Train Refrains for Nerdish Brains

I took my liddle wagon,
I pumped it very hard,
And then my tail was draggin’,
‘Cause handcar work is hard.


My Uncle Bill helped start the first train museum in Illinois. He loved trains, and so do I.
I remember my first train ride, when I was two. The clackety-clack sounds and the rocking motion were so relaxing. I saw an elevated subway train out the window of our real train that day, and was amazed that another train could be up so high in the air.

Elevated Traing Collision With Building 1960

Imagine If I’d Seen THIS That Day (In 1960, This One Oopsed and Hit a Building)

Do children still put pennies on train tracks to see them get squished?
Pennies Squished By Train


One time we got to ride back from Chicago in a Pullman: A sleeper car. We kids loved it. We each had a tiny bed with a curtain. The porter kept pulling on our curtains to ask if we were all right, but really he just liked kids, and was making us laugh.

My parents didn’t like the ride so much. If you have never seen an old-style Pullman, the beds are really tiny. A grownup would have had to keep their knees bent all night.

Pullman Blanket

Pullman Blanket–See the Adult’s Feet At Top Left? Tiny Blanket, Tiny Beds.

The best train-y thing that ever happened to me is when my sisters and brother and I got to ride on a real handcar: One of those little cars you push up and down on a handle to make go (they’re also called Kalamazoos–did you know that?).
Sheffield Handcar or Kalamazoo Replica

How It Looked At Day’s Start

Sheffield Handcar or Kalamazoo Original 1910

After WE Got Through With It

Someone we visited had an old length of abandoned track behind their property, and there was an abandoned Kalamazoo, too.

I had always wanted to use one–Didn’t you, when you saw them in the cartoons and movies? They look so fun!
They are! It was hard work, but we kids did have tremendous fun pumping our way up and down that short piece of track.
The funniest thing that ever happened to me on a train happened at my uncle’s train museum. We were touring a very posh velvet-seated private car.

My brother was still little, and when he saw the handsome mahogany toilet, all he could think about was wondering what happened to the “stuff” when you flushed. (He didn’t remember that Pullman ride.) I was more than happy to educate him:

“It falls right down under the train onto the tracks, where it sits all STINKY! (A small preview of my future teaching strengths!)

Paul thought I was pulling his leg–possibly, despite his tender age, I had already been guilty of doing so repeatedly. He wanted to look for himself.

Macy Girl lifted the beautiful golden lid. Our three older heads of molasses, cinnamon, and shiny butter leaned over Paul’s smaller sugar-white one as we all four stared down.
At the bottom of that fancy toilet, the museum people had thoughtfully placed an official museum label card with one neatly-typed word at its very center:
All these decades since that Pullman ride when I was a single digit old, I had remembered our funny porter’s name: George.

But I recently learned, to my dismay:

ALL train porters were named George. Porters, all black men, were required to set aside their own identities while on the job and answer as one to “George”. One, big, happy interchangeable set of Steppin Fetchits [think Jar-Jar Binks], as far as white people at the time were concerned.

When railroads first began using porters, they didn’t even pay them–it was tips only.

White bosses were so convinced that blacks were “no-account” that they tried entrapment: Female “passengers”–disguised railroad employees–tried to seduce porters, or “accidentally” left expensive jewelry behind to tempt black maids and waitresses to steal.

I learned this and other really interesting-to-nerds train facts from The Iron Road: An Illustrated History of the Railroad, by Christian Wolmar.

Trains were first drawn by horses.
Horse-Drawn Train Then and Not-Now
I’d known mine-mules drew mine cars, but hadn’t known about full-sized above-ground horsey-trains, on tracks, with freight or passengers. Had you? ALL of Austria’s trains were originally horse-drawn.

How did the horses manage walking over the spaced-out ties (the wooden boards) without stumbles? Was the distance between ties decided only by rail support, or by fewest hoof-trips per train-trip?

Germany’s first railroad existed because of classism and racism.


Snoot-snoot! Toot-toot!

For centuries, Nurenberg, in Hitler’s homeland, Bavaria, had not allowed mere laborers or foreigners to live inside the town. Such lower forms of life had to commute from a town miles away. A train in 1835 finally cut their commute time.

The Jews had to buy TICKETS to ride the trains carrying them to their deaths. (I was unable to type that without crying.) And this was a major source of revenue for the Nazis. It generated around 240 million Reutchmarks–201 million dollars.


I wonder, seriously, if the humorous expression “It’s like buying a ticket to your own funeral.” originated from knowledge of this horrible fact.

Using trucks would have “damaged the German war effort”. I guess trucks were needed for moving battle materiel and troops.
I’m also guessing that masses of stumbling women, children, and elderly travelling along open roads would have let the walking dead cats out of the bag. Possibly made killing them harder, although Armenians might disagree. So trains fit the tic…you know.

In the 21st century, several railroads have apologized.

Just like with the internet, the freedoms offered by railroads brought out Government Overlord syndrome. No one-way tickets were sold–you had to buy return tickets. Children under twelve (12) were not allowed to travel. All passengers were locked inside their compartments.

Governments wanted you to come home again–They didn’t want their citizens leaving permanently for greener stations in other nations.

Fish Leaving Bowl or Country For Greener Grass

“If He Asks Me One More Time Where His Socks Are…”

The locked-compartment policy changed after some horrific collision accidents in which entire trainloads of passengers, unable to leave their locked compartments, were suffocated or incinerated inside tunnel fires.

India and Russia protected their nations by train track widths. The world eventually settled down to tracks (rails) the same width apart–the same “gauge” [rhymes with cage]–4′ 8″. India and Russia, though, chose 5′ apart. They thought they’d be harder to invade if outsiders’ trains couldn’t cross their borders.

Prussian Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck quietly bought up shares in the railroads he was about to have nationalized. Tsk! Not what he Otto have done.

There was a Railroad Robin Hood!, Redpath (so aptly and artfully appelled! [named]) stole beaucoup [boo-coo–lots of] bucks from the railroads while he worked for them, by, for example, just adding the digit 1 in front of the amount on stock certificates (to increase their value).

Working On the Railroad and Robin Hood

Record Title: “I’ve Been Working On the Railroad–And Robin Hood”–Ha ha ha! And Redpath!

Redpath lived very well, but he also donated very well to the poor. These are his words in a ballad sung about him after his death:

I have one consolation, perhaps I’ve more,
All the days of my life / ne’er injured the poor.
I procured for the widow and orphan their bread,
The naked I clothed, and the hungry I fed…

Leopold (for that was his disappointingly non-alliterative first name) was finally caught and banished to a penal colony. Some of you Aussie readers may be descendants of this pioneering economist-slash-socialist who devised his own 1%-to-99% trickle-down distribution system. Be proud!

Thomas the Tank Engine not only WAS real–he still IS!

The Real Thomas the Tank Engine in India

Say Hello to Thomas 🙂

The Darjeeling-Himalayan Railway (DHR) is a specially-built narrow gauge (skinny track) railway made smaller to allow it to make smaller, tighter turns so that it can climb around and around the mountains it travels. The DHR’s tracks are only two feet wide, and they make tight loops for climbing.

Train Track Loop

The DHR’s Loops Are Teensy-Weensier

It is a very famous train line, traversing difficult, crumbling passes, and most of its engines from 1881 are still in use today (!). The Toy Train puffs and toots and thinks it can, and it does.

Thomas the Train in India

Am I Not a Thing of Beauty? Do You Not Wish You Could Ride Me Right Now?

1%-ers have disdained we lesser folk from WAY back. During World War II, railroads had gained expertise in rapid movement of people and materials. They learned that moving freight yielded more profit than people.
As soon as the war was over, they RUSHED to close most passenger routes–even in the middle of a day. Passengers who’d travelled 400 miles by train in the morning were left stranded 400 miles from home with no way to return that night. Niiiice.

If you are an absolute handcar NUT, you will love this fellow’s post, in which he shows an actual for really-real handcar he built as a KID, back in 1958!

Teen-Built Handcar Wheel 1958

He Did This Wooden Center With Hand Tools! (and…weeks… of… pa…tience…)

and another he built more recently.
Home-Built Handcar Replica

Do You Feel Like a Slacker? Or Do You Think SOMEone Still Has Too Much Time On His Hands?

Here’s a little (very poor-quality) youtube of him sailing along on it with a friend:

And if you know anything about Kalamazoos, you know there’s a famous one in Michigan, made even more famous by a song:

Which Came First: The Kalamazoo, or Kalamazoo?

The handcar was named for the town. The town was named for the river. The river was PROBABLY named after an Ojibwe (Indian) word. Or phrase. But no one agrees what that is, or what it meant. Perhaps “bubbling or boiling”, perhaps “smoky or smoking”, or perhaps “runs quickly” (like a fast river).

The Kalamazoo
Was the place where the who
Put the pot on to brew?
The Ojibwe,
That’s who!

Or the Kalamazoo,
Was when smoky fires grew,
And you heard “Ah-ah-choo!”
“Pardon me.”
“God bless you.”

Or the Kalamazoo,
Was the place where the crew,
Needn’t paddle canoe,
Because man,
Those boats flew.

This is not a Kalamazoo. This is a Kala Mazooka:

Kala from Jungle Book

The Hungry Half


The “Pam! Pam-Pam!” Half


If Kala fires his bazooka
at a moving handcar car,
And his marshmallow-projectiles
travel forty feet (so far)
And the handcar’s moving 20
miles an hour, pumped by bar,
If the car begins in Boise,
when will marshmallow meet car?

If a little boy in Illinois
does number two by train,
And the package sent, when it is spent,
drops down beneath the drain,
When do you think now a passing cow
will slip and ankle-sprain,
And be thus up-scooped;

Because of —,
a blameless beast is slain!
* * *
(Please don’t let it be,
Themes rectally,
Have become my blog’s refrain!)
Rest assured that modern trains have modern toilets.


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