Railroads and the American People by H. Roger Grant
My home town was a train town. The trains were always passing through; their whistles were heard every day and night. There’s a section in this book, by the leading American historian of railroads, about train towns on the prairie and how they were laid out in a right triangle, with the tracks as the hypotenuse. The drawing reminds me of a map of my town.
The trains of my childhood were all freights, moving regularly and regally along the river valley below our house, from Minneapolis and St Paul to grain fields in the Dakotas and back. The trains came through a few times a day, it seemed. There were morning, noon and night trains, I guess. I never paid attention to the schedule. I counted the cars once in awhile, and I spent many afternoons walking the tracks. The cultivated prairie is a familiar pattern-row on regular row-but an inaccessible environment for people. The rails were a walking path into the country. I liked the tall grass around the tracks where the grasshoppers and butterflies, prairie birds, jackrabbits, pheasants and deer all fed, rested and busted out when startled, as by a young walker and his dog. The grain elevators where the trains stopped were on the other side of town. In senior high school, on hot summer nights, sometimes two or three of us would lift ourselves onto a flatcar and ride through the night to the next town where the train slowed again, and a designated driver would pick us up and bring us back home.