For the Love of Train Whistles

Aug 11, 2017

Leslie S-3K horns
Credit Matt Farnsworth

It’s late in the night and a train is hammering down the rails only a block from my home in River Park. Some neighbors are bothered by the locomotive horns blowing for the crossings, but I love them, even when they wake me in the night. That lonely sound puts me in mind of songs I sing—Milwaukee Blues, Midnight Special, 500 Miles, almost like a greeting from the pages of history. That loud and lonely sound splits the night and makes me think of hoboes and Depression-era Wobblies—Industrial Workers of the World, my IWW “fellow workers,” riding the boxcars from one end of the nation to the other at even the remote chance of a job. That lonely sound of the horn--it reminds me of epic journeys I’ve taken to New York on the Lakeshore Limited, to Kansas on the Southwest Chief, memorable trips from Chicago to Atlanta in the late ‘60s, and the many times I’ve ridden to Washington D.C. to see my son, his wife, and the grandchildren. The trains rumble through my memories.

When I was young, returning to my parents’ home in Atlanta for the Christmas holidays I caught the “Georgian,” formerly the “Dixie Flyer,” in Chicago, bound for Atlanta, in the last of the pre-Amtrak days. Even in those times passenger trains ran mostly at night because they didn’t make as much money for the railroads as the big freights.    

There were many wonderful aspects of that trip. The windows in those old coach cars actually opened, and while no one really did open them after the train got going—too cold--there was a vestibule where conductors stored bulky items as my upright bass fiddle, or passengers’ bicycles, and I used to go to that little space, open a window, lean out in the chilly night and watch the train threading through the mountains, often following a river bank, sometimes going alone far enough away so you didn’t see U.S. 41, the parallel highway originating in East Chicago and all the way through Evansville, Nashville, and Chattanooga, the tracks sometimes finding their own way across valleys and the mountain passes and down from north Georgia through places like Dalton and Kennesaw to Atlanta. I remember cold, clear nights, and that blanket of snow, the moon and thousands of stars, the mountain cabin lights glowing over the breasts of the hills. That whisked me away from the twentieth century to olden times when the journey really was an epic trip. When it finally arrived in Atlanta, leaving off most of the passengers and picking up new ones for Florida, I could ride one more distance, to a whistle stop station at Emory University only a few blocks from my parents’ home.

The Capitol Limited is glorious for many of the same reasons. After the flat uneventful ride to Cleveland it turns south, glides through Renaissance Pittsburg, then begins the laboring night journey through the mountains, straining, tunneling, across the Cumberland Gap, and down with the dawn by the winding forests, through Martinsburg and Harpers Ferry, where the Potomac joins the Shenandoah and the Appalachian Trail, and finally to Washington and grandchildren. I think of Indian tribes hunting the hills, of Revolutionary era farms with picket fences and Sons of Liberty, of John Brown, and Civil War battles and skirmishes for these important passes and river junctions.

Up the block the horn sounds. It’s a D#-minor! D#, F#, A#. The horns—grouped as chimes—are famous and collectable in themselves, maybe a Prime PM-990 or its likeness, the Leslie S-3K. Approaching a public highway grade crossing the engineer is required to sound its horn in a particular way. Can you hear it—long, long, short, long, a Morse code “Q” [YouTube Leslie S3K horn test]—are you there? Are you reflecting? Do you remember?

Music: "Midnight Special" by Huddie "Lead Belly" Ledbetter