Monday, June 27, 2011

The Ghosts of Railroads Past...

In keeping with my last post, I've been thinking a lot more lately about how much I've enjoyed railroads over the years. They're still my favorite means of transportation, and it's quite sad seeing how rail travel has died out over the years. People might say that the automobile killed streetcars and passenger railroads, but that's not entirely true. They were still very popular when the transit systems were dismantled. It was mainly a change in public mindset brought on by billions of federal dollars spent to build national highways. In nearly every metropolitan city across the nation (and many small towns in between), it was possible just 60 years ago to get almost anywhere via interurban streetcars and trains.

Since the mid-1800s, railroads shaped and formed this land and our cities. The stories of Casey Jones and John Henry are forever remembered in their old folktales. And it's hard to travel anywhere without passing (or crossing over) an old railroad line, if you know where to look. Many of our towns sprang up from railroad lines snaking across the landscape. Sadly, many of them died out when the trains disappeared. In the Cuyahoga Valley alone, I can think of several towns that have disappeared off the map when the Cleveland Terminal & Valley Railway was sold and switched entirely to freight.

Slowly, I'm working on compiling together some of the thousands of old legends and myths associated with the railroads. Eventually, I'll be setting aside part of my website for them, but there's a lot to wade through before I get there. I find railroad ghost stories just as fascinating as the golden age of steam. Just in Ohio, there are dozens of ghosts associated with train wrecks and accidental deaths from the Ashtabula Train Disaster to the tragedy outside Republic, Ohio, or even the specter of Lincoln's Funeral Train. Even one of my first visits to a haunted place as a teenager was train related: the old depot in Galion, Ohio.

All of the hauntings I've heard have involved steam locomotives, oddly enough. I'm sure there are diesel engines behind hauntings out there somewhere, but I'm content to stick with steam. It's a dying technology; if we don't keep teaching generations about operating old steam engines, they'll become mystifying museum relics. Few people who are alive today can operate an old engine. They require skill and finesse you won't find in a simple diesel engine. Perhaps that's why when it comes to historic preservation, I think railroads are so important.

Interestingly enough, we owe much of the current railroad preservation efforts to two men: Lucius Beebe and Charles Clegg. They pioneered railroad pictorial books and started the California State Railroad Museum. Much of our history would be forgotten were it not for these two men. And what's even more interesting is they were a couple. Yes, railroad preservation owes a lot to two gay men. You can still see their private car the Virginia City (complete with its elegant interior that would make Liberace jealous) in California.

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