The other night Marilyn and I joined the Rullmans to watch Murder on the Orient Express. It was a pleasant diversion, which is just what it was supposed to be. While I certainly admire Poirot’s spectacular mustache (and, indeed, who would not?) my favorite character was the train.
Look at that magnificent thing…
Steam engines are one of the glories of the Industrial Revolution, and they certainly revolutionized frontiers around the globe — and the Frontier Partisan warfare that determined the fate of the empires the railroads stitched together. We live in an era of rapid technological change, but no change has ever been more significant than the advent of the railroad. The Transcontinental Railroad, completed in 1869, made it possible to cross the North American Continent in a matter of days in safety and comfort, where a pioneering wagon train took months and risked life and limb. The railroads made large-scale commercial agriculture viable, and the great cattle drives that made the cowboy an international symbol of the American spirit were all about moving cattle to a railhead and thence on to the massive stockyards and slaughterhouses of Chicago.
My maternal grandpa’s first trip away from home was a trek on the railroad to deliver cattle from the North Dakota ranch to Chicago. My paternal grandfather worked in the tangle of rails that was the switching yards in Los Angeles during the 1930s and ’40s.
Some folks are obsessed with trains and railroads. That’s not me. But I do love the things. I grew up riding the Ghost Town steam train at Knott’s Berry Farm, and I can still conjure up the delicious hot, wet greasy smell of the thing. I put my coppers down on the track and ended up with a penny smashed flatter than a dime, just like Guy Clark said.
Laying the rails for thousands and thousands of miles of line across the wild lands of the world fell to the low status folk of the 19th century. Black men, Indian coolies, Chinamen, Irishmen. The shantytowns rang with their songs and their fights…
The railroads quickly became vital strategic assets. Armies began moving by train during the American Civil War, and by the time the First World War rolled around railroad timetables were the essential strategic consideration, and the reason that mobilization meant war. Once the trains were rolling, you couldn’t pull back. Pancho Villa’s Division del Norte rode to glory on the line that ran from Juarez into the heart of Mexico. Perhaps his greatest tactical feat was rolling a “Trojan Train” backwards into Juarez in 1913 (read more about it in my Warriors of the Wild Lands: True Tales of the Frontier Partisans).
In East Africa, the British Uganda Railway — better known as the Lunatic Line or the Lunatic Express — penetrated into wild lands, and was almost halted by the predations of a pair of man-eating lions who developed a taste for coolies. The slaying of those lions was dramatized in The Ghost and the Darkness.
Riding on the front of an engine was common practice in East Africa. It was a fine way to see the country and the game that roamed right along the tracks. Theodore Roosevelt shared this magnificent seat on a trek through Kenya with the great Frontier Partisan Frederick Courteney Selous.
T.E. Lawrence made his bones in the Arab Revolt blowing up trains. The wreckage is still out there, preserved by the desiccated conditions of the Arabian desert.
One of my dreams is to one day take one of Tom Russell’s train trips — music on the rails. Two of my favorite things.