Age of Steam
By Fred A. Reed
There was once a day when they surged across the landscape, trailing plumes of thick black smoke and white steam, puffing and hissing. Some were oily proletarian black; others streamlined and outfitted in the finest and most colourful livery as befitted their status as aristocrats of the rails.
But today, all that remains are relics gathering dust or rust in open air museums, cared for by old men who affect seersucker caps and coveralls. There they languish inert, relics of an age long departed, the age of steam.
Mine has been the good fortune to witness the near-apex of that age, and the sadness upon attending to its inevitable decline. The day when trains hauled by steam locomotives of all sizes and descriptions criss-crossed the land, labouring up long grades or rushing in utter silence at full steam along coasts and riversides. They hauled freight of every description and in empty boxcars, hobos and travellers of meagre fortune. They transported, in their passenger coaches, the high and the mighty; the modest and the humble.
Pasadena, my hometown—and particularly what had been Rancho San Rafael, a bucolic corner of paradise wedged between oak-forested hills, where we lived—lay close to several major local and transcontinental lines. To the west, the suburb of Glendale hosted the last Southern Pacific line station before Los Angeles.
How well I came to know—and love—its broad platform, the distant gleam of night-train headlights, the wail of the whistle and the insistent clanging of the bell; the echo of the loud-speaker system announcing imminent arrival or departure, the conductor’s cry of ‘All Aboard!’
Our father would frequently find a way to drive us—he drove an Oldsmobile back then, as he did until he died—to the station to wait for the northbound night trains and the southbound day trains, the elite of the SP line, painted in the Southern Pacific’s traditional red, orange and black, the colors of the locomotive matching that of the coaches. Sleek they were, and elegant and in the decade before air travel and interstate highways, the fastest way to travel between Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Just how often did our father do this? In my memory it seems like we drove there after nightfall every week, or was it once a month; or perhaps less. We would pull into the station parking lot before the train was due to arrive, and from the snack bar in the waiting room he would buy my little brother and me boxes of Cracker Jack, through which we would rummage eagerly, searching for the prize trinket that lay hidden at the bottom of the package.
Our sweet tooths satisfied we ran outside to the platform there to practice walking along the rails, then put our ear to the gleaming steel in an attempt to detect the vibrations of an approaching train. Often we succeeded, or so we believed. For it would not be long before, from far up the southbound track, we would spot the oscillating headlight and then, hear the distant whistle alert before the last level crossing: two long, one short, one long blasts. At last, bell clanging, it would draw majestically into the station.
We had eyes only for the locomotive, for its huge drive wheels, for the engineer perched high up in his cab with all the pride of the labour aristocracy. It would not be long before the train got underway once more, heading for its last stop, the Los Angeles Union Station, with its immense marshalling yard. That was the place where, of a Saturday morning, father would lead us out onto the footbridges that spanned the yard, while far below us switch-engines chugged back and forth shunting boxcars and passenger coaches in clouds of smoke. Could there have been a finer sight for the two little boys that we were?
To this question there was an answer. Not far from our family home, across the Arroyo Seco and into South Pasadena, father would drive Jim and me to the Monterrey Road level crossing. There we would wait, listening on full alert for the whistle and, soon thereafter, the violent puffing of the engine that hauled the eastbound night freight on the Santa Fe Line. It was upgrade all the way out of Los Angeles, and the engines would be labouring under full steam as they crossed the majestic steel viaduct that spanned the flood control channel and the freeway below.
That was the moment we were waiting for. Now in full sight, roaring and hissing, the train would enter the level crossing as the wigwag signals waved up and down and the red lights flashed. There, high up in his cab sat the engineer, minding the pressure gauges and peering down the tracks, ever vigilant.
But in the fleeing seconds that the locomotive flashed across our field of vision, he would look directly at us, flash a grin, and wave. And sound the whistle. For us, and for us alone! As it sliced through the night, the train was like the plane of time itself, heading at full velocity from the past into the future, the present but an infinitely short instant of a whistle as our heads snapped left to follow its onrush and the drop in pitch.
Family etiquette would tolerate little display of emotion or even sharing of confidences. It never occurred to us, to my late brother and to me, to ask our father why he would drive us so often to the Glendale Station, and most of all, to that South Pasadena level crossing.
To please and to thrill us, little boys that we were, was of course the answer. But only today, seventy-five years later, have I realized the whole and unvarnished truth. Not only did that reserved and quiet man do everything he could to inspire in his sons a love of steam. More, it was his own deep and enduring love for the locomotives and the trains and his concealed excitement as expressed and reflected in ours that even today throng my boyhood memories.