Sunday, March 26, 2023

Rail Tales


The railroad track is miles away,

And the day is loud with voices speaking,

Yet there isn’t a train goes by all day

But I hear its whistle shrieking.

All night there isn’t a train goes by,

Though the night is still for sleep and dreaming.

But I see its cinders red on the sky,

And hear its engine steaming.

My heart is warm with the friends I make,

And better friends I’ll not be knowing,

Yet there isn’t a train I wouldn’t take,

No matter where it’s going. 

Edna St. Vincent Millay, 1921

I just finished reading "Train" by Tom Zollner, an examination of the transformative role railroads played in the development of nine countries including the U.K. (where the steam locomotive debuted in 1809), India, the U.S., China, Peru and Russia. Zollner took multiple train trips across all those countries including one journey, the world's longest, I've dreamed of taking for decades, the Trans-Siberian. Given the relations between the rest of the world and Russia, I doubt I'll be hearing a conductor yell "Vsa Na Bort" -- Russian for "All Aboard" -- anytime soon. 

Zollner’s book got me thinking about the transformative role trains have played in my family. Trains not only made it possible for us earn our livelihoods, they took us to unforgettable destinations and provided us with legendary stories — some inspirational, some sweet, some tragic, some hilarious, some both tragic and hilarious — that we’ve shared for the last 150 years. My mom, who died eight years ago at 102, was the keeper and teller of those tales. My sister and I are the last remaining repositories of our family’s train stories. 

I hope this column is read by the current generation of my family and passed on to their descendants so at least some of those rail tales can remain a part of our history for another 150 years. And if my long-time readers want to read them too, you’re certainly welcome. You'll laugh, cry and/or be appalled at some of these stories. And I promise you'll learn some American history along the way. 

Ready for a blog post darn near as long as the Trans-Siberian Railroad? 

OK then, stow your luggage, take your seat, and … Vse Na Bort

The widow entrepreneur

Catherine Dryden's grave at Mt. Pleasant
Cemetery, Hill Hill, Mo.

In 1872, my great-grandfather, Gilbert Dryden, the first of four Gilberts who would be born to successive generations of Drydens, died at the age of 42 in High Hill, Mo., a tiny town sixty miles west of St. Louis. High Hill  — there aren’t any hills within 10 miles of it, the terrain around it is pancake flat — had recently been chosen by the North Missouri Railroad as a stop for its trains to take on water, coal and change crews. 

Left to mourn his passing was his wife, Catherine, whom he had married the year before, following the death of his first wife. Catherine, according to census records, had been an indentured servant working for a prosperous local family. He also left four young children from his first marriage. 

Catherine was pregnant when her husband died, leaving her to raise and feed not only her soon-to-be-born son, my grandfather, Gilbert II, but her husband’s four orphans. There was no Social Security or other safety net to fall back on, Catherine was on her own.

To support her extended family, Catherine, who had learned to sew in her servant days, went to work patching the uniforms of railroad conductors who overnighted in High Hill. The men would check in to the hotel, send their uniforms to her for repair, and she would return them looking good as new.

Her clients were so impressed that word spread throughout the Northern Missouri system. Soon, Catherine wasn’t just patching uniforms, she was making conductor uniforms for the entire railroad, cutting out the heavy fabric, stitching the pieces together, adding lining, pockets, trim and buttons. She was so successful her son and stepchildren grew up in what was, for sleepy High Hill, relative prosperity. 

My father, Gilbert III, born in 1907, recalled that every Memorial Day after her death in 1917, he, his father and step-uncles walked two miles to the cemetery to place flowers on her grave.

Railroads funded the foundation of a family that continues to thrive today. Catherine and Gilbert’s direct descendants — living and dead — number 33, with two more on the way. Four had, or have, “Catherine” as their first or middle names. 

The railroad postal clerk

This railroad postal sorting car from the 1890s is on
display at the National Postal Museum in D.C.

As a young man, Gilbert II, Catherine’s only child, had wanderlust. High Hill wasn’t big enough, he wanted to see the world. 

He trekked to Alaska in search of gold. Not finding it, he returned to Missouri and landed a plum job sorting mail on U.S. Postal Service railway cars. From the 1860s through the 1940s, most long-distance trains carried a designated, specially-configured car in which teams of clerks were working furiously, sorting mail as the train sped across the country. For instance, a train leaving St. Louis for San Francisco contained a car stacked to the ceiling with dozens of bags of mail addressed to residents of the destination city as well as places in-between — tiny towns like High Hill, small towns like Topeka, big cities like Kansas City, Denver, Salt Lake and Sacramento. 

As the trains clickety-clacked across prairies, forests, mountains and deserts, Grandpa and his fellow clerks sorted the letters and catalogs and placed them in mailbags. The bags were thrown out at small towns to be retrieved by the local postmaster, delivered to the stationmasters in cities where the train stopped, or transferred to trains headed to other destinations. A letter mailed in St. Louis at noon could be in a post office box in High Hill within a couple of hours. Six hours later the mail could be in Kansas City. Within 48 hours it could reach California.

It was an exciting job for an adventurous young man, but Catherine became concerned after a  number of high-profile accidents — some were spectacular head-on collisions in which dozens were killed — and begged her son to quit and return to High Hill. She finally convinced him by promising to buy him a general store — she had the money thanks to her uniform business. He came home, married, and fathered four children, two of whom, including my father, would someday run general stores that contained post offices.

The National Postal Museum in D.C., the smallest of the Smithsonians, features a postal sorting car from the 1890s. I visit it every few years, as a reminder of grandpa who died when I was three — I remember his face but nothing else about him. As someone who was also stricken with wanderlust at a young age, I can understand why grandpa wanted to ride the rails. At the end of his shift, when the doors of his mail car rolled open, he might find himself in New York, Boston, New Orleans, Seattle or someplace equally exotic to a High Hill boy. 

Why great-grandma Sarah couldn’t wear open toe shoes

 This isn't great-grandma Sarah. 

The ditzy branch of my family tree is my mother’s family, the Tates. Mom regaled us with innumerable bizarre stories about her Tate forebears — the great-uncle who, serving as a pallbearer, dropped her father’s casket while carrying it down the stairs of the church; her father who got so excited when he saw the newspaper headline trumpeting the end of World War I that he grabbed a woman’s hat off the rack and wore it home to tell his family the war was over; the great-great aunt, a niece of Daniel Boone, who, while sweeping her log cabin, got too close to the fireplace, her dress caught fire, and her husband returned home to find his wife a crispy critter; the pipe-smoking Tate mother who refused to let her twelfth and last child go to school and insisted on breast-feeding him until he was six years old, tall enough to stand on his own two feet and nurse as she rocked back and forth in her rocker. 

Weirdest of all the Tate tales was the story of her grandmother, Sarah Martha Tate, a resident of Montgomery City ten miles northwest of High Hill. Walking across the parallel tracks of the Wabash Railroad in the 1890s, she stumbled and her foot got somehow caught in a switch that had been thrown remotely by Montgomery City’s stationmaster. A switch, in case you’re unfamiliar with railroad lingo, is a mechanical device that allows a slow train to be switched from one track to another where it pauses to allow a faster train to pass it.

How ditzy do you have to be to get
your foot trapped in one of these?

Try as she might, she couldn’t extract her foot. She must have been terrified when, after failing to get it free, a train ran over her and severed her big toe but — this is what I’ve never been able to get my head around— left her other four toes intact. The scene always reminded me of an old-time silent movie in which a villain tied a beauty to the train tracks where, at the very last second before an oncoming locomotive would have pulverized her, she was swooped off and saved by the movie’s hero. No hero appeared that day to save the damsel in distress.

My sister and I laughed whenever our mother told the story which made mom, who had loved her grandmother, mad. We laughed even harder when mom would lament that our great-grandmother refused to wear open-toe shoes because she was embarrassed by the loss of her big toe.

Uncle Henry and the ultimate mule train story

This isn't Uncle Henry.

One of Gilbert I’s children from his first marriage was named Henry, who was known for his cantankerousness (which Microsoft Word, to my surprise, says is an actual word). My father called him Uncle Henry and whenever his name was mentioned, those who had known him rolled their eyes. 

A legendary Henry story that has nothing to do with trains but I'm driving this train so I’ll tell it anyway and if you don’t like it you can, as Henry would no doubt have said, stick it up your you-know-what: Henry once sat down at a holiday meal my grandmother had spent days preparing. The table was laden with a turkey, ham, veggies, salads, pickles, breads and a sideboard of cakes and pies was waiting in the kitchen. Henry surveyed the table, wrinkled his nose, and asked her to make him a dish of oatmeal. We now return to Tom’s Rail Tales.

In addition to a disagreeable disposition, Henry also possessed a volcanic temper. Sometime around the turn of the last century, Henry, a farmer, was leading his mule, which was pulling a wagon, when the animal balked directly atop the Northern Missouri tracks. Knowing a train was due any minute, Henry tried everything to convince the mule to move. He pulled, he pushed, he whipped it, but the mule stayed put. Enraged, Henry split the mule’s head open with an axe, doused the wagon and its contents with kerosene, threw a match on it and watched it burn until only the axle and wheels were left, then pulled the carcass and what little remained of the wagon off the tracks moments before the train rushed through. 

Taking the train to the World’s Fair

For their honeymoon, my grandparents,
Gilbert II and Virgie, took the train from High Hill
to St. Louis for the 1904 World's Fair. 

Gilbert II and his bride, my grandmother Virgie, took the train to the St Louis World’s Fair for their honeymoon in 1904. The following year, their first child, Emily Catherine, was born.

Emily graduated from college and taught school for a while until Grandpa convinced her to return to High Hill to take over the town’s post office as postmistress. The post office, conveniently enough, was located in his store. Emily lived with her parents in the house Catherine’s railroad money had built until she married in 1948. My cousin, Bernadette Catherine, owns the building today and it is still a post office.

My sister Judy, born in 1941, remembers going with Aunt Em to pick up bags of mail that, in the 1940s, were thrown from trains that passed through High Hill each day. Sometime in the late forties or early fifties, when passenger train service started declining, the postal service began delivering the mail to High Hill by truck.

Throw grandpa from the train

The story below about my grandfather, Gilbert II, appeared in the June 17, 1907 edition of the Montgomery City (Mo.) Tribune. Grandpa, 35 at the time, regularly took the train from High Hill to Montgomery City, where he had business interests. The trip passed through the town of New Florence. A few days before, the railroad had raised its fares from 2 cents to 3 cents a mile.

New Florence, June 16

G.L. Dryden of High Hill was ejected from a Wabash passenger train here tonight for refusal to pay his fare of 3 cents a mile. Mr. Dryden tendered his fare at a 2-cent-per-mile rate, which was refused by Conductor Cunningham.

I can’t help but wonder if the conductor ordered the train to stop or merely slowed it down for grandpa’s ejection. 

My father’s education

My dad, Gilbert III, pictured in his 
 Central Wesleyan College yearbook,
 took the train to and from class every day. 

From 1925, when he graduated from high school, until 1929, when he dropped out 16 credits shy of his degree, my father, Gilbert III, took the train every weekday from High Hill to Central Wesleyan College in Warrenton, a round-trip of 20 miles. 

Without trains to whisk him back and forth, it’s likely his education would have ended after high school. Easy access to the railroad enabled him to open his eyes to the world around him and to get a good education. He studied Spanish, literature, business and especially loved the English poets. His favorite poem, Invictus -- he could recite it from memory -- was read at his funeral. I like to think he memorized it on the train as he rode back and forth to school.

Last train home 

On November 20, 1951, the flag-draped casket of my 21-year-old cousin, James Timmerberg, who had been killed in the Korean War, was returned home to Montgomery City on a Wabash train where, according to his obituary in the Montgomery Standard, it was met by a military honor guard. 

Jimmy was the son of my mother’s sister. My mother was unable to attend his funeral. She was in the hospital, having given birth to me three days before. 

Hit by a freight train

My hometown, Auxvasse, Mo., was served by the Gulf, Mobile & Ohio Railroad whose tracks  ran behind my father’s store. A county-owned road grader, kept in Auxvasse, was operated by a local man, Ted Mayes. 

Ted, who, as far as I know, wasn’t related to Uncle Henry's mule or great-grandma Sarah, was driving his road grader across the tracks one day in the early 1950s when it was struck by a train. I can’t imagine how he could have been that careless. Only two freight trains a day passed through town and they pretty much came and went at the same time. 

Hearing the crash, my father rushed to Ted’s side to help extract him from the wreckage. 

Someone else ran to the schoolhouse to notify his wife, a teacher, and drove her to the hospital where he had been taken. She arrived at his bedside in an hysterical state, wailing, “Ted, Ted, how are you?”

His answer: “How the hell do you think you’d feel if you got hit by a freight train?” 

It became the standard reply in my family whenever one of us was under the weather and someone asked how we were doing.

Tommy’s train

I was five that Christmas morning in 1956 when I rushed down the stairs and found a Lionel 027 gauge model train circling the tree. Santa had left me a Lionel starter set — a dozen pieces of track that formed an oval; a locomotive that belched “steam” when a pellet was dropped in the smokestack; a coal car; a gondola; a flatcar that, at the push of a button, dumped plastic logs into a bin; a B&O boxcar, and a caboose.

Over the years, I added to the set — additional track, two switches (being part Tate, I was always careful not to get any appendages caught in them), a larger transformer, more rolling stock, a pair of Santa Fe “Super Chief” diesel engines,  electrically-powered buildings, trestles, bridges, a lighted crossing gate, and a shack from which a guard carrying a lantern emerged as the train approached. My favorite purchase was a set of passenger cars I found at a resale shop that revealed the backlit silhouettes of passengers inside. I cherished every piece and spent countless hours with those trains up to the time I went to college when the entire collection was destroyed by a basement flood. 

My sons’ train set

When I had sons of my own in the 1980s, I decided they would surely love trains as much as I did. How could they not? When the oldest turned one, I bought him a Lionel Cheerios boxcar. Over the next seven or eight years I bought an engine, more  cars, track or other accessories for every birthday and holiday. 

When the set was complete, neither son showed any interest and I eventually sold the train on eBay. The boys never looked up from their video games long enough to ask what happened to it.


Wabash depot, Mexico, Mo.

Mexico, 11 miles north of Auxvasse, was served by two passenger lines, the Wabash and CB&Q. When I was in elementary school, mom would go shopping in Mexico every few weeks and whenever she did, I went along. While she was trying on dresses and shoes downtown, I’d buy myself a bag of malted milk balls at Woolworth's, then walk the four blocks to the depot to watch the trains come and go. (Understandably, given her grandmother’s unfortunate accident, mom would warn me to be careful and look both ways before crossing the tracks.)  I loved to see the passengers, most dressed in their Sunday best, as they embarked or disembarked, and was especially thrilled whenever the daily Union Pacific express from St. Louis to Kansas City, which didn’t have time to stop in a podunk town like Mexico, streaked past on the center track.

I also helped myself to the free schedules that were available for the taking in the station, and  spent hours pouring over combinations of rail routes that would take me from Mexico to places I figured I’d never get to, like Seattle, Charleston or Flagstaff. 

He's leaving (leaving) … on the midnight train to Cleveland

Twice, I even got to ride the rails myself.

The summer after first grade, my brother Jerry and his wife, Nancy, had their first daughter.  Shortly afterward, Jerry, an Army officer, was posted to Cleveland and my mother went for a visit and took me along.  

I still recall the wondrous aroma that wafted through that Wabash train when we boarded it — antiseptic to be sure, but full of air that had entered the car somewhere unimaginably exotic like Omaha or Moberly. We changed trains at St. Louis Union Station and I will never forget what I ordered in the dining car for dinner that night — Salisbury steak, the most delicious meal I’ve eaten before or since. Then and there I decided that, when I grew up, I would be a train engineer, and for years told everyone who asked that was what I wanted to be.

That trip inspired me to send a one-paragraph letter describing my railroad adventure to Jack & Jill, a magazine for grade school children, which reprinted letters from its young readers nationwide. It was printed in one of the fall issues, and I was thrilled to see my first byline (Tommy Dryden, 6, Missouri) in print. That magazine was ruined in the basement flood along with my electric trains.

Two summers later, when Jerry was stationed in Battle Creek, Michigan, mom and I took another long-distance rail trip —this time to see his and Nancy’s second daughter who had just been born. In downtown Chicago, we took a taxi between Union Station and Dearborn Station. All those gray high-rise towers and hordes of people rushing to and fro on the sidewalks were fascinating. I vowed I would someday live there. And I did for two years in my mid-twenties. 

At some point in the 1960s, long-distance passenger rail service went poof. By the time I was old enough to take a train somewhere on my own, they were gone. 

Summer of 1972

In the summer of 1972, between my junior and senior years of college, I went to Europe and criss-crossed the continent using a Eurail pass. The pass, for a mere $130, entitled students to hop aboard just about any train or ferry that wasn’t behind the Iron Curtain -- no reservation needed.

I flew to Switzerland with a friend from High Hill I knew through my cousins, the younger siblings of Gilbert IV. My buddy was going to spend the entire summer in Europe. I only had six weeks, so we agreed we would split up halfway through my trip. That way he could visit the places he wanted to see at a leisurely pace, and I could cram all the “must-see” sites I wanted to visit into my condensed time frame.

Over six weeks I trained from Zurich to Geneva, Barcelona, Rome, Paris, London, Oxford, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Malmo, Koblenz, Basel and back to Zurich for my flight home. Excluding my roundtrip air ticket and Eurrail pass, I had only $500 to spend so, often as not, I took long-distance trains at night to save on lodging expenses. 

Another Dryden honeymoon by train

Like my grandparents, my wife and traveled by train on our honeymoon. 

In 1976. we flew to Germany where we based ourselves with Jerry and his family, who were stationed in Heidelberg. From there we took trains to visit Munich, the Rhine Valley, Paris and Switzerland. In Lucerne, my wife fell in love with something she had never seen before, a long- haired dachshund. We bought our first as soon as we got home and haven’t been without one since.

The next year, we explored the U.K. on BritRail passes that took us from London to Oxford, Edinburgh, Glasgow and a Brigadoon-like remote Scottish island named Bute. 

We’ve been back and forth across the pond many times since. We've usually stayed in cities or rented cars to see the countryside but, on occasion, we’ve taken trains. The last European train we took was from center of Lyon, France, to the airport in 2019. 

Commuting to Manhattan by Metro North

A Metro North train pulls into the
South Norwalk station

We moved from Chicago to New York in 1978. In 1983, shortly after the birth of son #1, we relocated to Connecticut, a 50-minute Metro North train ride from Grand Central station. 

For most of the eighties, I commuted back and forth by train to Manhattan every weekday. In 1991, I went to work for an ad agency headquartered in the Chrysler Building, just across Lexington Avenue from Grand Central. From 1996 until I retired in 2010, I commuted into the city once, maybe twice, a week, and while I got tired of the rush hour traffic to and from the South Norwalk station where I usually had trouble finding a parking spot and had to run to catch the train, I never minded the ride. 

Most of my fellow commuters dozed, read the Wall Street Journal or New York Times, or played cards. Not me — I found that the forward motion of the train almost magically empowered me to be at my creative best and to tune out everything around me. Writing on legal pads and, later, on laptops, I came up with some of my best work on Metro North, and will always look back on my commutes with awe that I was able to turn the time most passengers frittered away into the most productive hours of my working life. 

The train ride I’ll never be allowed to forget 

Lest this all sound somehow glamorous to those who’ve watched too many episodes of Mad Men in which 1960s suburbanite Don Draper rode the rails to and from his Manhattan agency, my most memorable Metro North ride —one my wife will never let me forget — took place a few weeks after we had moved to Connecticut. 

I had enjoyed a long lunch with friends at a Mexican restaurant in Manhattan, after which, having downed mucho margaritas, I made my way — I think I walked but I’m not sure, I may have cabbed — to Grand Central and hopped aboard the train to Connecticut. We had just moved a few weeks before and, at that point, had only one car so my wife had to meet me at the station. 

Once the train started moving I knew I was in trouble. When it stopped at Harlem’s elevated 125th Street Station, I got out and vomited all over the platform. By the time I finished, the train had left the station. So I waited for the next northbound train and boarded that. At the next stop, Pelham, I got off and puked again. My “get off the train, puke, catch the next one” routine continued at every station — New Rochelle, Port Chester, Greenwich, Old Greenwich, Stamford, Noroton Heights, Darien and Rowayton — until I finally arrived in South Norwalk looking like death. Cell phones hadn’t been invented so I hadn't been able to notify my wife I was running late. She was furious -- she and the baby had been waiting at the station for four hours. 

I never did that again. Heck, I rarely even visited the bar car. 

Trains in popular culture


It's amazing how many books, movies and songs revolve around trains. A quick look at my iPhone music library reveals eleven train songs (see below) and I'd have to guess my playlist contains at least a dozen more.

Midnight Train to Georgia by Gladys Knight

This Train by Peter Paul & Mary

Canadian Railroad Trilogy by Gordon Lightfoot

Long Train Running by Doobie Brothers

Peace Train by Cat Stevens 

Love Train by the OJs, 

9 to 5 (Morning Train) by Sheena Easton 

City of New Orleans by Arlo Guthrie 

The L&N Don’t Stop Here Any More by Kathy Mattea  

Homeward Bound by Simon & Garfunkel

Just Like This Train, Joni Mitchell

How many train songs on your play list? Count 'em up, the number may surprise you. 

The next generation of Drydens ride the rails

My daughter-in-law and grandsons, who just turned 9 and 7, last summer took the Eurostar train from London to Paris, riding through the "chunnel" under the English Channel.  

Last weekend the boys accompanied their parents from their home in D.C. to New York, riding Amtrak to and from Penn Station. 

I'd like to give them an electric train for Christmas but doubt it could compete with the video games they always bring on their train rides. But I'd be happy to play with it. 

Last but not least, highlights from my railroad poster collection

For 40+ years I’ve collected vintage advertising posters, mostly travel-related. Many feature trains from places as far flung as the American Southwest, Britain, Yugoslavia, Armenia and Germany. Here are some of my favorites. 

The poster at the bottom was produced by the New Haven Railroad during WWII and is a fitting way to end this post, a reminder that trains not only helped build the world as we know it, they helped save it. I've reprinted the poster's text below its photo. By the time you finish reading it,  you'll have a tear in your eye, lump in your throat, or both. 

The Kid in Upper Four

It is 3:42 a.m. on a troop train.

Men wrapped in blankets are breathing heavily.

Two in every lower berth. One in every upper.

This is no ordinary trip. It may be their last in the U.S.A. till the end of the war. Tomorrow they will be on the high seas.

One is wide awake ... listening ...staring into the blackness.

It is the Kid in Upper 4.


Tonight, he knows, he is leaving behind a lot of little things -- and big ones.

The taste of hamburgers and pop ... the feel of driving a roadster over a six-lane highway ... a dog named Shucks ... or Spot, or Barnacle Bill.

The pretty girl who writes so often ... that gray-haired man, so proud and awkward at the station ... the mother who knit the socks he'll wear soon.

Tonight he's thinking them over.

There's a lump in his throat. And maybe -- a tear fills his eye. It doesn't matter, Kid

Nobody will see ... it's too dark.


A couple of thousand miles away, where he's going, they don't know him very well.

But people all over the world are waiting, praying for him to come.

And he will come, this Kid in Upper 4.

With new hope, peace and freedom for a tired, bleeding world.


Next time you are on the train, remember the Kid in Upper 4.

If you have to stand en route -- it is so he may have a seat.

If there is no berth for you -- it is so that he may sleep.

If you have to wait for a seat in the diner -- it is so he ... and thousands like him ... may have a meal they won't forget in the days to come.

For to treat him as our most honored guest is the least we can do 

to pay a mighty debt of gratitude. 


Serving the great industrial states of Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut