After the inaugural run of the new Burlington – New York Amtrak service on July 29th, 2022, an elegy… 1953 – A Vermont Train Journey
4-8-2 600 Montreal–New York Ambassador at White River Jct., Vt., Aug. 27, 1951.
Photo by Jim Shaughnessy
Traces of opalescent light emblazon the western horizon as we drive south along Route 100 with the car radio tuned to WDEV. The evening edition of the Trading Post, a kind of radio lawn sale, absorbs us. A jovial announcer details the items offered: a freshened Guernsey—a PTO pulp saw, “needs a new drive belt”—an International Cub tractor with belly mower “runs good”— a Maytag wringer-washer with stainless tub “like new”— an Emerson floor model radio … “needs a rectifier tube” — an American Flyer sled … “faster ‘n a Ford—a 450-pound sow … “good mother, good breeder, eatcha outta house and barn, best offer, will trade.”
As we arrive in Waterbury, Dad drives through the well-lit downtown and parks next to the pale red-brick station, where I will leave soon for my first trip to New York City to visit my grandmother. I am eight.
We step out into the cold night air and climb the freshly painted wooden steps into the cavernous warmth of the station where a pot-bellied Prussian General woodstove, topped with a chromed oak leaf cluster, sits in a corner on the trackside of the station radiating heat from the coal fire inside.
Dad chats with the stationmaster, whom he’s known since he first drove the Couture jitney between Morrisville, Stowe, and Waterbury. A Dutch door separates the stationmaster’s office from the waiting room. The narrow shelf on the lower door functions as a ticket counter when the upper half is open. Inside the stationmaster’s office a bay window juts out from the station onto the platform so that he can see either way down the express tracks and the siding without going outdoors. Several telegraph keys and sounding boxes sit on the tidy oak desk along with a black Bakelite phone. The far wall is covered with brass hooks from which a dozen oak clipboards hang, clutching sheaves of schedules and freight manifests.
The waiting room has recently been repainted off-white, its peeling plaster simply painted over leaving the impression of frozen whitecaps on the walls. Four varnished hardwood slat benches with concave seats on both sides dominate the center of the waiting room.
The silence is interrupted by a burst of telegraphic clicks. The stationmaster sticks his head out to say that the train’s just passed the Jonesville grade crossing and will arrive in fourteen minutes.
Dad beckons me to follow him, winking at the stationmaster, who shakes his head in a gesture of disapproval. I follow Dad outside towards the grade crossing at the far end of the platform. This crossing connects the town proper to warehouses, a grain depot and a rambling carpentry shop that makes the new steel-edged skis that are all the rage in Stowe.
At the end of the platform, Dad jumps down, ignoring the stairs, and signals me to jump into his arms, one of my favorite things. He glances at his watch and then pulls a worn silver half-dollar, a Lincoln penny and a roll of adhesive tape from his pocket. He positions the penny in the center of the half dollar and tapes the whole to a steel rail.
“When you get back,” Dad smiles, “I’ll have your own 51-cent coin for you. You won’t find many in town except the ones I made.”
Then, to my surprise, Dad takes my head firmly in his hands and gently forces my left ear onto the cold steel rail.
“Hear the train yet?” he asks. I wait with my ear uncomfortably pressed to the cold rail for several minutes and then blurt out. “I hear it! I hear it!”
I hear the faintly rhythmic clickety-clack radiating from within the rail. Dad releases his grip but I keep listening to the mesmerizing rhythm as it slows and grows louder.
Suddenly, in the far distance, a deep-throated train whistle roars through the night. “It’s coming into town now,” Dad says. “That’s the Bolton Road crossing at the far end of town. C’mon, let’s go.” I follow Dad back to the platform.
Inside, the stationmaster shakes his head and smiles, “I never should ‘a taught-cha that as a young’un. Mind, the Missus don’t find out. Don’t want him losin’ his head to the Washingtonian!”
We go back out onto the cold platform in time to hear the slow, deep chuffing of a steam engine, but see nothing. My eyes drill into the dark.
Suddenly, a blaze of vibrating white light sweeps out along the gentle curve of the tracks and the deep, toiling sound of the engine increases. Then, as the rhythmic chuff slows, a whistle blast again rips through the night as the train nears the grade crossing where Dad taped the two coins to the rail.
A conductor in a dark blue uniform steps off the still-moving train carrying an iron footstool, drops it on the platform and hustles into the station.
I stare into the moving undercarriage of the massive steam engine. A last stygian blast of escaping steam obliterates my view as the engineer applies the brakes and the massive engine stops, the steam condensing in the cold air and enveloping everyone on the platform.
The conductor returns with a sheaf of papers under his arm, aligns the footstool with the car’s iron steps, and invites people to board. As I’m about to step onto the stool, Dad lifts me up and hands me up to the porter.
“My name is Mr. J. Wha’s yer name?”
“Billy,” I answer, staring at his face. The porter understands that I’ve never seen a Black person before.
Dad hands Mr. J. my ticket, which he pockets without a glance. Mr. J leads us into the sleeper car along a corridor lined with heavy blue drapes. Brass number plates are riveted to the curtains near the top and bottom. At the end of the car, he pulls back the curtains to reveal a turned-down bed and lifts me onto the edge of the lower berth.
Dad and Mr. J. converse in whispers and Dad hands him a neatly folded piece of white paper and a dollar bill.
“This’ll be fun. Do what Mr. J. tells you and tomorrow you’ll see your grandmother.” That said, Dad kisses me on the forehead and leaves.
I hear two furious whistle blasts and a loud chuff. Our sleeping car lurches forward as the engine takes up the slack in the couplers. Tears well up.
The train gradually picks up speed, accelerating along the moonlit Winooski River Valley. My fear soon gives way to curiosity and I roll over onto my stomach to look out the window.
The sconce light in my berth is off and my eyes adjust quickly to the moonlit countryside. The night is lit by a fingernail moon, emerging periodically from backlit banks of dark clouds to flood the landscape with a nacreous light. The train picks up speed along the straight railbed that follows the river.
In the meadows that border the river, Holstein cows stand like cemetery statuary, their black and white patchwork evident in the moonlight. Here and there, the pale lights of a farmhouse glow in the distance. The familiar landscape and the heartbeat rhythm of the rails allay my fear.
“Time ta get ‘cher PJ’s on and tuck in,” I hear.
Mr. J.’s warm, smiling face appears between the curtains as he holds out a waxed paper cup of ginger ale. “Drink this. It’ll settle yer up. Then put on your PJ’s.”
He reaches in and flips a small toggle switch that floods the berth with a pale yellow light filtered through an etched, amber-colored glass sconce.
“Put your clothes in the net up there and be sure to fold ’em nice so you look good for your grandmamma. I’m gonna close your curtains for you. Just stick your head out when yer done with your ginger-ale.”
I get into my pajamas, hearing the faint sound of snoring somewhere in the sleeper car and roll over again to look out the window.
“Time for you to tuck in, boy, and rest up for your grandmamma tomorrow.”
I tuck into the crisply ironed sheets and Mr. J, humming to himself, pulls the sheet and wool blanket up to my chin, then reaches over and clicks off the yellowish light.
Alone in the berth, I roll over to watch the moonlit panorama scroll by. The persistent rhythm of the rails brings to mind my mother and I see her face with its sadness and hurt as I kiss her goodbye. I suddenly realize I’m alone on a train snaking through the dark countryside toward New York.
* * *
“We’re comin’ in. Time to get dressed. Don’t wanna keep grandmamma waiting! Be there in ’bout 30 minutes. Get yourself dressed.”
I blink and sit up. My window is flooded with daylight and there are buildings as far as I can see. Cabs nose their way through littered streets as the train slows down through Queens. I pull off my pajamas and put on my pants, shirt, and socks.
Opening the curtain, I look anxiously for Mr. J, but he’s nowhere in sight. I walk down to the bathroom only to find it occupied by a large man shaving at the sink. I edge by him into the toilet and, on leaving, am too shy to ask him to let me wash my hands.
At my berth, the drapes are pulled back out of sight, the bed’s gone, replaced by two large, upholstered bench seats facing each other where my bed had been.
A young woman sits on one seat and, somewhat confused, I take a seat across from her. Mr. J appears with my suitcase and sets it down next to me.
“Stay here and keep this lady company. I got lots to do. We’re comin’ into Penn Station in ’bout fifteen minutes. I’ll be back for you when we get there.”
Taught by Dad to greet everyone I meet, I venture a “hello” to the woman across from me. She looks puzzled as if I asked her for something she doesn’t have, nods, and then looks out the window.
The train approaches from high on a rail trestle and I can see down into the streets below: people, cars, and a few dogs. There are many more people like Mr. J.
Suddenly, the street scene disappears in darkness, interrupted periodically by the appearance of a pallid light bulb burning against a stone wall, lighting small sections of the dark tunnel through which the train slowly moves. Under one light bulb, an old man sits in a shabby suit with oversize shoes fumbling in a paper bag for something he seems to have misplaced. The man doesn’t seem to notice as the train rumbles by but keeps fumbling in the bag. The intermittent lights flash slowly by for several more minutes and then, with a burst of bright light, the train emerges into the maze of tracks and platforms that signals our arrival in Penn Station.
“We’re here,” Mr. J. announces, grabbing my suitcase with one hand and me with the other. I say good-bye to the woman on the opposite bench as Mr. J leads me out to the passageway between cars as the train slows. Suddenly, with a loud burst of steam and a shriek of iron brake shoes, the train comes to a stop and people carrying their luggage jostle one another in the small passageway.
Mr. J, who is being questioned now by several people, holds my hand firmly. “Mind you don’t slip down the crack,” he says with a smile as I step carefully over the space between the train and the concrete platform.
A German woman stands waiting, and Mr. J, sensing that she is there to meet me, hands me to her, pats me on the head and says, “See you on the Montrealer.”