When I was a child, monsters lived just two blocks away; they squealed, hissed, banged and spit. They shook the house and woke me in the middle of the night. They were the trains. Not the sleek diesels of today — these were fire-breathing, soot-belching steam engines. They were then, and still are today, awe-inspiring to watch.
Unlike the diesels, steam locomotives always appear to be moving, even when they are sitting still. They spit, clanged, chugged, and generally refused to be quiet and passive. I guess that’s why they made such an impact on me, because like a racehorse, a steam engine always looks ready to run.
I used to stand in my backyard and watch the trains go by just two blocks away, but the real thrill was when my mother would take me to the Emmit Street railroad crossing so I could get a closer look at the fearsome beasts. I don’t remember how old I was, but can still remember an engineer hoisting me into the cab of his train. He showed me the gauges, and levers, and how they worked. I don’t remember a single word he said that day, but I can feel the heat and smell the oil of that cab to this day.
Anyone who grew up in Sedalia before the late ’50s knows what it was like to live in a railroad town and, like me, they probably miss some parts of the experience. For me it will always be those steam engines.
The diesel put steamers on the endangered species list, and initiated a ’50s version of downsizing for the railroad. When that happened the Missouri Pacific Shops employed less and less people until Sedalia became something other than a railroad town. There are two empty depots now, and Sedalia has become a pass through for freight trains, and only a limited stop for Amtrak.
I know progress is good, but losing the sight and sounds of those magnificent machines is a high price to pay for those of us who still see the romance, mystery and awesome beauty in those old steam engines.
I go to the Missouri State Fairgrounds every once in awhile just to look at Engine 4516 that stands on a short piece of track there. Kids climb on it and are awed by its size, but most of them have never seen a steam engine huffing and puffing with black smoke pouring from its stack. To them it is an inanimate and lifeless toy.
There must be a lot of people who feel nostalgic about these Old Trains — except maybe women those who like my mother had to rewash lines of clothes after the wind deposited smoke soot all over them.
I will always love trains, even diesels, but when I’m awakened by a rumble in the night of a train passing by, I find myself waiting for the distinct wail of a steam whistle, and I am always a little disappointed when it doesn’t come.
I guess I’ll always have a soft spot for those “monsters that lived down the street.”
Thanks for listening.
Jack Miller is a longtime Sedalia resident whose column runs in the Weekend edition of the Democrat.