Saturday, May 8, 2021

The Southwest Explorer (2012)

On January 12, 2012 I received an email from Clark Johnson who runs a company called High Iron Travel with the subject "Keep These Dates: Rare Mileage Trips" saying that he would be running a special train over eight days from St. Louis to Kansas City via Fort Worth, El Paso, and Tucumcari. 

The schedule, as approved on February 5 by the railroads was to leave St. Louis the morning of April 28 for Tulsa via Springfield, MO. Then onto to Fort Worth via Madill on the 29th. On the 30th we'd go from Fort Forth to Hobbs, NM. After a layover day in Hobbs on May 1 we'd head to Carrizozo, NM via El Paso on the 2nd, then onto Pratt, KS via Liberal on the 3rd, and onto Kansas City via Topkea on May 4 where the trip would end. The equipment would be the (from the rear) Caritas (open platform business car); a 48 set dining car; the Scenic View (Ex-Santa Fe "Big dome"); the Colorado Pine (sleeper); the Cimarron River (roomette/bedroom sleeper); and the Pacific Sands (bedroom sleeper). Each car with sleeping accommodations had one or more showers. Most rooms had private toilet facilities.The train would be pulled by Amtrak locomotives except on the branch into Hobbs.

The Southwest Explorer at sundown in Pratt, KS near the end of our trip

Friend Neil Lang and I arranged to share a bedroom in the Cimarron River and sent Clark our payment. At the time it was the most I'd ever spent for a train trip.

In Springfield, MO

On April 27, 2012 I flew from Pittsburgh to St. Louis on USAirways arriving at 2:30pm. Upon arrival I made the mistake of checking my email and discovered that a website I ran had been hacked and data on it had been significantly compromised. I won't go into details here, but 1) I decided that I could handle things while on the train, and 2) it did have some impact on my enjoyment of the trip...but not so much that I ever regretted my decision to continue.

The map I made for a golf shirt

I headed off to catch a Metrolink train to the Amtrak station downtown. Official boarding was to be at 8pm, but we were allowed to stow our luggage aboard the train prior to that. However, the train, designated The Southwest Explorers, was being serviced west of the station so a bunch of us waited in the station.

Friend Rich Copeland and I had arranged to go to Busch Stadium (a stop away on Metrolink) to see the Cardinals play the Brewers. As I recall it was a threatening night but we made it back to the train after the game without too much trouble and got settled in our respective rooms. Then there was time to head to the Scenic View for a beer and conversation before bed.

April 28

Bright and early the train departed from the St. Louis Amtrak station. I did not take copious notes at the time, but according to the published schedule we were due to leave St. Louis at 6:30am. Our general routine was to get up, dress, perhaps go to the dome lounge or the Caritas rear lounge for pre-breakfast sightseeing and then head to the diner for breakfast. The breakfast menu changed every day, but was always freshly made and usually delicious. After eating it was back to one of the lounges until either the next meal (lunch and dinner were usually served on the train) or there was an opportunity to get off the train and stretch our legs and take photos. On this day the first such opportunity was at Springfield, MO where we arrived prior to 1pm. The schedule had us due out at 2pm, and nothing in my memory says we didn't leave on time.

Springfield, MO

I had ridden the railroad from St. Louis to Springfield before (during a Frisco 1522 steam trip from St. Louis to Atlanta in 1994) but the rest of the day would be totally new to me (as would much of the mileage for the whole rest of the trip from this point) so it was fun to spend the rest of the day in one of the lounges nursing a beer or a Diet Coke and watching the railroad and the scenery. (Yes, even central Missouri and Oklahoma has scenery worth viewing.) We were due into Tulsa at 7:30pm. Again I have no reason to doubt the schedule. Because we were parked in the middle of an active freight yard for the night we were not allowed off the train (though one fellow passenger managed to get off to go to a Tulsa Drillers minor league baseball game.)

Friends enjoying the ride in the Scenic View

April 29

The schedule shows us leaving at 6:30am and stopping in Madill, OK at 11:30am and Irving, TX at 3:30pm (having gotten on the Trinity Rail Express line at Carrollton) before arriving in Fort Worth at 4:30pm. I recall a significant delay before we got onto TRE so I imagine we arrived in Fort Worth late. My main memory after arrival in Fort Worth was that an Amtrak inspector wanted to have a wheelset changed out of the Scenic Dome. The main supervisor agreed that we were ok to go until the car was on "home" rails (see below) the next day and let us continue. Making the rest of the trip with out the use of the dome would have made the trip a lot less fun. So it's a good thing he allowed this.

Neil Lang and John Arbuckle in Forth Worth

Dinner was off the train. Neil and I and John Arbuckle dined at a gourmet Mexican restaurant while others went to hamburger joints or steakhouses, etc. It was a beautiful evening and we enjoyed walking around the area near the station.

The Southwest Explorer in Fort Worth

April 30

Today we left Fort Worth at 7:00am with the Scenic Dome still in the consist. We were due into Monahans at 3:00pm but I'm guessing we were late. At Monahans we left the tracks of the Texas Pacific for those of the Texas & New Mexico Railway and their engines were substituted for our Amtrak engines (they would wait for us to return to Monahans two days later). This railroad was owned by Iowa Pacific who also owned most of the cars on our train. From Monahans we traveled maybe 20 miles to the town of Kermit where we stopped at around 5:00pm for an opportunity to take photos (not possible on the main lines we'd been on before.) From there we went to Eunice which is the site of the Texas New Mexico's shops and again we got off the train for photos even though it was around 8:15pm. We arrived at our destination of Hobbs, NM well after our 9:00pm due time, but no one seemed to mind.

The photo line near Kermit, TX

May 1

Today we scheduled to be a layover day in Hobbs to service the train and to allow passengers to do sightseeing. Many of the passengers took a bus to Lubbock, TX to ride the West Texas & Lubbock. John Arbuckle, Neil Lang, Rick Moser, and I had already ridden that line so we rented a car and went off to Carlsbad, NM to tour the Carlsbad Caverns and do some railfanning enroute. While we were enjoying the caverns the railroad took the Scenic View the train and fixed the bad wheelset. By the time we returned from the tour it was already back on the train ready to go. That evening there was an off-train banquet at a local restaurant. 

Various photos taken on our trip to Carlsbad, NM

May 2

While we were sleeping we left Hobbs for Monahans. (Scheduled at 5:00am but I think we actually left earlier.) The schedule showed us into Monahans at 11:00am and back onto the Texas & Pacific at 11:30am and due into El Paso at 4:00pm (Mountain Time). I show that we arrived about an hour ahead of schedule. I believe we were delayed (a lot) leaving El Paso and I know that we were stopped on a siding north of El Paso so that Customs and Border Protection could come aboard to verify that we were all legal. We had some real worries because friend Dave Arthur was aboard so a repeat of our experience at the Canadian border a number of years ago was possible. At any rate we did not arrive at our overnight stop of Carrizozo until well after dark.

In El Paso

May 3

We left Carrizozo at 8:00am (according to the schedule) and made our way through Vaughn, and Dalhart before stopping at Liberal, KS at 4:40pm for a crew change (but we arrived early so there was time for photos) and onto our overnight stop at Pratt, KS where some of us walked into town to visit a local ice cream stand. (Because they weren't feeding us enough on the train!)

Our train in a city named after my own heart

May 4

This last day of our epic train ride left Pratt at 8:00am, went through Hutchison, KS (home of John Arbuckle) at 10:30am and then onto Topeka and into Kansas City where the train arrived in the early evening. A bunch of us went across the pedestrian bridge for a dinner at Jack's Stack Restaurant before some of us picked up our bags and caught a taxi to a Courtyard hotel near the airport so we'd be in position for morning flights.

The Southwest Explorer parked in Kansas City at the end of the epic trip

May 5

I could sleep in a bit and get a better shower than I had on the train before catching my 10:51am United flight from Kansas City to Pittsburgh via Chicago, arriving at (scheduled) 3:44pm. I was probably home for dinner.

People on board (not complete):

Jerry Angier, John Arbuckle, David Arthur, John Atherton, David Boone, Phil Bush, Al Butler, Don Clayton, Rich Copeland, Steve Cordwell, Bill Crawford, Judy Decker, Donna DeGroot, Steve DeGroot, Tom DeJoseph, Otto Dobnick, Bob Douglas, John Downing, Lance Erikson, Willie Fennel, Jim Fetchero, John Friedmann, Mary Gadbois, HIT Guest, HIT Guest, John Harmon, Brian Higgins, Nona Hill, Sharon Hill, Roger Hooson, Hubert Horan, Dave Ingles, Clark Johnson, Phil Kondziela, Neil Lang, Robert Lawrence, Bob Lenz, Joey Maidie, Rob Mandeville, Tony Marchiando, Mia Mather, Richard Maund, Ed Metz, Paul Miller, Reg Mitchell, Steve Morse, Phil Moser, Rick Moser, Brad Phillips, Sy Reich, Mike Rose, Sharon Sharratt, Tom Sharratt, Dave Stare, Chuck Weinstock, Keith White

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Traveling With my Dad

When I was a pre-high school kid I used to spend some school holidays at my Dad's office in Chicago's Loop. We'd ride the C&NW commuter train from Ravinia. When I was really young (say, grade school) I would ride in the smoking car with my old coach with plush green upholstered walk-over seats and a stench you could not believe. But the train was pulled by a steam engine, likely a Pacific-class, and I was in railroad heaven. During the 55 or so minute trip Dad and three friends would play gin in a four-seat section with a conductor supplied lap-table and playing cards while I enjoyed riding the train. The day would be spent in his office except at lunch time when he (but more usually his secretary, Ann) would take me to lunch ... usually at the Stouffer's in the lobby of his building. Ann and I would usually go visit the nearby Walgreens or Woolworths and I would often come back with a stack of comic books. On at least one visit to Woolworths I saw the great Ron Popeil pitching his new Veg-O-Matic in person ("it slices, it dices, isn't it amazing!")

David R. Weinstock at Work

As I got older the railroad upgraded its equipment to shiny new diesels pulling brand-new gallery cars. Dad still rode in the smoker but he trusted me enough to let me ride in the non-smoking part of the train by myself. He also trusted me enough to let me roam downtown Chicago on my own. I would often visit Newark Electronics, the All-Nation Hobby Shop, and Ireland's Magic Shop. (Can you say nerd? I knew that you could!)

I was 13 years old and had a school holiday on Columbus Day 1961. Dad decided to take me on a business trip to Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He was the head of Rothmoor Coats, a manufacturer of women's coats and suits and there was a fashion show where some of his products were to be shown at the Hotel Roosevelt that evening. The show was to be emceed by Fran Allison, "Fran" of Kukla, Fran, and Ollie fame. Since my Dad did not fly (until 1968...because of a bad experience during WW II) we took the train. But since the direct train to Cedar Rapids (on the Chicago and North Western) had stopped running in 1960 we could only go part way by train and, so, a rental car was also required.

I don't have a timetable for that date, but the train we took, the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy's Morning Zephyr generally left Union Station at around 8am. I have no memory of how we got from Highland Park to Union Station that morning, but at the appropriate time we were ensconced in Vista-Dome Parlor Car seats. It was my first time in a dome car and I was having a terrific time already.

All too soon, around 11am, we arrived in East Dubuque, Illinois where I noticed a railroad tunnel to the north of us. (It would be many, many, years (at least 40) before I was to ride a train through that tunnel.) We were met by a rental car and headed off to Cedar Rapids, a drive of less than two hours at the time. (In those pre-Interstate Highway days, driving would have probably taken in excess of seven hours. The train did not save a lot of time, but it did save wear and tear on my Dad.) Along the drive I remember stopping at what I think of as a roadside general store (in my minds eye this seems more accurate than calling it a convenience store) for snacks. I'm sure that we bought additional items but I'm pretty sure that Dad bought a stack of Premium saltines and I know that I bought a bag of salted-in-the-shell peanuts (perfect for eating in a rental car!)

We arrived in Cedar Rapids in time to check in to the Roosevelt and have a late lunch a a steakhouse around the corner. The fashion show was that evening and included dinner, but not for would have been inappropriate for a 13 year old to attend. So Dad arranged with the hostess of the hotel's restaurant for me to have dinner there on my own. The only thing I remember about the dinner is the individual-sized strawberry pie/tart that I had for dessert. After dinner I went back up to the room and watched TV while waiting for Dad. As I recall he was done with the show around 9pm whereupon we checked out of the hotel, drove to Dubuque, Iowa, turned in the rental car and caught the Illinois Central's Hawkeye which probably left around 2:30am. We both had roomettes. I slept like a log but Dad couldn't get the heat to turn off in his room and slept fitfully. According to a typical Hawkeye schedule the train arrived at Chicago's Central Station around 8am. I don't recall whether Dad went to work or not, or whether I went to school (a bit late) or not, or how we eventually got home. 

It was a terrific day and a great time spent with my Dad.

Sunday, February 21, 2021

A Trip to Morehead City

One of the very few pictures I took on that trip

On February 20, 2007 I learned of an opportunity to ride a special train from Morehead City, NC to New Bern, NC the weekend of May 12 and 13 celebrating the Morehead City Sesquicentennial. Not a particularly long ride but one that interested some friends including Rick from Chicago and I so we began to make plans. I would fly into Raleigh on Thursday, May 10th and check into a hotel for the evening. Rick had to work the night of the 10th and would fly in from Chicago on the morning of May 11. From there we'd make our way to Morehead City, ride one of the excursions the next day, then head back to Raleigh and both fly home either that Saturday night or Sunday morning.

Then on April 6 the organizing committee sent out a notice that made the trip even more interesting. They were offering a chance to ride the train on May 11 from Goldsboro, NC as it came into Morehead City for the celebration. This seemed workable with our original flights so we signed up.

Then I asked myself the obvious question "how and when would the train be getting to Goldsboro?" So on May 8 I reached out to a friend at Amtrak and learned that the train would be heading unoccupied from Raleigh to Goldsboro, leaving around 1pm on May 11. The friend was able to arrange for Rick and I (and a few others) to ride the deadhead move.

The trip to Morehead City could not have worked out much better. I flew in, as planned, on Thursday afternoon and met up with friends John Arbuckle and Murrel Hogue. I rented a car to be dropped downtown the next day and checked into my hotel and then had a (not very good) BBQ dinner. Then John took the car and checked into his hotel down the road.

Friday morning Rick called me when his plane landed. John picked him up and brought him to my hotel where he sacked out for about 90 minutes. John then went back to the airport, picked up Dave Smetko and his girl friend and took them and Murrel to breakfast and then dropped Dave and friend downtown. He then picked up Rick and I and the four of us drove to the Hertz location near downtown and they dropped us all at the Amtrak station. (The car came to about $9 a person so it was a bargain compared to taxi.)

The Amtrak person who had arranged for us to be able to ride out of Raleigh had given me the name of the road foreman who gave us instructions as to where to wait to board the train (which was sitting in the station when we arrived at about 12:20pm.) John and Murrel had also talked to the person at Amtrak. A small group of us (including the above mentioned six people plus John Emery and Mark Entrop and a few locals ... not sure how or even if they arranged things) boarded just prior to 1pm and sat in the car right behind the food service car. (Five Amfleet I's...2 coaches, food service, 2 coaches with an engine on each end.)

A portion of the train prior to departure from Raleigh

The ride was reasonable quick to Selma (the start of "new" mileage) and on to Goldsboro where we arrived sometime after 2pm. Rick and I took a walk around town looking for signs of an old depot...we did not find it but it turns out there was one...just not near where we were looking. Then we got back on the train awaiting the buses from Morehead City. The five buses arrived around the expected time and the other passengers boarded. No one ever checked that we were ticketed, but I did manage to meet Patricia (the woman on the organizing committee I had worked with) and introduce myself. Nice lady. On board they had given every four people a box meal that included cucumber sandwiches, some shrimp and sauce, some cheese, grapes, and probably some other things I'm missing. They also passed some delicious Chicken Satay and Scallops wrapped in bacon. There was also ample soft drinks, water, beer, wine, and mixed drinks on board. A very nice operation. (The first part, with just the handful of us, was much nicer because it was quiet.)

The train operated a bit late (left late) and did not make up time. Near New Bern we passed an old civil war battlefield where they stopped the train so that we could see a reenactment instead of the rest of the line in daylight. We arrived pretty close to 9pm. Friend Ed Graham who had ridden the bus out of Morehead City had agreed to take us to our hotel which was near his.

On Saturday Ed also gave us a ride to New Bern (where he was headed anyway) so that we could pick up our one way rental car to Raleigh. After a nice drive with Rick taking pictures of depots along the way, and a good lunch we turned the car in and both Rick and I flew to Chicago. (I went to see my Mom for Mother's Day and my Dad who had been in the hospital earlier in the week.) I returned to Pittsburgh the evening of May 15.

A great memory.

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

A Ride on the American European Express

Once upon a time, when the world was somewhat different, there was a luxury train that made excursions around the United States using meticulously refurbished passenger cars with exacting levels of service and designed to be occupied by wealthy sightseers. Usually a ride on such a train would be out of my reach, but 30 years ago today some friends and I were able to ride it on a two day excursion from Panama City, Florida to Chicago. This was a positioning move for American European Express from its winter home to where it would begin its new season and the company sold space to some of us at greatly reduced prices. 

The routing was via the Atlanta and St. Andrews Bay Railroad (or Bay Line) from Panama City, FL to Dothan, AL, and CSX from there to Chicago (but historically this means the Atlantic Coast Line to Montgomery, AL, the Louisville and Nashville to Evansville, IN, and the Chicago and Eastern Illinois to Chicago.) Enroute we were treated to luxurious accommodations, an open bar, and gourmet meals.

I flew into Pensacola from Pittsburgh on Friday, February 8 and was picked up some friends who had rented a one way car from (I think) Mobile to Panama City where we spent the night in a motel.

The morning of the 9th was a beautiful, sunny, day. It was also the only chance we had to take pictures of the train from outside as I don't remember being able to get off anywhere enroute. (Note: that must not be true as there were crew changes, but I have no photographic evidence of that.)

The train was due into Chicago early afternoon on February 10th meaning that I could do it only taking Friday afternoon off. Note to self: if you are ever able to go back and do life again remember that its ok to spend a little more time getting too and from one of these trips...maybe with a chance to explore the local area for instance. You never know when a pandemic is going to hit and take away your ability to travel completely.

At any rate I stupidly scheduled an early evening flight back to Pittsburgh Sunday night. I say stupidly because the train was running late enough that I was unsure I'd make my flight and had to leave the train at Yard Center in Dolton, IL where a friend gave me a ride up to O'Hare.

Here are some more pictures from the trip.

Three views of the American European Express at Panama City

Back: Dave Arthur, Mark Metz, Neil Lang, Rick Moser. Front: Dave Ingles

Same as previous picture except Chuck Weinstock replaces Neil Lang

Bill Crawford and Neil Lang

Rick Moser, Neil Lang, Dave Ingles, Chuck Weinstock

Rick Moser and Neil Lang not having a good time of it

Chuck Weinstock in the lounge car

Bill Crawford and Neil Lang

Bill Crawford, Rick Moser, Neil Lang, Dave Ingles

Additional photos below are by Neil Lang.

William Spann (on the right) who was responsible for the AEE and some of the exquisite Art Deco interior of the lounge car St Moritz

Rick Moser, Neil Lang, and Chuck Weinstock toasting the new day (February 10, 1991)

Neil Lang who writes "The AEE operation was very high-end and "proper" attire was required. Not very often would one see our group of rail travelers in suits and ties. But we would make sacrifices for the mileage:-)."

Monday, February 1, 2021

River Boat Gambling in the 80s

 (The 1980s that is.)

In the mid-1970s I played in a regular home Pittsburgh home game. We played for low stakes but it was great to play with the same group of friends. After I graduated I left town for six years returning to take a new job in early 1982. The game was still going though some of the players had changed.

Fast forward to 2021 and the game is still going, though before COVID hit we sometimes struggled to get enough players in a given week. COVID has forced us online and as an example of the adage "it's an ill-wind that blows no good" some of the old regulars (including one now living in Australia) are able to join us. During last night's game one, who now lives in the Boston area reminded me of an event I organized twice in the mid-1980s.

Pittsburgh is home to a fleet of river excursion boats known collectively as the Gateway Clipper. Mostly they do short cruises a short way up the Monongahela, Ohio, and Allegheny Rivers often while serving a meal. Occasionally they venture further, particularly in the Fall foliage season. One day I spotted an ad for a cruise from Pittsburgh to Waterford Park, a race track in Chester, WV. Now known as Mountaineer Park and with a casino, at the time it was just a low-grade thoroughbred race track (with, what we assumed was a glue factory the other side of the racing oval.)

So it was that one October day a bunch of us boarded the Gateway Clipper and commandeered a large table on the upper deck. As we cruised down the Ohio river we enjoyed a buffet lunch and then sat down to do some river-boat gambling ... that is we started playing poker. My friend remembers someone being amazed that you could play poker on a river boat (it was ok we explained, we were only playing for chips!) As we played the mostly older crowd on the lower deck was dancing the "bird dance" and other polkas, and having their own special kind of fun.

Upon docking in Chester we were transferred to the track where we had seats for dinner in the clubhouse dining room and watched (and bet) an evening racing card. Then we were taken by bus back to the dock in Pittsburgh.

It was so much fun we did it again the following year...but I believe at that point the Gateway Clipper folks stopped running the excursions--or perhaps we just got tired of hearing the chicken dance.

Postscript: To my everlasting regret I never rode one they did down the Monongahela to Morgantown...something my step-son does every other week on the coal tug he Captains.