Coast to Coast - part 2

meadville to fort wayne

Rode in the boxcar of an Erie Lackawanna freight train from Croxton Yard in Secaucus, New Jersey to Meadville, Pennsylvania (south of Erie). That boxcar had bounced the life out of me, so in Meadville I was eager to move to another car. I dismounted "the bouncer" and went to find another car to ride. Time of arrival in Meadville: mid-morning on Saturday, June 19.

After trudging past about 50 freight cars I found another boxcar that looked good. It had recently carried a load of plastic pellets. Aside from some pellets on the floor, and lots of packing paper, it was very clean. Amen! - my next ride. I threw my gear onto the floor and hoisted myself aboard, eager to continue westward in better accommodations than those I had forsaken. The long walk in the humid air had generated a fierce sweat. It was time to relax.

But where were my gloves? A check of both bags yielded nothing: they must have fallen to the ground during my trek or - God forbid - were still in the original boxcar. After all that sweaty effort, this was my reward. Of course, retrieving the gloves was just one penalty: if the train departed during this retrieval effort, I would lose the chance to ride this nicer car. Without hope there is nothing, and this was a time to hope that the train didn't pull out while I went for my gloves. Ten minutes later I had my gloves, which had fallen to the ground, and was back at the "clean" boxcar again.

When I saw a maintenance employee inspecting my train I asked him where I was and he told me "Meadville, Pennsylvania." Meadville is south of Erie. My curiosity about the nature of his work bordered on fear. In the back of my mind lurked the awful suspicion that my train had terminated. That fear was soon confirmed. When I asked him if he were draining air tanks, he replied that he was indeed. He explained that all westbound trains terminated in Meadville.

Well holy shit: I had just wasted a ton of mental and physical energy over changing cars and retrieving my gloves. On a more positive note, the man pointed out the next westbound train, two tracks over. In short order I found a nice Santa Fe boxcar with both doors wide open. It had a stack of plywood and a bundle of lading bars, but these were in the middle of the car, making the ends usable. It was relatively clean. I "set up camp" in the rear portion of the car and relaxed, satisfied with the turn of events. Still, it seemed a shame that I had gone to so much trouble for nothing. That's the name of the game with trains.

The train left Meadville, headed for Chicago. Everything in Meadville area was wet or damp from recent rain. Unbeknownst to me then was that because of a derailment in western Ohio, the train would go only as far as Delphos, Ohio.

The next place of note was Youngstown, Ohio, which, with all of its steel industry, was ugly as sin. After that was Akron, which wasn't much better. In those days, I guess I wasn't enthralled by heavy industry. The train rolled steadily westward. Down the line a bit the track followed for miles a government reservation of some kind: on the south side of the tracks, a chain-link fence topped by barbed wire kept going and going. I wondered if it ran all the way to California. Years later I learned that this was the northern boundary of Ravenna Arsenal, east of Ravenna, Ohio.

Night gained a hold on the land. In Crestline I got switched off, due to a lapse in concentration or consciousness on my part. I hustled to find another empty car. Near the units was a boxcar with only the right door open. This was no time to be picky, so I climbed in. Another crew boarded the train and drove west, building up speed. [When I visited Crestline in 2002, the place was a shell of its former self: the roundhouse had been gutted, the turntable filled in, and weeds and grass grew where yard tracks once hummed with activity. It was sad.]

A red block signal brought the train to a stop. The only sound was the familiar drone of idling diesel engines. In the dark, cold night I got bored and anxious. Another westbound train appeared on the neighboring track. Then it took off. My train didn't move. Finally we got under way again.

As I barreled through Nevada ("neh-VAY-dah"), I thought of my uncle, who lived there. I hadn't seen him since I was a little boy. Etched in my brain from this nighttime passage was the name of the town on the municipal water tower. Nevada was gone in a flash, its contact with the rail line about a half a mile long. Without bothering to unpack my sleeping bag or pad, I laid down and dozed off.

Sunday, June 20

When I awoke it was dark but the first faint light of day was visible in the east. It was 0400 and COLD. I think my shivering woke me. The train was motionless. How quiet it was! Figuring we were held for another red block signal, I tried to sleep again. But I couldn't sleep, so I got up and looked out the door: no block signal. I was confused and curious, which created a puzzle in my mind that had to be solved. I jumped to the ground and walked toward the units. Where the tracks crossed a rural road, the train had been uncoupled, creating a gap of about 300 feet, through which traffic could proceed across the tracks. I thought this odd. The puzzle intensified.

Upon reaching the units I looked up at the windows but detected no sign of life. This, too, was odd. To ward off the cold, I climbed into the last unit. When I opened the cab door I woke up the brakeman, who was sleeping on the seats. I explained who I was and that I sought warmth. He told me a derailment on the other side of Van Wert had delayed all traffic and that we were stuck outside of Delphos.

About that time the crew got word over the radio that it could proceed slowly down the line past Delphos. The brakeman told me I'd make better time to Chicago by taking a bus to Fort Wayne, by-passing the derailment. There I could resume train travel unimpeded. He added that I could save a walk of a mile or so to downtown by riding the train into town and dismounting as it rounded the curve by the cemetery. The speed would be low enough to do this safely. As he got up to help get the train's pieces re-connected, I hustled back to my car. Soon the train was moving again, approaching downtown Delphos. As the train decelerated at the cemetery, I easily hopped off and grabbed my gear from the boxcar floor. I stood by the tracks, watching the long metal snake roll toward down the line, knowing that it would not go far.

In the cemetery was an outdoor water faucet, which I used to wash up. I worried that somebody would see me and summon the cops, but nothing happened. It was just a few blocks to downtown. There I stopped at the fire station, where I asked about bus service to Fort Wayne. The next bus going there wasn't due until 1100 (this was Sunday, after all), so I had time to kill. The men at the fire station invited me to wait in their lounge. Someone gave me a tour of the station, the highlight of which was learning that emergency air tanks used by fire fighters were filled to a pressure of 4500 pounds per square inch. I finally started reading The Bermuda Triangle.

The bus ride, which cost $3.95, was comfortable but dull. While cruising down the highway I saw the train derailment among the farming fields. Clean-up crews were hard at work getting things fixed up. My train was sitting east of the mess and to the west was an eastbound train. During the ride to Fort Wayne it occurred to me that traveling to Chicago on Erie Lackawanna would still be iffy because all the westbound traffic was held up by the derailment. Lucky for me, there was an alternative: Norfolk and Western. It, too, ran from Fort Wayne to Chicago.