Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - January 12, 2024

Railroad ties

It was a cool, gray, late-October day, when husband Art, sister Gaila, and I headed northeast out of Art's hometown of Appleton, Wisconsin. It was one of Art's "mystery" trips - an adventure where he knew our destination, but we didn't.

We didn't travel far - it's only about 30 miles to Green Bay. I kept trying to guess where we were headed. A special restaurant? The Green Bay Botanical Gardens? The Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame?

Art remained mum.

Then he pulled into the parking lot of the National Railroad Museum. He had mentioned several times over the years that he'd like to visit. He's had an interest in anything and everything related to railroads since he was a kid. He worked as a yard clerk for the Chicago North Western during college.

I've had a soft spot for passenger trains since my family traveled on the Santa Fe's "El Capitan" from Kansas to California when Gaila, brother Dave, and I were young. On the other hand, I'm not a fan of museums dedicated to trains, planes, or automobiles.

But things began to look up when I discovered we could ride a train around the museum's grounds. The short ride only involved two times around the grounds while Nancy - our conductor - described the "rolling stock" on the property.

She also discussed hobos, people who traveled by rail by sneaking into box cars. Their numbers exploded during the Great Depression as people moved about looking for work.

Her comments reminded me of mom talking about the hobos who stopped at her parents' farm in Morris County, Kansas. In exchange for a bite to eat and a chance to sleep in the barn, they would do small jobs for the family.

After our ride, Gaila and I walked through the outside pavilions to look at the various rolling stock - the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe #5017 steam locomotive, a yellow Chicago & North Western caboose, and a silver General Motors Aerotrain. The museum had more than 70 examples, including locomotives, passenger/baggage cars, freight cars, cabooses, and maintenance-of-way cars.

Inside the museum, we found more rolling stock and special exhibits that told the stories of the Harvey Girls, the Pullman Porters, the French Merci Train, and Dwight D. Eisenhower's role as the Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe during World War II. I was surprised all had connections to my home state of Kansas.

In 1875, English entrepreneur Fred Harvey formed a partnership with the president of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe railroad to open restaurants along its route. He initially opened one in Wallace, Kansas and another in Hugo, Colorado. Then he began serving food in the Santa Fe depot in Topeka, Kansas, followed two years later by another restaurant in Florence, Kansas - a small town 12 miles north of my hometown. He recruited young women to work as waitresses at his Harvey House chain of restaurants and hotels, which eventually stretched from Kansas to California.

The exhibit "Pullman Porters: From Service to Civil Rights" also caught my eye. It featured a restored 1920s Pullman sleeper car. Starting in 1909, Black Pullman porters tried unsuccessfully for years to organize a labor union. In 1925, A. Philip Randolph joined in the effort to form the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP). He and the BSCP met strong opposition from the Pullman Company, but eventually succeeded in 1937, creating the first all-Black labor union. Velma Carson, a Morganville, Kansas native, was involved in the movement, having helped Randolph unionize the porters by passing information during her frequent travels by train. Randolph and the porters shifted their attention to the struggle for civil rights in the 1960s.

The French Gratitude Train - frequently referred to as the "Merci Train" - was 49 boxcars laden with gifts that arrived in the United States by ship in February 1949. It was sent as a token of French appreciation for the U.S. having sent boxcars of goods and food to France in 1947 to help it recover from the war. The French cars were decorated with the crests of France's 40 provinces and contained some 52,000 items - letters, photographs, household items, toys, artwork. The donations came from ordinary French citizens just as our donations were largely from common people. After the train toured the United States, one car was given to each of the 48 states, with the 49th being shared between the District of Columbia and Hawaii. Art and I had previously visited the Kansas’ car from the Gratitude Train in Hays, Kansas in 2015.

Another exhibit that reminded me of my home state was a British locomotive named for General Dwight D. Eisenhower. Eisenhower grew up in Abilene, Kansas, about 45 miles from where Art and I now live. Two passenger cars had been converted for Eisenhower's and his staff’s use during the war, first in England and later in Europe.

The museum also had one - #4017 - of the few remaining Union Pacific “Big Boy” railroad engines. Art and I joined many others who watched #4014, the only operational Big Boy, steam through Manhattan a few years back.

I think a person just has to keep an open mind. I can honestly say that while I wasn't excited when the mystery destination was revealed, I really enjoyed the National Railroad Museum, thanks in no small part to all the ties connecting it with Kansas history and my family.

Top (l-r): Our train arrives as Gaila waits and Art studies the engraved platform bricks, discovering one (inset) from Herington, Kansas; Gloria and Art in front of the Wisconsin box car from the Gratitude Train; Gaila at Pullmann display. Bottom (l-r) ; General Eisenhower's command train; inside one of the command train's cars; Harvey Girl uniform.

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