That Whistle Down the Line. Or Not.

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Mary Anne Zak

Mary Anne Zak

Singing at his workbench, my father painted a little Lionel passenger train, a second-hand treasure. Engine and cars emerged from worn yellow into fresh green. But the original remains yellow in my memory with nostalgia for all of the Lionels I‘ve ever loved.

A vintage ad from a 1940s Baltimore Sun describes a Lionel steam locomotive freight train: “B&O steam locomotive blows real smoke; plus tender! rocket car*maintenance car*helicopter car*caboose*” etc. The price of the 40s Lionel freight train was “$23.98. $4.98 value.” Sale price? For real smoke?

Rocket and helicopter cars bemuse, inviting further investigation, but the sound and history of caboose rivets. Wikipedia (post 40s,) says a caboose was a “…kitchen on the deck of a ship or a car for the crew at the end of a train. “ Contemporary Wikipedia shows a helicopter car as a game and a rocket car as a 1969 attraction at a Cleveland amusement park.

Our childhood passenger Lionel had no caboose. But it had an endearing whistle which hoarsely and gallantly heralded its approach as it moved around our Christmas tree. Years later I wished I had that train and came close to buying a miniature.

But now having moved to East SuffieId, I have real trains in my life! Full-size trains! When winter’s trees don’t hide the tracks, I can see them and count cars to my heart’s content.

Steve Sorrow, chief of Suffield’s Canal Park, produced a schedule of trains passing between Springfield to Windsor Locks. Every day 24 trains travel in sight of Suffield by the River. On early weekday mornings and weekends, and from mid-morning until high noon, five go south and two north. Schedules change yearly on April 1. (Original railroad routes were planned for the Suffield side of the Connecticut River, as were plans for highway route I-91. Plans changed.)

Northbound freights numbering up to 150 cars are called “trash trains.” Transporting non-degradable cargos from Stamford, Bridgeport, and New Haven to West Springfield, they switch to tracks headed to an abandoned mine in Kentucky.

Twice every afternoon, once north and once south, the Vermonter serves the St. Albans -Washington, D.C. route with five to ten passenger cars. Steve Sorrow says, “You will know it …because it … is the longest passenger train every day! … often late .”

Not all trains signal approach or departure. When they do blow whistles, the power is electricity rather than vintage steam. Depending on weather conditions, the whistles can carry into Suffield.

Steam engines and whistles enjoy life in the nostalgia of “Chattanooga Choo Choo”, “The Atchison-Topeka and the Santa Fe” and “The Wabash Cannonball”. Happily we can relish them on You-tube.

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