Need therapy? Ride the train.
Thirty-one years ago representatives of the Galesburg Chamber of Commerce, Downtown Village Council and Burlington Northern met to discuss the possibility of expanding Burlington NorthernÕs annual open house to a larger community festival. As the Downtown director at the time, I was part of the committee, along with Merle Gardner, a retired gentleman who did part-time marketing work for the downtown council. He designed the first Railroad Days poster in 1977.
The festival was popular from the beginning, growing every year, and seemed to reach its peak when the basketball tournaments on Main Street were part of the activities. But, like so many good things, the disadvantages began to outweigh the advantages. The play got rough, liability became a concern and organization of the tournament was a massive job. However, Railroad Days has truly become a community-wide festival, with events all over town and transportation provided.
I continued to be involved in the celebration, setting up and organizing booths for the Knox County Democrats, volunteering in booths of other organizations, and in 1996, campaigned up and down Main Street for State Representative. ThatÕs when I confirmed that a majority of Railroad Days attendees are visitors from other parts of the country. IÕve reached the age when I usually donÕt attend the festival, but my heart and mind are always hoping for good weather and a successful event.
In the 1950s I rode the train to and from my hometown of Kewanee to Knox College. Women always dressed up to travel in those days, so I would arrive at the old, majestic CB&Q station in Galesburg in a dress and high heels and proceed to walk to Whiting Hall with suitcase in hand. Suitcases did not have wheels. Twice a year I would get a ride to and from school because of having to transport everything I owned, but otherwise, I took the train. The ride to Kewanee was short, and as the students heading home to the Chicago area for a holiday moved to the Òclub carÓ for some serious partying, I had to stay in my seat and be good. I hated that.
Many times IÕve taken the train to Chicago, of course, and when I worked in Michigan for several summers, I walked from Union Station to the Illinois Central station with suitcase in hand, wearing a smart summer dress and white heels. I vividly remember running to catch an already moving train at the IC station and leaped onto the caboose, heels, suitcase and all, and the conductor almost had the big one. Oh, for those energetic days again.
Trains were a daily occurrence as I commuted from Oak Park to the Chicago Loop where I worked at the telephone company for four years. Women didnÕt wear slacks to work and particularly in the winter, I wore a hat and gloves on the Austin Blvd. bus and Lake Street L. For four years I stood on the same corner with the same people to catch the bus in the morning and no one ever said a word. In spite of the cold, wind, rain, snow, sleet, I wore a skirt and four inch spike heels. I lost a few heels in the cracks of the Lake Street L platform.
I love to ride trains because of the freedom to read, visit, sleep, or just stare into space. Hard to believe, but even though I take all sorts of reading material, I end up visiting with someone the whole trip. IÕve met fascinating people and heard many life stories. It is true that strangers pour their hearts out to each other, believing the listener is objective and that theyÕll never see them again. Need therapy? Ride the train.
One other lovely memory of train travel was a trip from Kewanee to Tomah, Wisconsin, where my father was stationed at Camp McCoy. A fourth grader, I was starting to feel nauseated as a group of us stood waiting for the train to stop at Tomah. All of a sudden, my hand flew up to my face and I vomited – my hand successfully spreading the joy all over everyone around me. Much to my embarrassed familyÕs relief, most of the people with us were Army nurses and werenÕt bothered much by their stinky welcome back to work.
For a long time Galesburg was the only town in the country, besides New York City, that had two Amtrak stations. GalesburgÕs place in history as a railroad center is well established and clearly our role is as important and relevant as ever.
Caroline Porter is a freelance writer from Galesburg who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.