Saturday, June 1, 2013

Railroad tracks still lead us home in our dreams

Riding on the City of New Orleans,
Illinois Central Monday morning rail.
Fifteen cars and 15 restless riders,
Three conductors and 25 sacks of mail.
All along the southbound odyssey,
The train pulls out at Kankakee,
Rolls along past houses, farms and fields,
Passin' trains that have no names,
Freight yards full of old black men
And the graveyards of the rusted automobiles.

Good morning America, how are you?
Don't you know me I'm your native son,
I'm the train they call The City of New Orleans,
I'll be gone 500 miles when the day is done.

Bud Staton
Railroading has been an integral part of America’s soul since the first steam locomotive – called the
Tom Thumb – and its open car pulled out of Baltimore one sunny day in the early 1830s and rolled west 13 miles to the village of Ellicott’s Mills. The passengers, mostly VIPs, thrilled at the then unheard-of speed of 18 mph.

This was the beginning of the Age of Railroad in the United States, and the organizers named this railroad pioneer the Baltimore & Ohio, or B&O. The railroad’s objective was to connect Baltimore and its harbor with the Ohio River and points farther west, and end the barely begun heyday of the canal system.

My fraternal grandpa was a railroad man. Maynard F. Staton started out a farmer tilling 75 acres near Seville, Ohio, but his father-in-law, Louis Iuppenlatz, convinced him to join the Akron, Canton & Youngstown Railroad (A.C. &Y.) as a telegrapher. My Grandpa Bud had only worked for the A.C. & Y. for six months when the depression hit. He was let go and it would be nine years before the A.C. & Y. would rehire him.

Nan Staton in the Restaurant
When my Great-Grandpa Louis retired as station agent and telegraph operator of the Sharon Center, Ohio train depot, Grandpa Bud took over and ran the station for 18 years until the railroad closed its doors in the 1950s. In its heyday, folks in Sharon Center and the surrounding farm country would take the train into Akron to shop or do a bit of picnicking. A newspaper article about the depot’s closing in 1952 said old-timers in Sharon Center could recall a time when the depot was “full of passengers as late as 10 o’clock.” But more and more folks were driving their cars to Akron, eventually dooming the the depot and the passenger train service started in the 1880s.

The newspaper article says Grandpa Bud bought the depot and used its lumber to build a restaurant on Ohio 94 just north of Sharon’s Center’s Gettysburg-like town square. I remember sitting on a stool in that restaurant. Grandma Nan would serve me a Coke. Sadly, Grandpa Bud only lived a few years after leaving railroading and running the restaurant. He died in August 1960 during the Democratic National Convention that nominated John F. Kennedy. I remember that bit of trivial because my mom, sister and I were at his house for a cookout and we all watched the convention on TV. I would have been about eight at the time. A day or two later we learned that Grandpa Bud had suffered a fatal heart attack. Mom took me to his viewing, and I think it was the first time I had ever seen someone in a casket. Dad had stayed behind in California to keep working while mom, my sister Jody and I visited loved ones in Ohio. He, his sister Emmy and Emmy’s husband Bill had to drive across country for the funeral.

Bodie Staton
My dad Louis, nicknamed Bodie, worked summers in his youth for the railroad, doing repair work on tracks. He said hoisting the individual rails and driving in spikes built him up and had him physically prepared for the rigors of military life when he joined the Army Air Force in 1945 shortly before the war ended.

Now 86 years old and living in Grantsville, West Virginia, my dad likes to tell the story of how he and co-workers were caught on a bridge as a train approached. They had to cling to the bridge structure beneath the rails until the train passed. So was the life of a railroad man back in the 1940s.

When I was about 10 dad bought me an H&O model railroad set. He built a simple layout on a plywood tabletop. He laid out a small village with streets. We bought houses, stores, a gas station and school for the village. Of course he bought a depot as well. Other extras included a mountain tunnel, telephone poles, trees, cars and people so I could populate the village. For a later Christmas, he bought me an older model train engine that would have been seen in late 19th century America.

During one birthday I opened up a present and discovered a toy telegraph. It’s only now as an adult that I realize he was trying to introduce me to the family’s railroad heritage. The depot duties of my Great-Grandpa Louis and Grandpa Bud included operating the telegraph. The dots and dashes coming over the telegraph line gave them the news that let them keep the depot train schedules up to date.

Wilmington's Downtown Union Station
It’s fabulous that many towns are restoring their old train depots. I live now in a place steeped in railroad history and lore. On the northern waterfront of downtown Wilmington, North Carolina, the local community college has just finished constructing what it calls Union Station. The educational building sits on the site of the original Union Railroad Station, the pride and joy of the Atlantic Coastline Railroad (ACL), which had its corporate headquarters in downtown Wilmington until it left for Jacksonville, Florida, in 1960.

The ACL, now known as CSX, is the descendant of one of America’s most famous railroad companies – the Wilmington & Weldon Railroad. At the time of its completion, the line was the longest railroad in the world with 161.5 miles of track. Two of the depots along the track, one in Burgaw and one in Wallace, have been restored and are being used by each town’s chamber of commerce. They are the downtown focal points of two festivals, Burgaw’s North Carolina Blueberry Festival and Wallace’s Carolina Strawberry Festival.
Many families like mine can trace their roots back to railroading. While farming was important in 19th and 20th century America, the railroads were what linked us together and made it possible for us to be one country, not like balkanized Europe. I’m proud of my railroad forbearers.


  1. My paternal grandfather was Irish. Around 1904 he left Cavan, Ireland, and went to Glasgow, Scotland and worked at the Railway yards. Some of his family ended up in the US but I haven't found out yet if the railway had anything to do with their move.

    1. Sounds like you have some interesting research to do, Nancy.

  2. I don't know if I have an railroaders, but my husband's Dad rode the train to work in the lumber business. My Dad worked on Riverboats and my Mom's Dad owned boats that carried fur traders and merchandise up and down the Ohio River. My Dad's dad was a coal miner. Interesting history. Cher'ley

    1. I've always been fascinated by the barges being towed up and down the Ohio River. One time my dad and I were down on the river in Marietta and saw the Delta Queen. A fabulous moment. It was playing music. I believe I was in college when the barge blew at Parkersburg, I think.

  3. I love the fact that your grandparents were/are a direct link to the old west. It still boggles me that Wyatt Earp was still alive in 1930 or thereabouts. And I agree, a railroad is special.

    1. Reminds me of the James Garner movie where he played Wyatt Earp, I believe, investigating a Hollywood murder with movie star Tom Mix. Also like Garner in Maverick back when I was a kid in the late 50s watching the series with my dad.

    2. I enjoyed Maverick, too. Also Bonanza though it went down the pan after Pernell (Roberts?) left. Damn it. Adam Pernell maybe? The guy in the black shirt. And who the hell was that cowboy who only drank sarsparilla?

    3. Here in the States the Western Channel shows lots of the old Westerns including Maverick and Bonanza. Also Gunsmoke, Have Gun Will Travel, Wyatt Earp, Sugarfoot, Cheyanne, Rawhide. I will occasionally watch Gunsmoke ... it has aged well. We use to joke about Bonanza ... if Daddy Bonanza or one of his three kids got married, the bride would always die by the end of the one-hour show. Perhaps if one had lasted long enough to have a kid and then had kicked the bucket, maybe the show could have had a spinoff.

  4. Childhood ghosts. Thank you. And Sugar foot it was that drank that girly drink :)