From the Editor
My Life on Trains
By Bennette D. Kramer
After the death of my father last year I started thinking about train travel. My father and I shared a love of trains. His arose from his years as a director of, and legal counsel to, two railroads and mine from much train travel beginning at an early age. My father became the director of the St. Louis/San Francisco Railroad when I was quite young and we were living in Chicago. He went on the board at the urging of his old friend Louis Menk, who was the president of the Frisco. After the Frisco Railroad was acquired by Burlington Northern in 1980, Dad became a director and legal counsel to the Burlington Northern.
Because Dad was the director of a railroad, our family traveled everywhere by train for free. As the oldest of five children, I frequently was put on the train to visit grandparents. When we lived in Chicago, I traveled to Kansas City alone to visit my grandparents who lived there. We moved from Chicago to Kansas City when I was 11, so I must have been traveling alone at eight, nine, and 10. I do not have a clear recollection of those trips, but do remember kind Pullman porters (we received free Pullman tickets, too), who helped me pull down the bed and let me know where we were. I always was a great reader so I would dive into the books I had brought along. The thought of sending a child on an overnight train trip by herself at the age of eight or nine would horrify most modern parents, but my parents did not seem to worry at all.
On the Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe
After my family moved to Kansas City, I traveled by train to visit my other grandparents who lived in Tucson, Arizona – a much longer trip. I remember quite a few visits to Tucson where my retired grandfather owned and ran an apartment complex, where his Chicago friends came to spend the winter. I traveled on the Santa Fe Railroad (the Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad), now part of the Burlington Northern, Santa Fe Railroad. The train trips were long – several days – and I read, talked to fellow passengers, and ate in the dining car. Again, I remember the Pullman porters as kind and friendly men who would lend a hand when necessary and let me know where we were. I remember traveling through Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. The landscape became drier and more deserted the further west we went. I read many books during those trips. I must have traveled during school vacations. I do remember being in Tucson in the summer when it was very hot, probably in June before the family traveled to Michigan.
On summer trips to Michigan, my mother and younger siblings would travel overnight by train from Kansas City to Joliet, Illinois, and one or two of my sisters and I would drive with my father. We would pick up my mother along with my brother and sister in the morning and drive the rest of the way to our house in Michigan. In those days, the Interstate Highway System had just begun, so the roads we traveled were two lanes and very slow.
I continued my trips to visit my grandparents in Tucson throughout high school. I loved the Tucson of those days in the 1950s and early 1960s. It was a relatively small town and my grandfather was a big fish – on the board of the University of Arizona and dedicated to contributing to the city of Tucson. He had many friends and would include me in dinners and lunches. I also would play cards and sit and talk to my grandmother for hours. For one of five children, it was a brief opportunity to be an only child.
In 1962, I went to Smith College. There was never any question that I would travel back and forth between Kansas City and Northampton, Massachusetts, by train. There was not a direct connection between Kansas City and Northampton, like the connection between Kansas City and Tucson, so I would travel to St. Louis or Chicago, change trains, and then go to New York City, where I would catch a train from New York to Northampton. I always went home for Christmas and mostly for spring vacation. I made every trip except for the last one by train. Airline travel was becoming more regular and less expensive, so my period on the train started during the high point of train travel and ended as train travel was winding down. The end of the train travel era occurred with the cancellation of railway postal contracts in the mid-1960s, just as I was graduating from college.
I enjoyed most of my trips back and forth between Kansas City and Northampton. The trips to school seemed long as I went through Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts. I developed a good sense of Midwestern and Eastern geography and got a lot of reading done. I was glad to get to school at last. I always spent the trips home after exams sleeping and enjoyed the decompression time.
My train trips, particularly the early ones, took place during the heyday of train travel. There were plenty of trains going my way and it was relatively easy to travel across the country. The trains were full. The food in the dining cars was good (at least to my uncultured palate) and the dining experience very civilized. I must admit that the opportunity to always travel on a Pullman car enhanced my train experience.
The increasing availability and convenience of air travel with the advent of jet planes in the 1960s spelled the end of train travel as I had experienced it in the 1950s and early 1960s. Now, train travel is often more expensive than air travel and schedules are unreliable. Part of the problem today is that many tracks have been abandoned and passenger trains share tracks with freight trains. Freight trains have priority, so passenger trains are often put onto side tracks to wait for freight trains to pass. Thus, passenger trains are often interrupted to wait for freight trains.
From time to time, I have tried to go one place or another by train, only to discover that the times were inconvenient and the cost was almost prohibitive. For example, in 1999, my father, his wife, my sister and her husband, and my husband and I tried to travel from San Diego to San Francisco by train. The only train left at 5 a.m. and took all day. We never got into the cost. We drove instead and it took a far shorter time than the train was scheduled to take. I mourn the days of easy and convenient train travel. My time on trains was time apart, suspended between two places, two groups of people. I always had plenty of time to prepare for what was ahead.