have caused no problem; I am "Don" to half the bartenders in town. But how can they fail to escape the worldly eye of a railroad bar attendant?

He keeps me waiting for a long time before returning the card with a wink and a smile. Quietly, he says, "My congratulations--you are very-well preserved. Was that a Schlitz?"

What did I tell you about those NKP crews? 


At 11:30 p.m., there is momentary confusion as the lighted windows on the next track begin to slip backwards. Are they moving, or are we? Our start is as imperceptible as that--but soon unmistakable as we emerge from the shed and the Chicago monoliths stand up out of the neon-colored fog. Soon we are pacing the cars along one of those lonesome, blue-lit expressways. How their drivers must envy our flying, encapsulated brightness--our warmth, our happiness, our ease! A sense of well-being, of self-congratulation, fills the car. It is the emotion with which every journey by rail is begun.

It is a different crowd than on the Rock Island, with scarcely a student to be seen on the whole train. In the lounge, graying heads and business suits prevail; the coaches count the usual nodding old ladies. Their number is not much greater than on a good night in the summer season: the Christmas crowds never seemed to discover the NKP.

I do not mind the difference. There is, in every journey, a point at which one's thoughts turn from where he has been to where he is going. For me, that point has always been Chicago; and the more restrained good cheer aboard No. 6 is conducive to thoughts of home and Christmas.

There is the obligatory stop at Englewood--that most-visited of all train stations--and then No. 6 begins to really let it out down the south shore. One begins to notice the snow, which piles itself to such amazing depths in that part of the Great Lakes country, but gently--without the wind-blown viciousness of elsewhere. In the lounge, cards are broken out, more drinks ordered. The tentative, preliminary conversations of strangers either die out, finding no nourishment, or take root in common ground and flourish.

I had a friend who used to give, as one of his reasons for preferring rail travel, the opportunity it affords to spin elaborate, outrageous lies about oneself. No doubt we have all consumed our share of these in our lounge car miles; but there are moments, too, of unmistakably truthful self-revelation . . .

I have made the acquaintance of a sleeping car passenger, a handsome man of middle years who is, he says, a professor of English. There is no reason to doubt this, as his conversation on literary topics is lively, informed, and frequently funny. We find, to our pleasure, that we share a number of enthusiasms, including classical Greek drama. Impossible to imagine two more compatible spirits thrown together by chance on a train.

Then, as the drinks keep coming, the talk of my friend begins to veer from the works to the authors themselves--many of whom, it seems, have never been presented in a truthful light. Shakespeare was a secret bumskuttler, his sonnets addressed in truth to a young man. Have I noticed, in the plays, his penchant for dressing up his heroines in men's clothing: Byron--that great lover of women--had a homosexual fling or two, and there were whispers about Words worth. Then, of course, there was the obvious example of Oscar Wilde.

On and on he goes, until nearly all of our heroes, past and present, have been implicated. It is piffle, of course, and eventually even I divine the thrust of all this scatology. The point is, I am too young--too polite, too inexperienced, too embarrassed--to do anything to check its course. So that my friend is encouraged to make the final confidence:

"Actually, I'm more of a switch-hitter, myself--if you know what I mean."

I do, and excuse myself a few minutes later to return to my coach. There, sweating and unhappy, I sit in the dark and look out the window until the fields of Christmas have restored my holiday to me. It is slightly soiled, perhaps, but still intact. 


Some time after the steel furnaces of Gary, the attendant would give the last call, bidding his patrons a friendly goodnight as they drank up and left the car. He would be serving us our breakfast in only a few hours.

For me, a wonderful wakeful night lay ahead, of vestibule-creeping and long conversations with the brakeman or conductor. I was a fanatic in those days, make no mistake. And thank God I was--for the sights and sounds of that Christmas time railroading, now impossible of duplication, will be with me forever.

I remember fondly the little gray frame depots of the NKP, and the small towns whose crossings we blocked for a few minutes of a frosty night. Knox, Indiana, had a care that stayed open until 1:15 a.m. just for No. 6. Why? So the train crew could get a cup of coffee to go in the wintertime, or an ice cream cone in the summer. That's Americana--and you'd better look quick, because it's already been gone for a dozen years.

Riding the vestibule, great sport on any line, was a special treat on the NKP. The road was unabashed about putting us in the hole for its "million-dollar freights"; the schedule was already padded to provide for it. One leaned out into the stationary night to watch the charge of those black Alco hoods, then flinched from their thundering passage and the concussions of frigid air. You could read the road names and slogans on the cars in the thin yellow light from the vestibule. Then, when the caboose had cleared, there was the excitement of hearing the Bluebirds winding up as we got underway again.

The rural landscape at speed was lovely, especially on the couple of occasions when there was moonlight on the snow and dark woods. I would linger in the vestibule until I was almost frozen, then repair to my coach seat for a snort of dark Bacardi rum.

The drink had become traditional--I bought the same pint at the same liquor store on LaSalle Street every year. In fact, if I could have just one of those epic NKP moments back, I think I would choose the sitting up with that green bottle and listening to No. 6 as she blew for the crossings.

(The Bluebirds' were the sweetest whistles I ever heard--like chords struck on an organ. Steam could not have been any better.)

Ft. Wayne was a fifteen-minute stop. I never missed the oppor­tunity to get off there and do a walking inspection of the train. Once in a while there would be an ancient NKP baggage car in its original olive drab. I remember my first resentful scrutiny of the black Geeps that over for the Bluebirds: that was at Ft. Wayne, too.

Blue dawn met us a couple of hours later at Bellevue, Ohio.  That's they opened the diner for breakfast, and you could get a plate of ham, eggs and potatoes for only a couple of bucks. it was fine to linger over a pot of coffee as you picked up Lake around Lorain and followed it all the way into Cleveland. I remember looking back at a great fat full moon going down over its frozen expanse, and the hundreds of gulls you always saw around Rocky River.

My station was East Cleveland, that Englewood of the Forest City. There you were greeted by parents and sister, and sometimes forgot to watch your favorite train toodle off into the crystal morning. 


Though in spring and fall I might experiment with different trains and lines, my sentimental interest at Christmas was in re­capturing, as nearly as possible, the sensations, sights and sounds of other years. (An unadventuresome attitude, no doubt, but not out of keeping with the season, when you think about it.) Such an approach never would have occurred to my boomer friend from those days, Bob M.

Bob was a collector of railroads--and oddball trains--when there was still an amazing number of them around. Nevertheless, we all felt he outdid himself the Christmas he routed himself home to Denver via the Rock Island, Chicago Great Western, and UP.

This plan, involving changes at Des Moines and Kansas City, required careful explaining to the Rock Island's ticket agent in Iowa City. The RI, of course, had its own perfectly good train to Denver that ran through overnight; this was pointed out to Bob with some impatience.

"I know it," he said. "But it's my money, and I want you to write the ticket the way I say."

The agent stalled; he had not gained his position by short-hauling his road by more than 700 miles between Iowa City and Denver. Or for the purpose of being told his job by a smartass college kid, either.

"It's nothing but a milk run," he snorted of CGW's No. 5 out of the capital. "It stops at every farmer's barn between Des Moines and Kansas City."

But it was when he opened his Guide and looked at the connection out of Kansas City that his eyes lit up with malevolent triumph. There was an eight-hour layover ("Eight goddamn hours!") until the City of St. Louis--which was, moreover, an all reserved-seat train. There was no way in God's world that he, the agent, could confirm a reservation in less than two days. And that was if there was any space to be had, which he seriously doubted.

"I wasn't planning to ride that one," Bob said. "There's another train leaving a couple of hours later."

The agent looked and nearly howled. "That's a mixed train! It takes eighteen hours! You'll have to hold a pig in your lap and help with the switching!"

There would be no explaining to him the railfan's credo--that a slower trip means more for your transportation dollar--and my friend did not try. There were a couple of people in line behind us now, and Bob simply outwaited him.

The ticket was written with much grumbling and leafing of un­familiar tariffs. There was only one more explosion--when the agent discovered that Bob's exotic route saved him ten cents over the Rock Island's fare.

"That embarrassed me," Bob admitted later.

I was next. "How about you?" the agent demanded. "I suppose you want a ticket to Chicago by way of West Liberty, Waterloo, and the Illinois Central."

"No," I said. "I only want to go to Cleveland, Ohio, over your fine road and the Nickel Plate."

"The Nickel Plate!" he sighed, throwing up his hands. "How much do you save: Fifty cents? A quarter?"

The actual savings over a ticket on the New York Central was one dollar and fifty cents.

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