Wednesday, September 14, 2016

The Trains I Rode: Fall 1991 Edition

For someone who likes to ride trains, the Fall is usually a magical time. There are often more trips to take than time or money to do so. Nineteen ninety one was no different. After an essentially dormant Summer, things really heated up.

Chicago & Illinois Midland
The weekend after Labor Day found me on my way to Springfield, Illinois. The goal was to ride the entire Chicago and Illinois Midland railroad. This line runs from Taylorville, Illinois to Cimic (the junction of the CIM and the Illinois Central...IC...clever, huh?) where it runs on trackage rights to Springfield. From Springfield it runs to Pekin, Illinois where it joins the Peoria and Pekin Union for the trip into Peoria. It was built by Commonwealth Edison interests mainly as a way to get coal from its mines to power plants. However the utility got smart and built a power plant at a mine mouth, cutting the railroad's traffic a lot. In 1991 it still hauled coal, and of all things popcorn!

After a drive down from Chicago with my friend Rick Moser on Friday, early on the morning of Saturday, September 7 we headed over to the C&IM Springfield yard and shops complex. There we were met by a school bus which took us down to Taylorville where the train awaited. The train consisted of a C&IM diesel (supposedly rare, but I don't follow such things), and three private cars: the Chief Keokuk, the Cimmaron River, and the Caritas. There were about 50 passengers spread through these three cars and it wasn't crowded (except on the observation platform). Once we got to Cimic, passengers had to get off the train for a bus ride to Springfield while the train ran on the IC tracks (no passengers for the IC, no siree). As compensation, the bus chased the train and offered several photo opportunities. From Springfield the train went up to Pekin, where it turned around for Springfield again, arriving about 5pm. Then it was over to the Amtrak station to drop off fellow passenger Keith White, and the long drive back to Chicago.

On the Pittsburgh and West Virginia near Monongahela, PA
Skipping ahead to the first weekend in October, the Caritas, Cimmaron River, and Blue Ridge visited the Akron, Canton, and Youngstown and the Wheeling and Lake Erie. This was a two day trip which covered almost all of these railroads. I had some of the mileage, and the price was steep so I elected not to ride. My friend Bill Metzger and I chased it from Mingo Jct. (Steubenville) to Connellsville, as it traversed some incredible high bridges. My wife Barbara is from the Monongahela area near where the above picture was taken. She later told me that her son Chris and is friends used to walk across the bridge when they were about 13 years old.

The following weekend, Barb, Chris, Chris's then girlfriend (and now ex-wife) Amy and I went over to Rook yard, in Pittsburgh. There we boarded a 21+ car train of mostly junk equipment for a roundtrip to Connellsville over the same route Bill and I had photographed the previous week. The Fall colors were out in most of their splendor, and although the train was late and it was cold, it was a very interesting trip. I had wanted to ride the line to Connellsville for years. Since there was a rumor that the Wheeling would abandon that line within the next several years (it didn't), I'm glad I got the chance. I'd already missed the chance to ride the Pittsburgh and Lake Erie to Connellsville. That line was long gone.

819 in Mount Pleasant, TX
October 18 found me in Pine Bluff, Arkansas boarding the Cotton Belt Historical Society's special train to Tyler, Texas. The train was about 14 cars long, and was hauled by their steamer 819. We were late most of the way to Texas, mainly due to a faulty air brake somewhere on the train that would cause us to stop periodically as the pressure dropped. This was fixed at Texarkana, and we had no further difficulty. By cutting out photo runbys (not clear any where scheduled), and by cutting short a visit in Pittsburg, Texas, we were able to reach Tyler at 7:00, about 30 minutes late. This was tons better than my last experience behind 819, which was on the way back from the NRHS convention in 1990. That was a 90+ degree day, and the air conditioning failed in every car, the train was incredibly late into Pine Bluff (3am), and we were attacked by DC-6 sized mosquitos around Brinkley, Arkansas. A totally miserable trip (but I got the mileage :-)

My friend Rick Moser had spotted his minivan at Tyler ahead of time. After the train arrived a bunch of us hopped into it and drove several hours up to Paris, Texas where we spent the night. The next day (Saturday), we drove to Omaha, Nebraska stopping only once to shoot a train we came across (on the Burlington Northern). After a night in perhaps the worst Super 8 ever built (in Council Bluffs, IA), Sunday morning at 7am, found us at the UP's TOFC (trailer on flat car) yard near downtown Omaha (across from the Amtrak Station). It was cold, and we were ready to board the train, but it didn't show up until after 8 (for an 8am departure). When it did show up it was a beautiful sight: steam engine 844 pulling the UP excursion consist, all looking like it had just been built. In addition to coaches, and the usual tool cars that accompany steam engines, the UP had provided a museum car (very interesting display of UP history inside a baggage car), a dome diner, a full diner, and a lounge car complete with bar service.

844 pulling a spotless UP train to Marysville
We boarded a very uncrowded train (considering that virtually every seat was filled), and headed to Marysville, Kansas. This line had not seen passenger service of any kind since at least the 50's. Almost every card carrying mileage collector in the country was there and most of us sat in one car. The train was operated by the Camerail Club (of Omaha) and they did a great job. They provided complementary coffee, doughnuts and juice in the morning, a lunch in the diner, and Pizza Hut pizza (delivered train side at Lincoln) for dinner. The UP provided a train that ran well, was comfortable, made 6 (!) photo runbys, and looked great. We arrived at Marysville around 5pm and left 844 behind, as we were pulled by diesel back to Omaha (no place to turn 844 in Marysville). The lounge car was busy that evening, both because of reasonably priced drinks, and two televisions carrying the World Series. (This was the year that my Pittsburgh Pirates managed to lose to the Atlanta Braves in game seven of the playoffs after having Atlanta down to their last strike in the ninth inning. I was not happy about a World Series featuring the Braves and their awful tomahawk chop. Thankfully the Twins won the Series.) We arrived back in Omaha around 10:30...a very long day.

Somewhere out of Parkersburg
On Sunday, October 26 I drove to Parkersburg, West Virginia to ride from Parkersburg to New Martinsville (50 miles, but it was close to home, and it connected with the previous year's Huntington to Parkersburg trip). The colors were great too!

611 enroute from Atlanta to Chattanooga
Then, on Friday, November 1, I flew to Atlanta to ride behind steam again from there to Chattanooga for the Norfolk Southern Steam Program's 25th Anniversary. (This was the only NS trip of the year for me...probably a new record low.) After the banquet on Saturday night, we drove to Etowah where we rode another special from Etowah to Cooperhill and back on Sunday, November 3. To do this we gave up the return portions of the Atlanta to Chattanooga trip. That was triple headed steam out of Chattanooga which would have been quite a sight. But getting the mileage was more important.

The train to Etowah
Enough mileage for the year, right? Not quite. I attended a work-related conference in New Orleans in early December. I took the obvious routing...flying to San Antonio, spending the night in a hotel, and catching Amtrak's Sunset Limited into New Orleans. (Obvious for a railfan who needed the mileage that is.) And that really did close out the 1991 mileage year for me.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Chasing the Pennant: My relationship with the Cubs (and the White Sox and the Pirates)

Well it looks like the Cubs are going to do it this year. As I write this they are 87/47 with only the Cardinals (elimination number 14) and the Pirates (elimination number 12) having any remote possibility of overtaking them to win the National League Central. While winning the league championship is not a certainty, it is a strong possibility. This got me to thinking about Chicago baseball and my relationship with the Cubs. Along the way I will necessarily have to bring in the Pirates since I've lived in Pittsburgh for over half of my life.

I grew up in Highland Park on the North Shore of Chicago in the 50s and 60s. Like every kid I knew in grade school I loved to play baseball. At least I loved to play baseball in concept. My usual position in games at Ravinia school or in pick up games at the park at Beech and St. Johns next to the railroad retirement home was "left out". Well not really, that's just a bad joke I tell. But I was not a particularly good hitter and an even worse fly ball catcher, so I spent a lot of time in the outfield hoping that nothing would be hit to me. But, hey, hey, I was there.

I also enjoyed going to major league baseball games. As a denizen of the North Shore I was supposed to be a Cubs fan but for the first 10 to 12 years of my life I was a Chicago White Sox fan. Although this included 1959 when the Sox won the pennant and Daley-hack Fire Commissioner Robert Quinn set off Chicago's air-raid sirens (in the height of cold war jitters) to celebrate, this was not the reason.

Rather, I was a White Sox fan was because the Cubs did not play any night games in those days. In fact night games at Wrigley were impossible in that era since it did not have any lights. Why did that matter? In a word "golf". My Dad was an avid golfer his whole life. He would rather take me to less convenient Comiskey Park for a night game than to Wrigley for a day game and have to give up his time on the golf course.

My father belonged to a city club in downtown Chicago, the Standard Club. In the day this was a great club where we would meet my Dad in the bar for snacks (and drinks for him and Mom) before going to dinner if we were downtown. The club had a lot of family events including, as I recall, a holiday celebration, complete with Santa to keep all of us (Jewish) kids happy. One of the other events they had every year was a "Father and Son night at the ballpark". This night would start with a picnic-style dinner in the dining room complete with fried chicken. After dinner we'd get on buses and have a police escort to Comiskey Park. At the end of the game we'd ride the buses back to the club and head home.

As I got older we stopped going to the Father/Son nights and I became more of a Cubs fan. I'd occasionally be taken there as part of a friend's birthday celebration or for some other occasion. I don't have any particular memories of having a preference for one ball park over the other. There was nothing particularly special about "the friendly confines" to me. (Though as I grew older it became clear to me that Comiskey was a dump.)

Just prior to my 18th birthday, my friend Alfie and I made the trip to Wrigley on our own. The highlight of this visit was that I had my first illegal beer (an "Old Style") at this game.

During my undergraduate years at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh I pretty much forgot about baseball. In fact I only made it to one game at Forbes Field even though it was block from the campus (if you ever see the original "Angels in the Outfield" CMU, then known as Carnegie Tech, is visible over the left-field fence.) In 1970 I was sweating getting into the Ph.D. program in Computer Science at CMU. I had a lot of grad student friends and they knew I was a wreck and practically kidnapped me to a game. The following Fall (as a first year graduate student!) I went to my first game at Three Rivers Stadium. Over the years in Pittsburgh I would occasionally go to other games there, and no doubt went to additional games at Wrigley when visiting Chicago, but nothing particular stands out because I was not really much of a fan in that era.

After a six year interlude between 1976 and 1982 when I lived first in Chicago and then in silcon valley (and never went to a game in either place), I returned to Pittsburgh apparently for good and started going to the occasional game. I'd make a point to get to a game or two every year when the Pirates played the Cubs and I am happy to say that I was present at Three Rivers Stadium on September 24, 1984, the night that the Cubs clinched a playoff berth for the first time in the modern era. I was rooting for the Cubs every inning.

One year in the late 1980s I was lamenting the fact that when I did want to go to a game all I could get was crap seats in an upper level. I was complaining to a friend about this and he mentioned that he and two other friends had season tickets behind third base and that I was welcome to use one of his for some game. To me seeing a game from somewhere between third and first base and low down is a significantly different (better) experience than seeing it from any other location. The following year a bunch of friends and I split a partial season ticket ourselves.

Just after I met my now wife Barbara in 1989 we were visiting my parents in Chicago and decided to go to a Cubs game on a Wednesday afternoon. I called for tickets and was informed that they had standing room or obstructed view seats only. I was bummed. (And not bleacher bummed either.)

Back in Pittsburgh, I went to a game against the Expos on the spur of the moment. Three Rivers was so big and the Pirates were so mediocre at the time that it was seldom difficult to get a ticket of some sort. So I went to the stadium and was heading to the home plate box office when I was stopped by an older gentleman (call him Milt because I believe that was his name) who asked me if I needed one ticket. He looked too nice for it to be a scam and he offered the ticket at face value telling me that I'd be sitting next to him...he had two tickets but his partner couldn't make the game. The seat ended up being in the first row, right against third base, a terrific place to watch the game. Even better were the stories that Milt told me about his years watching the Pirates. He'd had the seats we were sitting in as well as equivalent seats at Forbes Field stretching back to the 1930s. He told about getting hit by a foul ball and breaking his collar bone one year. He told about knowing many senior people in baseball. He was fascinating to listen to. I told him my story of not being able to get into a Cubs game and he said "next time you want to see the Cubs give me a call and I'll get you in."

The next year I was in Chicago visiting my father in the hospital. He was doing well so my cousin Jimmy and I decided to go to the Cubs game. I remembered Milt back in Pittsburgh and gave him a call. The next thing I knew we had house seats just behind home plate compliments of Jim Frey, the Cubs General Manager, at no charge. Getting these great seats for nothing made me extremely uncomfortable. The next time I wanted seats Jim Frey was no longer the GM but the Cubs were playing the Cardinals and Joe Torre provided the seats. When I asked Milt how I could pay for the seats he suggested that I send Joe a box of premium golf balls...which I did...along with a copy of my favorite baseball novel, If I Never Get Back by Darryl Brock.

That same season three of us decided to split a pair of tickets for the complete season (27 games each.) The seats were in the third row just to the right of home plate. I've maintained those same seats since then...transitioning to first row seats at PNC Park when it eventually opened.

In recent years my cousin Jimmy has managed to obtain Cubs/Pirates tickets at Wrigley from a high school friend of his who has a set of truly excellent seats at Wrigley (though not as good as those that Jim Frey gave us) and has treated me to a game most every summer except this year and last (as the Cubs got hot again.) Wrigley still has some magic for me (though I haven't seen it since they put up the new scoreboard), but PNC Park actually has it beat in my book. I know that is sacrilege for a Chicagoan but I invite all of my friends to join me and see what I mean.

I've become a Pirates fan, but one with a soft spot in my heart for the Cubs. Generally I will still root for the Cubs but not when the Pirates interests are involved. Since it is clear this year that the Pirates have no chance (in spite of still having not been eliminated at this point) I have become a Cubs fan again (especially if they can help the Pirates by winning games that help the Pirates in their quest for a wild card slot -- yet again.) If, for some reason, the Pirates actually make it to post season I will root for the Pirates but I will have no problem ultimately rooting for the Cubs should that come to pass.