Today, let's ride on the railroad. The University
of Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
Do you remember the song,
Do you remember the melancholy of trains
bearing us away over the great sprawl of Mid-America?
I can still taste the crawling despair that closed me
in as I rode the train from college in Seattle to
Basic Training in Virginia. I thought, then, that
nothing worse would ever befall me. Maybe trains were
melancholy because they gave us so much more time to
think than airplanes do.
Ol' clickety clack,
Comes echoin' back,
The Blues in the Night.
Yet those old machines rode with a simple
rough-hewn majesty. In 1855, Walt Whitman wrote To a
Locomotive in Winter:
Type of the Modern -- emblem of motion and power
pulse of the continent,
Law of thyself complete, thine own track firmly
holding,The steam locomotive was so evocative.
Trains shaped our nation psychically at the same time
they shaped us physically.
Thy trills of shrieks by rocks and hills
Launch'd o'er the prairies wide, across the
To the free skies unpent and glad and strong.
Look at Chicago. Railroads made that city. Chicago
wasn't much when we began running cattle on the
First we'd load livestock on trains and send them
East. They rode the old cattle cars with slatted
open sides. They'd arrive hungry, thin -- sometimes
even dead. So we developed special fast trains for
livestock. Next we created "humane" cattle cars
with feed trays and water troughs.
All the while, Chicago laid claim to that trade. By
the Civil War, Chicago was the greatest rail yard
in the world. Then, in 1880, rail technology
changed the game again. That's when refrigerated
cars came into use. Now we could slaughter animals
in the West. Now we could ship carcasses to the
packing houses. And Chicago became, in Carl
Sandburg's words, "hog butcher for the world."
So specialized rolling stock changed American
commerce. We saw live poultry cars, ore cars, even
pickle and vinegar cars.
And I'd go down to the tracks behind the house. I'd
lay a penny on the track, hunker in the bushes, and
study the mighty thunder of passing cars. At last
I'd stand, wave at the flagman in the caboose, and
retrieve my penny -- now squashed to the diameter
of a demi-tasse saucer.
Why do trains speak the melancholy of separation
and loss so eloquently? In the end, I suppose it is
the loss of childhood that I grieve when I recall
those great screaming, roaring, hissing engines --
of so long ago.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
White, J.H., Jr., Changing Trains. American
Heritage of Invention and Technology, Vol.7,
No.1, Spring/Summer 1991, pp. 34-41.
The Walt Whitman poem is taken from: Whitman, W.,
The Leaves of Grass. New York:
Doubleday, Doran & Co., Inc., 1940, p. 286.
Image courtesy of Margaret
Great Union Stock Yards in the early 20th
largest Stock Market on Earth, Chicago, IL
Photo by John Lienhard
And today, we go to model railroad builders to find
scenes like this.
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John
H. Lienhard. All Rights Reserved.
University Libraries, University of
Houston, Houston, TX 77204-2091.
Episode | Search Episodes |