Trains: Everything Old Is New Again

The North Shore Electroliner and the Rebirth of Pullman Trains

“Pleasure and sadness that is caused by remembering something from the past and wishing that you could experience it again.”

“A wistful desire to return in thought or in fact to a former time in one’s life, to one’s home or homeland, or to one’s family and friends; a sentimental yearning for the happiness of a former place or time.” — Definitions of nostalgia

Electroliner 2

Growing up in Racine, Wisconsin in the 1950s and 1960s, I often fell asleep, or was awakened at night, by the sounds of the trains that streamed down the rails two blocks from my house, The North Shore interurban between Milwaukee and Chicago. It became the theme of one of my childhood reoccurring dreams.

It was always nighttime, a starry night, with the moon and streetlights shining a spotlight on the scene of me as a child crossing the tracks with the single beam of a train headlight racing my way, full speed with its screaming whistle announcing its impending arrival at the 21st Street crossing. I would run across the double sets of rails and my foot would get caught. A moment of terror followed by the question, “Will I have enough time to extricate my foot and make it to the other side of the crossing?”

I often woke up with a startle before I could answer the question. Despite the fear and anxiety expressed in that dream, I still loved trains. I loved the sounds of trains, both in daytime and at night, the Doppler effect of the sound of the train whistle passing at high speeds, the vibration of the train cars and the rails, the heaving sound of the earth and train like deep breaths of some amorphous giant, and the percussive sound of metal train wheels rolling on metal tracks, the clickety-clack where the rail joints met.

I also loved riding the trains. There’s something hypnotic and centering for me to sit at a window of a train, a bus, or automobile, and watch the landscape whiz by —the faster the better, making trains the preferred land mode for travel as a passenger.  I sleep best after travel, when my body has been in motion, moving at high speeds from one point to another.

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Growing up my family often took The North Shore to Milwaukee and on rare and special occasions to Chicago. My parents reminisce about their dating and early married years, when the North Shore would take them to dances and dates in other cities, and weekend getaways for wedding anniversaries, or special occasions. As a child we would ride the train to Milwaukee. My sisters and I with our parent chaperones saw doctors, specialists at the Milwaukee Children’s Hospital for conditions we were born with. It always felt like an adventure, an adventure tinged with some fear and anxiety (h-m-m-m, the reoccurring dream).

The North Shore

The following is reprinted from J.J. Sedelmaier, Imprint magazine, The Colorful World of Forgotten Trains

“It was deep turquoise with salmon red stripes and, get this, silver lightning bolts on its sides…These trains ran on the tracks of the Chicago North Shore & Milwaukee Railway (The North Shore Line) and the CRT (Chicago Rapid Transit — later the CTA) between 1941 and the railway’s abandonment in 1963. The “World’s First All Electric Streamliners” traveled the round-trip between the downtown Chicago “Loop” and the heart of Milwaukee, Wis., about 85 miles away. There were two four-car articulated sets built and they routinely hit 90 miles per hour during their “5 trips each way daily.”

Electroliner

By the late 1930s, the North Shore Line’s business had been decimated by the Great Depression, leading to receivership and a dip in employee morale. It was the era of “Streamlining” and it was time for the North Shore to get up to date. The modern, aerodynamic styling of the Burlington Route’s 1934 stainless-steel “Pioneer Zephyr” diesel streamliner appealed to the imagination of the North Shore’s management.

North_Shore_2

In 1939 they took a huge financial risk and ordered the production of the two trains. The North Shore could now compete on a Chicago/Milwaukee schedule with the new “400,” and Otto Kuhler designed “Hiawatha”steam-streamliners, which travelled on the paralleling Chicago & North Western and Milwaukee Road railroads.”

“The Electroliners were designed by the architectural/design firm James F. Eppenstein Associates. I can’t think of any train with such a distinctive (and labor-intensive) paint scheme. Each stripe had to be hand-masked and painted. Within a year’s time the Electroliners had evolved into being the defining image of the North Shore Line — they had become the railway’s branding tool!”

The final North Shore train left my hometown depot on Monday morning, 2:12 a.m. on January 21, 1963 in 15-degree below zero weather. From the Racine Journal Times story, 50 Years Since North Shore Line’s Last Run, published on the 50Th anniversary of the last North Shore train:

Charles S. Vallone Last Train

Photo credit: Charles S. Vallone

For nearly 60 years, 38 daily electric trains stopped in Racine to transport passengers to the big cities and this railroad was as woven into the fabric of this town as Horlick Malted Milk and the factories that still dominated what was a manufacturing epicenter.

But the National Highway System, championed by President Dwight Eisenhower in the mid 1950s, slowly ate away at this beloved line’s profits and the North Shore started hemorrhaging red ink. By 1958, Susquehanna Corp., which owned the line, filed with state and federal regulatory authorities for permission to discontinue all service.

For nearly five years, the North Shore staved off its demise until reality finally set in during the historically cold month of January 1963. A desperate attempt by a group called the “North Shore Commuters Railroad Company” to lease the line from Susquehanna for $200,000 a year with an option to buy operating properties for $2.5 million was rebuffed. Eleventh-hour appeals that went all the way to President John F. Kennedy’s White House were not acted upon.

The fight was over. The North Shore was doomed. And the line’s 10,000 daily riders were forced to scramble for other transportation options.”

Rebirth of the Pullman Trains

Today I live in an apartment building that is parallel to and borders the Capitol City Bike Trail in Madison, Wisconsin which borders railroad tracks. Now the most common sight for me is watching and listening to commercial railways transporting what I’m guessing is Wisconsin’s newest export, frac sand, by Insight Equity Holdings LLC, based in Southlake, Texas, used for the booming fracking industry.  The freight trains are managed by the Wisconsin & Southern Railroad. I enjoy the sound of the trains rolling by my home, but I miss the people, the passenger trains from the past.

Photo credit: Lucas Keapproth Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journslism

Photo credit: Lucas Keapproth Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journslism

To my delight, one October morning I heard a train approaching, yet I could tell it was a different sound. It was not the heavy freight hauling sound that I had become accustomed to, instead it was that streamlined sound of my childhood. I instinctively grabbed my camera and went outside on my balcony. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I snapped photos as a fully restored Pullman train rolled past my home.

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Pullman Rail Journeys

Reprinted from the Pullman Rail Journeys website:

010“Carefully brought back to service and ardently detailed to be as historically accurate as possible, our classic Pullman Cars offer passengers the chance to rediscover the style, ambiance and craftsmanship of the golden age of rail travel. Modern conveniences such as showers, wireless Internet access and power outlets have been carefully added to maximize comfort and enhance your experience. And with classic American dining, an engaging social setting and first-class, personalized Pullman service, each iconic journey takes you back to a civilized, sophisticated era when getting to your destination was as much fun as arriving.”

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“Return to an era when the journey was as important as the destination. The Chicago-based Pullman Company pioneered luxury rail travel by creating the first, first-class sleeping car. Renowned for their stylish, Art Deco design, plush accommodations and superb service from attentive porters and stewards, the Pullman Company set the standard for upscale American train travel and the hospitality industry in general. Today, Pullman Rail Journeys revives the iconic spirit of American rail travel with its carefully restored rail cars. In an effort to be as historically accurate as possible, each classic car has undergone a painstakingly detailed restoration and upholds the Pullman tradition of style, ambiance and craftsmanship.”

varsity2

Pullman Rail Journeys, based in Chicago has regularly scheduled round trips from Chicago to New Orleans. In October they launched special service to Madison, Wisconsin called The Varsity, transporting Illinois football fans on October 11, to play the University of Wisconsin –Badgers (we won!). There are plans in the works to expand the service between Chicago and Madison.

Pullman Palace Car Company

Reprinted from another article by J. J. Sedelmaier, Imprint magazine on October 17, 2011

“The Pullman Company revolutionized travel on a worldwide scale by making rail travel comfortable and reliable. The company’s founder George Pullman was one of the 19th century’s prime industrialists. His “Company Town” of Pullman, Illinois was established to insure an environment that his employees could not only work in, but live in as well. Unfortunately, it evolved into more of an insulatory compound than a Utopia. He wasn’t a favorite of the labor force. Regardless, the Pullman Company had established itself as the premiere brand when it came to passenger comfort and service, and retained this image into the 1960’s.”

Click on the links to read more about the history of the Pullman Company, the labor union associated with the company, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, which was founded and organized by A. Philip Randolph, was one of the most powerful African-American political entities of the 20th century.

Packing My Bags and Planning a Trip

In the coming year I envision a train trip. It’s been a few years since I rode Amtrak from Madison, to Chicago, then Washington D.C. and back home again, to visit my friends, Janice and Lonnie. I love the architecture and energy of the train stations, Union Station in Chicago and Washington D.C., bustling reminders of the past, of departures and arrivals, of travel from a different era. The train travel allowed me to have precious time for reverie and reflection.

The high point of my trip was when I joined a family in the dining car. As a single it’s common to seat you with others. I sat with grandparents and their seven or eight-year-old grandson. The grandfather had worked his entire career for the railroads and he was sharing his family’s oral history and passion for trains. I learned a lot on that trip and was grateful to witness one man’s passion being passed down to another generation.  

There was an opportunity earlier in the year to apply for an Amtrak Writing Residency Program which included long-distance train travel. 24 writers were selected to work on projects of their choice. I’m looking forward to reading their work. I can only imagine how inspired their work will be, riding the rails and seeing America.

To see a story featuring one of the writers of the  Amtrak Writers’ Residency Program click on the CBS report On the Write Track.

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5 thoughts on “Trains: Everything Old Is New Again

  1. Gerry Grzyb says:

    I grew up on Arlington Avenue just a half block from the North Shore in the 50s and 60s. I used to play baseball in the field immediately west of the tracks. The North Shore was such a frequent part of life that we couldn’t imagine it would ever go away, but by my 16th birthday, it was no more.

  2. I am a product of Racine, WI, & loved your train article. However, I lived at 1000 Hayes Ave. in Racine & the North Shore Station was several blocks away. So, I don’t quite understand how you listed a “Hayes Ave Crossing”. The tracks ran parallel to Hayes Ave. Was there a crossing I don’t remember? I did have a girlfriend, Joan Adams, who lived only a block from the station.

    My grandmother use to take me shopping in Milwaukee, using the NS. Loved every minute & now love the memory.

    Also, my whole family took the Santa Fe, El Capitan to Los Angeles several times. Fell in love with train travel & wanted to become a “courier nurse” when I grew up. Did become an Registered Nurse, but only worked in hospitals & clinics.

    About ten years I took Amtrak from San Jose, CA, to Kelso WA. It brought back so many fond memories of riding trains in my youth.

    Your article & photos were so great to see. Train whistles are a big part of my past too.

    Thank you so much.
    Nancy

    • Linda Lenzke says:

      Thanks, Nancy for being a reader and an honorary fact-checker. You are correct, Hayes Avenue ran parallel to the tracks. I lived on the corner of Hayes Ave. and 21st Street. It was in fact the 21st Street train crossing.

  3. Tamara Seeker says:

    I love this post, Linda. You captured, in describing your experiences and desires about trains, many of mine.
    We just returned from a somewhat grueling train trip from DC. The freight trains hauling oil and grain delayed our train by 12 hours. We still had fun and this time a friend joined us, so it tripled the enjoyment and the bigger sleeper car was nice. Hope you get to go on a train trip soon.

  4. Gloria says:

    Linda well done… nice Site…thanks

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