Confessions of a 19th Century Train Driver

“She’ll be coming ‘round the mountain when she comes, she’ll be coming ‘round the mountain when she comes”, well, this song, the modern version of it anyway, is about a train. You can imagine the excitement building in small towns and hamlets, as trains full of new things and people made their way around the mountain to your home. The 19th century train driver was an important personage with a lot of responsibility and status to go with it. It was his train coming around that mountain, bearing goods and passengers, which, just might, positively impact that town.

Train drivers (engineers in American parlance) were responsible for checking the rail worthiness of all the carriages and the mechanical operation of the train. The train engineer had his brakeman and conductor to assist him on the journey, as they made their way ‘round that mountain. Occasionally, some drivers would stop their trains to pick up contraband and be paid by smugglers and black market operators as well as having their carriages cleaned by the local spotless cleaning company. Much like this kind of stuff continues to this day, with transnational bus drivers and twenty first century train drivers. Although GPS tracking is now making unscheduled stops far more dangerous for nefarious drivers of all modes of transportation.

What about the land equivalent for the sailor with a girl in every port? The confessions of the 19th century train driver did include the odd interlude with a lady of the night. A vacant carriage and with the support of the assistant driver that rolling stock could really rock ‘n roll. Trains are particularly suited to rhythmic activities and the chug chug of those grinding wheels just keep on and on. Lots of girls love a uniform with shiny buttons and the attentions of an important man. “She’ll be coming ‘round the mountain when she comes”, you know the rest of the song.

Train engineers in the nineteenth century also faced the dangers of bandits and train robbers, as they often carried the wages and valuables of companies across the land. These trains were the life blood of commerce and industry all over America, distributing the wealth. Criminal gangs would target these gold laden trains, as they made their steady way from east to west and north to south. The engine driver and his underlings would need to be ever vigilant, armed and on the lookout for signs of impending danger. It was a time of life and death in the frontier towns.


The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas

The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas started out life as a Broadway Musical in the late nineteen seventies and was a smash hit with the American public. It was translated into a film starring Dolly Parton, as the Madame of the Chicken Ranch, the town’s local brothel. Burt Reynolds, another American big time movie star of the era played the town’s sheriff, who has an understanding and a part time relationship with Dolly’s character. Nineteen eighty two was the year that the film was released and it was the highest grossing musical film of the decade.

The story could be considered a light hearted look at American morals in the public realm in the modern era. The Chicken Ranch is a long running institution within the fictional Texan town and the sheriff turns a blind eye to its activities; and he and Dolly’s character are lovers on the side. A celebrity television personality decides to do an expose on the town and reveals to a large audience the existence of the Chicken Ranch. The brothel is the place where the winning Texas college football team is traditionally brought to celebrate its victory. The media attention creates a wave of public disapproval and negativity towards the town.

Burt Reynolds’s character, the sheriff, convinces Miss Mona (Dolly Parton) to close the brothel’s doors until the bad publicity blows over. She agrees but secretly allows the winning football team to have their traditional whoring celebration, but the TV star and cameras ambush them and film the goings on. Ed Earl (Burt Reynolds) assaults Melvin P. Thorpe (Dom DeLouise) the TV personality and quarrels with Miss Mona, calling her a whore. The Governor of Texas is called upon to make a decision regarding outback brothels, but he is portrayed as too weak to make a decision without the support of voter’s polling on the situation.

The movie ends with the director having it both ways, as the reconciled lovers come together and Ed proposes marriage, but Miss Mona turns him down because she knows he wants to run for state legislature; her prostitution background would hurt his chances. In a voice over at the conclusion of the film, the audience is told that Ed was successful in his political bid and that the couple married happily; a truly American fairy story.







Best Rail Trips on Planet Earth: Marketing the Railroad Adventure

Some people get excited when they hop aboard a blowing billy, a real choo choo train, and embark upon a journey by rail. Whether it be the grind and roll of those metallic wheels on a track, or the cultural association of train travel down through modern history, there is a frission in the air for these train buffs. Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie comes quickly to mind and I also think of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina departing tear stained by train in Russia. The heaving metallic beast, smoke emerging from its chimney, contrasting the white snow of a Moscow winter; somehow makes train travel romantic.

What are some of the best rail trips on planet earth: marketing the rail road adventure? The Orient Express sadly ceased to operate in two thousand and nine; best to get the bad news out of the way early I thought. Product development in this niche tourism market has expanded rapidly and some of the offerings are incredible. The Bergen Line in Norway is so breath taking, passing glaciers, fjords and peaks from Oslo to Bergen, that the train employs five different breaking systems. Alternatively, the Bernina Express is the slowest scary train ride you will ever take, crossing over one hundred and ninety six bridges over chasms and plunging down mountains, and boring through fifty five tunnels, and climbs two thousand two hundred and fifty three metres over the Albula Pass to St Moritz.

In Australia, the Ghan, named after the Afghan camel trains which used to transports goods and messages between Adelaide and Darwin, travels one thousand eight hundred and fifty two miles through the middle of this vast continent. In South America, in Peru, the Cuzco to Manchu Picchu train journeys fifty miles through spectacular scenery through the Andes Mountains. In the US the Coast Starlight, a double decker train, goes from Seattle to Los Angeles, and it is a grand rail experience with fine dining amid breath taking views of this dramatic scenery.

In India, the Siliguri to Darjeeling steam train chugs its way with antique charm up to the hill station and offers amazing views of the Himalayas and teak forests and gardens. One, generally, does not think of parts of Britain being wild, but Glasgow to Maillaig in Scotland by train will change your mind. The Rannoch moor is so inhospitable that no road crosses it, and there are castle ruins, and mountains and Loch Lomond; dramatic vistas abound.


The Railroad as a Lifeline to Rural Communities

When the railroad went through a township it put it on the map, literally, and it meant money and jobs. Lines of transports can offer trade, passengers and employment for locals. In the past, the railway was a lifeline to rural communities. Farmers could shift their produce by train and cattle ranchers could get their animals to market. The railroad was the first land based cost effective transportation system; it was reasonably fast and very reliable. The railways offered means of migration for Americans to economically move from one region to another, one town to another.

Freight trains in America are still a big part of the transport equation, competing with trucks for the haulage dollar. The railroad as a lifeline to rural communities is still a true statement, even today, in the twenty first century. There is talk about very fast trains for high speed travel but these are yet to win community approval through proper environmental channels. The transnational railroads remain the main routes across the country carrying goods and raw materials to their markets.

What are their lives like in Middle America, in these rural communities linked up by the networks of railroads? There are perceptions of some children in rural communities as having learning difficulties due to environmental factors. What are these environmental issues and are they connected to the rail lines criss crossing the country? Any talk of high speed trains has been constantly blocked by reports of high noise/vibration pollution damaging residents who live near or on these tracks. In European nations like Sweden their high speed trains are denied access to the lines during the hours of the night when nearby residents are sleeping.

People or progress? It has been an ongoing debate for decades now, as local communities and environmental groups stand up for their rights against the multinational corporations who want to invest in infrastructure and profit from it. Is the modern railroad going to be a lifeline or a scar in the lives and lands of rural America? Reports of rolling bombs carrying crude oil derailing and devastating towns in North America are reaching the world, as oil filled rail tankers crash and the ensuing explosions kill dozens of local residents. There are two sides to the rail debate and what was once a wholly positive story now has some dark aspects to it. There are no easy solutions to the dilemma these country folk now face; economics or safety, or can a combination of both be found?

Old Timers: Frontier Myth, Archetype or Cliché?

In nearly every American western movie we have a character who is an ‘old timer’, the grizzled, grey whiskered old man who embodies what this harsh environment can do to a human being. Our old timer may be a drunk, awash with whiskey, or he may be the wise old man, the survivor who has endured and can offer advice to the movie’s protagonist. How true is this representation of the elderly in the Wild West?

Old timers: frontier myth, archetype or cliché? Are the portrayals of old timers in American western movies dignified portrayals or are they ageist? In a land offering few creature comforts, very few women but whores, and men who lacked the teachers, role models and education when it came to diet and health, it is highly likely that these people aged comparatively quickly and in general did not live into great old age. These are generalisations of course and there are records of pioneers who did live to great old age, but the majority of men lived hard and short lives. Even today, unmarried men live statistically shorter lives than their married brothers do; the influence of a nurturing woman is there to be seen.

Movies are visual representations of stories and the archetypal narratives often contain an aged character. Ernest Hemmingway wrote many stories with old men at the centre of the plot. Shakespeare famously has King Lear as the central character in the eponymously titled play. Prospero is another old man, Falstaff is getting on, as is Sir Toby, John of Gaunt in Richard II is an old man, and many others. The Christian Bible, which is far more relevant to the American psyche is chock full of old men, especially the Old Testament. Old means wise in the Bible and living for nine hundred and sixty nine years, as Methuselah did, puts many of the old timers in westerns well into the shade.

There wasn’t any superannuation in the Wild West only gold panning, cattle rustling, cowboying, psychologists and the like; and none of these offered lengthy career prospects, let alone any pension of any sort. Life was lived hard and if a bullet didn’t kill you, disease and or an accident would. Our comfy homes and occupations today are at a far remove from the realities of the frontier towns of yesteryear; which is why we mythologise these characters who may have survived the vicissitudes of a life full of varmints and vermin with just their Colt 44 by their side.


The Impact of Rail on the American Environment

Most environmental agencies see rail as a preferred means of transportation when compared to road. The transportation of freight in America is primarily done by both trucks and trains, and environmentalists, generally, see rail as a lower air polluter and a positive contributor to reducing traffic from highways and cities. Passenger rail is likewise seen as a smart way to move large numbers of people around energy efficiently. Rail in America has a great history and was one of the key elements in the industrial expansion of the nation during the nineteenth century.

The railway moguls of the nineteenth century made huge amounts of money and contributed to high employment levels in the US, with rail being the largest employer outside of the agriculture industry. Names like Vanderbilt and JP Morgan became well known around the country as giants of American industry and wealth. The American rail business employed over two million people at one point early in the twentieth century. This number had fallen to two hundred thousand by the twenty first century due to the computerisation of rail throughout the country.

High speed rail as an idea has become popular in the US, but not as a reality, as in many other countries around the globe. There has been a strong backlash against these trains based on the noise and vibration pollution they produce. In America the EPA has developed noise/vibration measures to limit the unrestrained expansion of high speed rail into affected high density residential areas. In some European countries high speed trains can only run during daylight hours and not in the hours when most people would be sleeping.

Trains, which are carrying large amounts of crude oil as freight, and then crashing, have become hot topics with environmental groups recently in the US. Eco-groups on social media are calling these trains rolling bombs and are calling for them to be banned and/or much tighter controls placed on their movements. The amount of oil freight on rail has increased substantially in the last six years and so the dangers posed have also increased. A tanker freight train carries much more oil than a road tanker and when it derails it can damage huge areas; half a town in one case in Canada in 2013.

Rail has waned over the last century as a means of long distance passenger transportation, being replaced by aeroplanes. It is still seen as an energy efficient means of short distance transport in cities and it can reduce gridlock on the roads. The high speed train was seen as a new answer to long distance passenger travel but noise/vibration pollution concerns in residential areas have been vociferously raised to block expansion. The movement of freight on rail is seen as a preferred method by environmental agencies, but with potentially dangerous substances like crude oil being involved much greater safety precautions must be strenuously enforced on the industry.

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