Last week, a boy excitedly asked for any books we have about the California Zephyr. His excitement in reading about passenger trains reflects a love (and hate) affair that America has had with the rails for over a hundred years. While listening to the songs of Leadbelly or Woody Guthrie, watching modern Westerns like Dead Man or 3:10 to Yuma, reading the Boxcar Children series, or collecting model trains and railroad memorabilia, trains are always just rolling around the bend in the collective imagination.
Whether considering the acquisition of wealth by the Railroad Barons or the gains earned in working conditions by railroad unions and related industries, railroad companies have a checkered past. Standard Time in the US was adopted by railroad companies 50 years before the federal government. Then there's the controversy of the settlement caused by the railroads, through both heartwarming stories such as the Harvey Girls, or the struggles of Native Americans, farmers, ranchers and immigrants. Love them or hate them, this would be a very different country if not for the railroads.
With our revitalized Railyard District, the scenic train to Lamy, and the Rail Runner that will link us to our southern neighbors next week, trains aren't just a chapter in Santa Fe history. They've become a third place, a romanticized Old West motif, or simply a relaxing way to commute. For many of us, whether we're a middle-school boy who's just taken his first Amtrak trip, a middle-aged woman who had an N-scale train set as a child, a world-traveler who needs to cover 10,000 miles of track a year to stay sane, or an old-timer who used to ride the rails, to "hear that lonesome whistle blow" is sometimes the sweetest sound in the world.
Photo by SM.