My love for trains began before I really knew my ancestral history.

When I was about sixteen, living in Helena Montana, I caught a freight train for a three hour ride.


My good friend Matt Marsolek and I were up helping his Dad pull six-foot logs out of the forest one early summer day. Matt and I had met in junior high choir, singing under Mr. Tuckerman’s directing with J.V. Bennett III, Joe Cislo and Mike Marsolek. A couple years later Mr. Tuckerman and I would smoke filterless Chesterfields onstage at Grand Street Theater as gangsters in Grease.

It was hot – sweaty – and hard work pulling the timber down, rolling it up side logs into the back of his Dad’s pickup. That afternoon, loaded up and suspension leafs squeaking, we headed back to town.

As we turned onto Highway 12 in Avon (2000 US Census population of 124 – who knows back in 1980), a dusty stretch of about 50 homes, a log yard and a couple stores, Matt’s Dad noticed a long freight train standing still on the side track. He turned to us and asked if we wanted to ride the train back to town. Of course, we turned him down [snark]!

Three Burlington Northern GP9 engines, in classic green/white coloration, were parked outside the Avon Cafe. We pulled up and went inside. His Dad started talking as we sat with the two engineers while they finished their coffee. An aside: I’ve always loved dusty town diner counters with a sassy waitress, a tv at the end, and a couple ranchers talking shop and politics.

We were pretty surprised when the engineers agreed to let us ride! “Don’t touch a f…ing thing!” one of them said as they put us in the second engine. Hence begat my love affair with the power of massive diesel locomotives.

The noise in a freight engine is immense. The vibration would over-stimulate Gaia. The smell of grease and smoke sharp, acrid on the back of the throat. We rolled back and hitched up, then started out a very slow climb into the mountains.


This segment of track isn’t hardly used today except to park empty rail cars. Back then it was a short haul link up towards Great Falls and the Highline. The length from Avon to Helena took about three hours. Matt and I spent time in the cab.. and then stepped out onto the decking. Going about 40 mph, we were suddenly whisked into a tunnel – a very long-assed tunnel. If we had leaned against the rail and put our arm out we could have touched the rock blowing by.

The noise and exhaust were unlike anything I’d ever experienced. Thunderous, constant blasting of laboring mighty engines. Trapped diesel exhaust smoking us like pigs. Bursting out at 40 mph onto a hundred foot tall trestle in the late afternoon – shooting from the tunnel like spray from a firehose – spooking and scattering a herd of elk in the back country.

Later, as we rolled into Helena, the engineer slowed just before meeting Montana Avenue, to have us jump off. Years later, when I first lived in Portland OR, I would go down late at night to the freight yards with an airline bottle of whiskey and touch the slow moving freights as they shuffled out onto the main lines.


Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad poster for lands in southwest Kansas A circular of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad promotes land sales and settlement in southeast Kansas. The advertisement states the climate of southeast Kansas is ideal for farming and ranching. The illustration contrasts prairie versus woodland settlements, and cites the extraordinary growth of cottonwood trees on Polk Street in Topeka. The German language reference indicates the railroad’s intent to appeal to European emigrants. The circular demonstrates the important role railroad companies performed as promoters of the settlement and agricultural development of the west.


Kingman Arizona is named after my great great uncle, Lewis Kingman. Lewis was one of four surveyors of the Santa Fe Railroad. He was primarily responsible for surveying along the Atlantic and Pacific right of way between Needles and Albuquerque. Lewis Kingman supervised the building of the railroad from Winslow to Beale’s Springs, which is near the present location of the city of Kingman. There is an account of the Santa Fe getting bogged down in a six month shooting war in southern Colorado with the Great Northern. Eventually the US Cavalry was sent in to put a stop to the bloodshed.


Lewis ran track gangs like this above, fought Bat Masterson, Pancho Villa and the Native Americans to build this line. About fifteen years ago we had a family reunion down in New Mexico. At the little museum in Cimmaron, I found photos of Lewis drinking whiskey in the local hotel saloon with Bat Masterson (I guess back then after you fought – you drank, or maybe it’s the other way around).

There’s a great history on the Santa Fe RR at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atchison,_Topeka_and_Santa_Fe_Railway

There’s a wonderful history of the Burlington Northern at http://www.trainweb.org/screamingeagle/gallery/cbq.html

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