Trains of Thought

31 10 2010

One of the most obvious changes in Princeton since the days of my childhood is the rerouting and reengineering of the roadways. In the late 1950s on up through the present day, President Eisenhower’s vision for the interstate highway system has continued to grow, altering the travel and commerce patterns of America.  I know there are valid arguments on both sides as to the benefits and drawbacks of this trend; I understand both positions.

Back in the day, when I was growing up before interstate highways crossed the Midwest, one of the nation’s Mother Roads, Highway 41, ran north and south through Princeton.  That meant that everything from car parts manufactured in Chicago to concentrated orange juice from Florida came through Princeton.  That cartage was not the exclusive domain of the highways in Princeton.

Princeton was a railroad town.  In fact, two major rail lines intersected in Princeton. The Chicago & Eastern Illinois (C&EI) and the Southern railroads ran on tracks that for all practical purposes surrounded Princeton.  Not only were there multiple tracks skirting and bisecting Princeton but the Southern had a very large maintenance facility located on the south edge of town.  That facility was commonly referred to as “the shops.”  My maternal grandfather worked as a boilermaker at the shops repairing steam locomotives.  I have only limited memories of steam-powered engines chugging along the tracks and my grandfather coming home from work covered with soot.

All of the trains and all of the traffic traversing Highway 41 made for traffic jams that simple would not be tolerated today in our current, “I’m late, I’m late for a very important date.” society.  In fact, getting caught by a train on the Southern track that crossed Highway 41 could end up in a wait well over an hour if the train was “switching.”  Switching refers to the process by which a train is actually put together. Apparently, there is a rhyme and reason to the order in which cars are assembled in a train behind the engine.  This process would include multiple stops along with several forward and reverse movements of a train in order to couple and uncouple specific cars to achieve the desired order before the train began its journey across America.

More times than I can remember, I sat in the backseat of the family car as we waited in a line of traffic being blocked by a train.  The reality of the roadways and the train tracks at that time was that with a long enough train, there was literally no way to get into town or out of town.  I guess in the years shortly after WWII this was not such a big deal because the number of automobiles per capita on the road was not what it is today.

During those long waits for the trains to clear the crossing, I remember being absolutely bored to tears.  In order to help fill the time, my parents created some games that focused on the train and held my attention for what could be a long wait. If the train was moving at a steady pace the game was to simply count the number of cars on the train and write it down to compare with the next inevitable wait at the train crossing.  If the train was switching which involved long periods of time when the train did not move, the game was to read on the sides of the train cars when each was constructed or refurbished.  Since the train was moving slowly as in stopped or creeping along, reading the small print on the side of the boxcars and tankers was not a difficult task.  The only time that the date game became difficult was when our car was not close enough to the crossing to easily see the dates.  We solved that be carrying an old brass spyglass that my dad got from his grandfather–problem solved. As long as the people at the front of the line of traffic kept their headlights on at night we could make out the dates.  If, as many people did, the drivers in the line of traffic turned off their cars, then boredom was inescapable.

Today, the shops are shut down and Highway 41 bypasses Princeton as a nice dual-lane.  The old route of the highway has been reengineered as an overpass crossing the tracks.  No one has to stop for the trains on the Southern tracks but no one gets to play the games of my childhood either.  I guess those games do not compare to Gameboy or Leapster but still, I think something has been lost.





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