I've always been good at ignoring distractions. But the faint sound diverted my attention immediately.
"Did you hear that?" I yelled to Katie.
She answered she had, but it hadn't made any particular impression on her.
"That's the whistle of a steam engine," I said. "There's a steam engine here in Manhattan!"
I went quickly to the street and looked toward the Union Pacific tracks in the distance. After another whistle, I yelled to Katie to come outside.
"Watch down the road. You'll see it pass," I instructed.
After it had, we both returned to work.
But then I decided to check the UP's website. Sure enough, Engine 844, the last steam engine built for the company, was making a ceremonial swing through
the heartland. It had left Des Moines, Iowa the morning before and was making its way slowly across the country back to Cheyenne, Wyoming.
"It's stopping in Griffith Park. Want to go see her?" I asked Katie.
"I don't know," she answered. "I'm kind of into this now."
"Come on," I said. "It won't be long before there won't be any of these left to see."
The UP had named the train the "150 Express" - and with good reason. Two weeks before, Gloria had written a column about how 150 years ago the Congress
had passed and President Lincoln had signed the Morrill Act, paving the way for the land-grant universities. At a time when many were worried if our young
country would survive its bloody Civil War, both the Congress and Lincoln were looking forward to a time when the war would be over.
But as much as the country would need educated people, it also badly needed a transportation system to link east and west together. The Pacific Railway Act
was signed on July 1, 1862, one day before the Morrill Act.
Katie and I jumped in the car and headed off to see the big locomotive. It was all just a matter of some curiosity for her, but for me, it was a trip back to my
childhood. The Chicago and Northwestern had originally laid their tracks along the north side of my hometown. But by the time I was a youngster, it had grown
and the rails then bisected the city. So at all hours of the night and day, the distinctive wet-air sound of the steam whistle heralded the arrival and departure of
both freight and passenger trains.
Yet my connection with the railroad is a bit more personal. Before I was born, my grandfather had the contract to haul the mail between the post office and the
trains. When I was four years old, my father took over that contract. Many times, I accompanied him to the station to deliver or pick up the mail.
When I was old enough to drive, I worked the weekend shift. Then, for three years while I was in college, I worked summers at the railroad as a yard clerk. So
from as early as I can remember up through my college years, the railroad was an important part of my life.
But it is the early years when steam was still king, albeit an aging one, that I recall with some nostalgia. My grandparents' home was one block from the main
line and we could tell if a train was coming before hearing the whistle because the house would tremble. The ground was being moved under the million-pound weight of the huge
locomotive and water-and-coal-filled tender.
Parents sometimes placed copper pennies on the rail for their children. After the big engine passed, its massive weight would spread the penny thin as the blade edge
on a knife.
Some days when an engine was pulling a heavy load, sparks would come from the chimney. During the dry summer months, it was sometimes necessary to call
the fire department to put out the grass fires the engines lit.
Engine 844 is a four-drive-wheel locomotive. As I walked around it, I couldn't help pointing out to Katie various details such as how the
connecting rods to the pistons are at 90 degrees to each other on opposite sides so it could start again, regardless of the wheel position when it stopped. I
drew her attention to the slow up-and-down motion of the compressor piston that generated the high-pressure air used to operate the brakes. I explained how each car had
a tank that was part of the braking system and, if cars decoupled from the engine and separated the air hoses, the air in the tanks would set the brakes, assuring
the cars would come to a stop.
I didn't really pay a lot of attention to whether Katie was interested. Some day, as I had said earlier to her, these engines will all be gone. It may mean nothing to her
now, but it may some day.
After about 30 minutes had passed, the engineer tugged the whistle cord twice, holding it briefly each time. That was the signal that he would release the brakes and the big
engine would continue on its way. Kids and many adults covered their ears to protect themselves from the sound - a sound that once was truly music to the ears
for so many. The sound of a train whistle once managed to convey a sense of power, commerce, industry and travel all at once.
But today? Well, for me, it still is music to my ears. But to others, petrhaps it is just a sound of the distant past.