Riding the Rails with Harriet and Grandma

My sister and I rode one of the last passenger trains passing through the Bartlesville depot.

Grandma Taylor lassoed us onto that train because she wanted a break from driving her clunky AMC Rambler. She wasn’t great at driving and she was even worse at stopping. My nose collided with the cigarette lighter of that Rambler when I was 4 years old. Grandma hit the brakes and I slammed into the dashboard cutting the underside of my nose creating a scar that I only notice now when I shave.

I grew up in a neighborhood miles from the railroad tracks, but I was always mesmerized by trains and tracks. There was charcoal burning everywhere, but we knew all the neighbors and we hung out in places I recall fondly. My friend Wayne and I hung out under an elm tree in the heat of summer while planning mischief. We called the crook of the elm the Shady Rest, in honor of the hotel on the Petticoat Junction television show. Much of that show centered on a train called the Hooterville Cannonball, an 1889 ten wheeler which appeared in The Virginian with Gary Cooper in 1929 and Little House on the Prairie. I’ve always loved watching trains pass…listening to their heavy and steady certainty pass in the darkness while lying in bed late at night.

Harriet Tubman did her share of passing through the night helping operate another kind of railroad. Harriet was a conductor on the Underground Railroad. She was Moses to many in slavery. She rescued the oppressed and brought them out of bondage to freedom. Go see Harriet. It will leave you burdened and uplifted all at once. On the way to see the movie, we drove through Nowata to watch the Union Pacific 4014 Big Boy steamer scheduled to pass through at 3:15 pm. According to folklore, you can set your watch by the train.

 “Folks around these parts get the time of day, from the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe.” 

Alas, the train was late, but while we waited, we experienced the energy of a small town in suspense. When my father-in-law drove from New Jersey to visit, he drove through Nowata. He pronounced it, No-Wadda’, with a chuckle. He would ask me “What’s the deal with Nowata?” Small towns in New Jersey are close enough to cities to continue thriving. In Oklahoma, they are more isolated, economic islands, only connected by highway and railway. His question made me think of Jimmy Buffet’s song, Ringling, Ringling…

the streets are dusty and the bank has been torn down, and electric trains they run by maybe once or twice a month

Jimmy Buffett
Here is a video of the Big Boy Steamer passing through Claremore, Oklahoma just a few minutes before we saw it near Nowata.

We stood with several hundred people milling about waiting for the Big Boy. There hadn’t been this much excitement in Nowata since the punch bowl at the Fire Hall Dance was spiked with Viagara. 

I thought of doing a downward dog so as to lay my ear against the rail to estimate through physics and the spiritual arts the arrival time of the Big Boy. But, it seemed out of place to do a downward dog on the train track with all the John Deere hats and coveralls. Plus, it was in violation of viewing guidelines issued by the Union Pacific railroad which suggested standing back 25 feet from the tracks and to always expect a train at any moment. 

Which is advice I could have used growing up. Me and a buddy once put a penny on a rail and watched as the train turned it into copper sheetmetal. Pretty sure we were not standing back 25 feet. And there was the time in college when we decided to take our Fraternity yearbook picture (we called them social clubs, but they still had Greek letters) on a historic cantilevered train trestle in Judsonia, Arkansas. As 80 young men posed for a picture, the train came barreling around the bend. Nobody dove into the river but we excitedly scattered onto concrete abutments and steel girders making ourselves skinny as the train screamed past. When you are balancing on a steel girder as a train passes a few feet from your nose, it is really loud. The picture turned out great. I’m sure we broke several laws. 

Here is a video of a train passing on that bridge in Judsonia over the Little Red River.


I’ve been thinking about why I love to watch a train pass. I think it’s because I want to be on it, to see what it will see, the terrain and wildlife, the small towns interrupted, the boy waving from the crook of an elm with wonder. In a car, you have to keep an eye on the road. In a plane, you see broad brush strokes at distance. A train gives an intimate view at our landscape, our country, and what a great place to take a book and never open it because you can’t take your eyes off the scenery. 

In 1869, trainmen hammered a golden spike at Promontory Point, Utah. As Ruth Guyer writes in the Atlantic, it was the early days of how we changed our ideas about travel and coming and going in this beautiful country we inhabit. 

Trains go…into canyons, along rivers, through mountains, sidling up to back yards and into town centers. So much about trains is visionary. Imagine the early 20th century trainman who saw no obstacle to laying 153 miles of track out onto the ocean. He simply assembled wonderful-sounding stuff–crushed limestone marral and gravel riprap–into raised roadbeds to connect the outermost Keys to the Florida mainland. So much past is present in railroads. Their graceful, gorge-spanning wooden bridges and trestles come straight out of Leonardo da Vinci’s sketchbooks. The other evening I stepped onto the track near my home and stared off till my eyes met the vanishing point, where the glistening iron rails seemed to merge. I knew the tracks would never do that, but I thought if the trains themselves were ever to vanish, the romance of travel would surely be lost. Ruth Guyer


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