Railroad nostalgia

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

(Once again I found one of Bob Reed's posts on the Marcus Blogspot so delightful that I knew it deserved a wider audience. With Bob's permission, I have cut it a bit to fit this space. No matter which of the area towns you called home, I know you will enjoy this delightful piece of nostalgia.)

Chook-ita Chook-ita Chook-ita

That--to me--was the rhythmic sound of a train as it rolled past the Marcus Depot, or as it lulled me to sleep aboard one of the passenger cars. It was hypnotic.

Growing up in the 1930s and '40s, trains were a big part of my life and that of everyone else in town. My dad was the Illinois Central Depot Agent for nearly twenty years.

The large handsome, brick building was constructed in 1916. It replaced a smaller wooden one that had been built in 1870, just before the town was platted. The new one cost $10,000 and the princely sum was an indication of the rising economic importance of Marcus business to the IC Railroad.

It was not unusual to see seventeen or twenty cars loaded with corn, grain, hogs and cattle and shipped out in one day to feed the eastern markets. It was a bonanza time for elevators, stockyards down by the depot--and the farmers.

Sometimes the sellers accompanied their product, riding in the red caboose. They returned with tall tales, reporting that "everything was up to date" in whatever metropolis they landed--Sioux City or Chicago.

The depot also served as the primary importer of groceries, furniture, implements, even coal. Box cars were unloaded and deliveries made by dray wagon around town. Before interstates made trucking a real option, most consumer goods came by train.

During the blizzards of 1936 when all other access to town was closed, my dad spent days and nights at the depot, coordinating relief trains, while volunteers dug them out as they tried to get essential goods into Marcus.

The place also served as main communicator with the outside world. Telegraph messages of births, weddings, illnesses and deaths were sent and received in the days before the "long-distance" phone was economically feasible. The depot's clock was the community timepiece; each day the office received the official Greenwich time from Washington D.C.

Our citizens also departed for visits to nearby communities or far-off places with strange sounding names, as the Conductor cried, "All aboard." As riders endured the coal-driven ash, adjusted to the rolling gait of the car they enjoyed the passing landscape in 3-D.

I was one fortunate kid. Each summer my dad got "passes" on other lines and we traveled all over the US on his vacations. I saw smoky inner-city backsides and new suburbs, waterfalls and canyons, and brown tranquil plains transforming into mountains. By the time I was 14, I had been in forty of the forty-eight states. And I saw people. Hundreds of them. All going somewhere, as friendly as could be, forming a temporary community.

Abraham Lincoln's dream of a transcontinental railroad forging a national unity had been realized. As trains crossed borders, boundaries disappeared.

Folks became egalitarian and talkative, sharing snacks and intimate conversations. It was a town square, a neighborhood tavern, a moving meeting place.

Sadly those were the days of fading innocence. After 101 years, passenger service was discontinued in 1971 and the brick depot destroyed in 1995.

They still ship some grain from Marcus and it's still possible to cross our country via train. It takes four days. Does anyone have the time? If they do, I hope they will hear (as I occasionally do in falling asleep) that wondrous sound--chook-ita chook-ita chook-ita.

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