Stations and Old Stories

When my parents had to drop off a package at the Railway Express Agency at the now long-gone New Haven Railroad station in Bridgeport, Connecticut, that’s when I got hooked on trains. I was five years old then, but the sight of an express train roaring by toward New York City had me riveted. From that day through my childhood, I would beg my folks to stop by the station so I could stand where so many travelers to up and down the East Coast trod upon those old wooden platforms. The place reeked of cigarette and cigar smoke, diesel fumes from idling locomotives, the noise of baggage carts and porters moving across the platforms, and those great, green REA trucks coming and going from their part of the station.

But as I became an adult, it wasn’t just the old country depots and big city stations that fascinated me. It was and still is the stories and even history that moved through them.

McAdam Junction, New Brunswick station in a colorized postcard image from the Stu Nicholson collection. McAdam Jct was a major division point for trains crossing the border into the U.S.

I think of a young couple, just married, changing trains in the middle of a dark, Canadian night at remote McAdam Junction, New Brunswick. It was 1942 and almost every train then was a “troop train” and McAdam Junction was the place where you passed through Customs to enter the United States. The couple was headed for Boston, Massachusetts and then on to near Lowell to work at an egg farm that supplied food for the war effort. (Ask an ex-GI about “powdered eggs”.) The couple was expecting their first child . . . my sister. I would come along about eight years later.

“Big Four” Depot at Galion, Ohio. Galion was a division point for the New York Central and thus hosted division offices on the upper floors.

During that same World War II era, another young man stood on the platform at the “Big Four” depot at Galion, Ohio. I would meet him many years later when he was an old man with memories. He told me he went to work to earn extra money for his family as a courier for a local mortuary. It was his job to pick up caskets from the depot and bring them to the mortuary to be readied for funerals.

“Big Four” Depot at Galion, Ohio. The community is raising funds to complete the restoration of the depot and adjacent freight house.

What touches me to this day was when he said, “I was barely into my teens back then and I had to be ready to meet trains at any time of day or night. Of course, with the war on, many of the caskets came in on the trains and all were accompanied by an American flag and a soldier assigned to accompany the body.” He told me about how it struck him that many of these caskets contained the remains of “kids not much older than me.” Sometimes they were people he knew. Sometimes he would cart them from the Big Four depot over to the nearby Erie Railroad station for transfer to another train and on to another family waiting to grieve a returning son, brother or father.

Galion’s Erie station was torn down years ago, but the Big Four Depot still stands and is the subject of an on-going restoration.

Fostoria, Ohio Depot (Baltimore & Ohio Railroad). Now used as office for CSX Signal and MOW crews. It last saw Amtrak service in the mid 1990’s.

Fostoria, Ohio’s B&O depot shared some of that history and still stands, albeit as a local MOW facility for CSX. But in 1948, it hosted Harry Truman’s “whistle stop” campaign that helped him win a Presidential election that all of the experts predicted he’d lose.

Urbana, Ohio Depot (Pennsylvania Railroad) Restored, it houses a local coffee shop and  restaurant.

This photo is of the old Pennsylvania Railroad depot at Urbana, Ohio. It sits along the route that saw the funeral train of President Lincoln in 1865. Today, it hosts hundreds of joggers and bicyclists along an adjacent recreational trail and a local coffee shop/restaurant.

Find those people with stories to tell and gain an appreciation for what happened “down at the depot”.

Depot platform at Old Saybrook, Connecticut in 1975. The depot was built by the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad and changed hands to Penn Central. By 1975, it was owned by Amtrak.

And finally, back to my home state of Connecticut on a warm summer afternoon in the early 1970’s on the platform at Old Saybrook’s station along what is now Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, but once was the New Haven Railroad’s Shoreline Route. Amtrak had just taken over, but a lot of old New Haven equipment could still be seen along a still jointed-rail mainline. The boiler-equipped “Geep” still sports its New Haven heritage, as do some of the cars it pulled from Boston to New York that day. What some would call “hippies” back then seemed more interested in rapping on a sunny day. They likely didn’t know or care that one of the passengers who often stepped off the train here was actress Katherine Hepburn, who lived nearby, or that the depot and its shoreline community survived the deadly and destructive Great Hurricane of 1938.

One wonders if my platform companions are now watching their grandchildren growing up, as I am. Wish I had gotten their story. I was too busy watching what was whizzing by on the tracks.

In following our love for trains, it’s easy to get caught up in what’s new that rolls by us. But let’s not lose sight of the fact that many of the same corridors that host the latest locomotive technology or “heritage” unit also once hosted history, however major or minor. Find those people with stories to tell and gain an appreciation for what happened “down at the depot”. And if the depot still stands, enjoy feeling the ghosts of those who stood on its platforms.

Stu NicholsonPhotographs and text Copyright 2018

Surf Line Stations

One day in 1959, I was driving by Santa Fe’s main line tracks in Buena Park, California, and noticed a small wooden station there. I drove by there a couple of months later, and the station was gone. This started me thinking; “Hmm, these things seem to be vanishing just like steam locomotives did.”

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The Power of Place

I have a fondness for steam radiators. That gentle heat soaks right down to the bone and although the houses I grew up in didn’t have them, the Pennsylvania depot did.

From the time I was five or six years old my dad and I made a pilgrimage to watch trains at the Pennsylvania Railroad depot in Richmond, Indiana every Sunday morning. The waiting room was our refuge from the cold and I was never very far from one of those big radiators.

Daniel Burnham’s design for the PRR depot has a new lease on life that should see it standing strong for many years to come. – Photo taken September 1, 2017.

The main objects of our quest were two westbound passenger trains that were still on the Pennsy’s schedule in the 1960s. My memory is faulty where the early train is concerned, though a check of a 1960 timetable suggests it might have been No. 71 or the Cincinnati Limited. Read more

Railroad Town:
 Boyce, Virginia

Norfolk & Western Depot circa 1913 – Boyce, Virginia (Norfolk Southern photo on loan to Virginia Polytechnic Institute Library)

The Town of Boyce, Virginia and its railway depot have enjoyed a long history together. Nearly as old as the town, the 1913 structure served as its public gathering place, the portal through which travel and commerce passed, and became Boyce’s icon.

Indeed, it was the crossing of a newly-built Shenandoah Valley Railroad with the Winchester and Berry’s Ferry Turnpike that prompted the birth of a new community in formerly dense, forested land. Unlike Berryville, White Post, and Millwood, the Boyce community—briefly named Boyceville—sprung forth around a stop along the tracks relatively late in Clarke County’s development. The town would not have existed were it not for the arrival of the Shenandoah Valley Railroad in 1879. Read more

My Railfan Experience in Germany

German Class 023 (2-6-2) steam locomotive at the passenger station in Trier waiting on signal from the conductor.

As a US Army soldier stationed in West Germany during 1971 and the first quarter of 1972, I had an opportunity to witness and photograph one of the last bastions of steam in regular service and to observe operations at a major train station.

The German Federal Railway (Deutche Bundesbahn or DB) was formed as the state railway system of the newly formed Federal Republic of Germany on September 7, 1949. The DB was a successor to the Deutsche Reichsbahn-Gesellschaft (DRG). The original DB remained the state railway of West Germany until after German reunification, when it was merged with the former East German Deutsche Reichsbahn (DR) to form Deutsche Bahn AG, which came into existence on January 1, 1994. The DB initials remained but the logo was slightly modified to a more modern style.

The post where I was stationed was located in Wiesbaden and was known as Camp Pieri. It was located near the top of a hill and on clear days you could see part of the city and even the city of Mainz, which was located across the Rhine River.

After being in Germany for a little while, I was itching to get out to do some train watching. I had no car at the time so I depended on public transportation to get around Wiesbaden. Read more

New Life for an Old Station

A bit of the new and a bit of the old at Denver Union Station. The graceful curves of the new canopy frame the old Beaux Arts structure as Amtrak Train #6, the eastbound California Zephyr, arrives on March 8th, 2015.

Denver’s Union Station has been a fixture in the Mile High City for more than a century. The dominant Beaux Arts portion of the building dates to 1914. In the early 2000’s the station became the centerpiece of a transportation themed urban redevelopment known as FasTracks. I moved to Denver in 2001 and lived there until I moved 2 hours south to Pueblo in April of 2016. As such, I was witness to the evolution of a relic from a bygone era into a re-imagined hub of transportation activity.

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