The train I’m on
In the wee hours one can still hear the sound of a freight train passing through the city, blowing its horn at the several grade crossings within city limits. I begin to think of other trains…
If you live in the US, you have to have been around for a half-century or more to remember when taking the train was a ordinary means of transportation, not just on the East Coast, but between any two places in the country. There’s now some discussion of reviving passenger rail, but the network of 1950 cannot be recovered. The rails themselves have been allowed to decay, rights-of-way have been built over or converted to other uses, stations have been torn down or renovated into malls or restaurants.
In 1900 or 1950, every little town had its station. My grandmother and her sister lived in the northwest corner of Minnesota, a few miles apart in places whose populations never exceeded a thousand or perhaps two; yet they could take the train in the afternoon to visit, having sent—on the morning train—a postcard to announce their plans.
Fifty years ago I travelled with my mother from Cincinnati to Chicago by train, there to meet her parents who would take me home with them.
We had a sleeping compartment, with, as I remember, its own toilet, all in wood panelling and stainless steel, everything as efficiently arranged as if it were a ship’s cabin. I seem to remember that a steward showed us how to use the facilities. Our journey must have taken a whole day, but nothing of it remains for me—only an image of that compartment.
The Cincinnati train station, Union Terminal, still stands. It was built by the long-gone Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago & St. Louis Railway Company, known familiarly as the “Big Four”. It is a striking Art Deco structure, designed by the firm of Fellheimer and Wagner, with the consulting architects Roland A. Wank and Paul Philippe Cret (Cret also designed the Main Building of the University of Texas at Austin). Unlike its counterpart in St. Louis, Cincinnati’s is still a working station, though most of the infrastructure that supported what was once its main function has been removed or turned to other purposes—notably to provide space for the Cincinnati History Museum.
The station was decorated with a set of murals by Winold Reiss. Two large murals in the Rotunda depicted the history of Cincinnati. Those have been preserved in situ. Fourteen murals in the concourse depicted local industries; when the concourse was destroyed they were moved, fittingly enough, to the airport, fourteen miles away across the river in northern Kentucky. The list of industries depicted is an apt summation of this country’s once-mighty capacities. It includes Baldwin Piano, Procter & Gamble, Crosley Broadcasting, Cincinnati Milling Machine, and U. S. Playing Card. Of these only P&G still exists as an independent company. Plus ça change, you might say, or sic transit, but when I was growing up these were the landmarks; Cincinnati’s regional and national identity rested on them more than on any scenic or cultural endowments, and their identity, to some extent, rested on their being based in Cincinnati.
I remember Union Terminal in its heyday just a little. One of my grade school classes visited there on a field trip. Of all the things we must have been shown I remember only the demonstration of the acoustic properties of the central Rotunda: if you whispered at one end of the “rainbow”, that whisper could be heard at the other, but nowhere in between. My only other preserved impression is of the size of the dome, an impression not so much visual as acoustic—the reverberant space.