From The Heart

by | Dec 13, 2016 | Storytelling | 4 comments

I have a fondness for steam radiators. That gentle heat soaks right down to the bone and although the houses I grew up in didn’t have them, the Pennsylvania depot did. From the time I was five or six years old my dad and I made a pilgrimage to the PRR depot in Richmond every Sunday morning. The waiting room was our refuge from the cold and I was never very far from one of those big radiators.

The objects of our quest were two westbound passenger trains; two of a dwindling number of passenger runs still on the Pennsy’s schedule in the 1960s. My memory is faulty where the early train is concerned, though a check of my copy of the 1960 timetable suggests it might have been No. 71, an unnamed Cincinnati to Chicago run.

Later in the morning, No. 3, the westbound Penn Texas was the prime catch. Put on the schedule in 1948, her heyday was over by the 1960s and two E-units were the regular power. She sometimes had three and on one memorable occasion, four E7s or 8s on the point, towing head-end equipment, coaches, dining and lounge cars along with several Pullmans bringing up the rear. Even though the glory days of The Standard Railroad of The World had passed, the PRR still knew how to put on a show.

Richmond Depot, early 2000s

By the early 2000s, the depot was suffering from decades of neglect and water infiltration. Boarded up and quickly losing her decorative trim, she was a neighborhood eyesore in the eyes of many.

Completed in 1903, the depot I remember was the third one that served the city. Designed by noted Chicago architect Daniel Burnham, it was built as part of the PRR’s westward expansion and consolidation between Pittsburgh and St. Louis.

Until the 1950s when the highway overpass was built, there was a large iron train shed that covered the tracks. All that was left of that in my time was the extension that covered the platform on the north side of the building. Eventually, even that was removed and the building sat derelict and decaying for decades. It was finally sold to a local businessman, who raised capitol and secured a matching grant to do a proper restoration inside and out. Thankfully, the historic structure has a new lease on life and a bright future.

This tired photo from the 1970s shows the west end of the depot. All the station trackage is still in place along with the concrete platforms. My favorite train spotting perch for the Penn Texas was the platform in the extreme lower left foreground. Today, all of the tracks are gone except the NS mainline and remnants of the freight bypass tracks, that form the present day yard where crews sort out cars for Primax Plastics. As seen in the title photo, a chain link fence separates the tracks from people.

It was a far different world in the 1960s. In Richmond you could use the crosswalks and go out on the platforms without restriction and my favorite vantage point (under dad’s ever watchful eye) was the center platform where I could look to the east down Track One for a headlight coming around the distant curve by Glen Yards. Once spotted, I would retreat back to the safety of the canopy next to the station while the train glided in and eased to a stop.

A flurry of activity had already commenced. The engines would stop short of the five-way crossing at Eighth Street for refueling. There were a number standpipes on the platform and a fuel tender would dutifully appear to top off the units. Baggage handlers would already be exchanging any baggage or mail. Passengers would disembark or board as needed and soon, the boss would give two tweets to the cab that he was ready to roll. With the engineer’s get-out-of-the-way twin blasts from the air horn, the crossing watchman would lower the gates at Eighth Street as she eased out of the station, around the curve next to Newman Tower and Purina and then out of sight. It was a cold weather spectacle with steam coming from every leaky joint in the consist.

There was a lull between trains and we would often head down to the bridge at Nineteenth Street over the west entrance to Glen Yards. Nothing much ever happened there on a Sunday and any action we did catch was icing on the cake. Sometimes a yard engine would be shuffling around or there might be a flurry of activity near the turntable. One never knew.

After we moved to Spruce Street in Centerville, The double tracked Columbus Division main line and long siding next to the house became the stage for the daily play the PRR put on. Year in and year out I watched it all, getting to know some of the regular crew and snagging at least one cab ride up and down the siding. The sights, sounds and wonderful innocence of it all are as fresh as if it happened yesterday.

Memories of times with my dad along with the sights and sounds of the railroad are the foundation of my interest in model trains. For a introverted and geeky teenager, the craft provided a safe refuge during the late sixties and early seventies, years that proved a turbulent time for our country.

The first layouts, if you want to use that term, were American Flyer tinplate. HO followed and held sway until the recent switch to P48. As a child, my parents never begrudged my hobby activities. With the cultural upheavals of that era, mom always knew where I was and what I was doing; generally up in our finished attic working on a never-ending series of layouts that were never even close to completion.

It’s the time of year when people will be introduced to model trains perhaps for the first time. Would our narrative sound more compelling, if we dropped the sales pitch and shared more from the heart about what trains mean to us? I believe it would. What about you?