Coins on the Train Track

I’ve always been fascinated by trains. I remember standing at the Advance train depot with my grandparents to watch the steam engines come puffing in with black smoke boiling from the stacks and a deafening blast of steam when it stopped.

Texas singer and songwriter Guy Clark describes how it was to be six years old in 1947, when the whole town turned out to see a “mad dog, runaway, red-silver streamline train” whiz though for the first time. Up until then, “Trains are big and black and smokin’ – steam screamin’ at the wheels, bigger than anything they is, at least that’s the way she feels…When they finally said ‘train time,’ you’d a-thought that Jesus Christ his-self was rolling down the line. Things got real quiet, momma jerked me back, but not before I’d got the chance to lay a nickel on the track.

Coins on the track

When Bob, Claire, Mother and I visited Wittenberg the other day, a slow freight pulled slowly through the town, then came to a stop. I tuned the scanner in my car to the train frequencies and heard the engineer talking to dispatch about stopping for a signal that shouldn’t have been red. While they were sorting it out, I thought about Clark’s song and dropped a penny, nickel, dime and quarter on the track.

Watch the video to see what happened.

Crawling under trains at 10

I’ve been around trains quite a bit and have a lot of respect for them. When I was about 10, Dad had a road-building job down in the Bootheel and had the gravel for the job delivered by rail. He’d let me crawl under the hopper cars to bang open the door that would spill the rock onto a conveyor belt. He told me to make sure I didn’t come out from under the car until he gave me the all-clear, then he would have a bulldozer push the cars forward until the next one was ready to dump. (Just think how many regulations that would bust today.)

Where did my pennies go?

When we left to go home one Friday, I put a row of pennies on the main line, expecting to find them when we came back on Monday. When I rushed to the tracks to find zip, Dad explained that a fast, heavy train will smash the coins as thin as tin foil, then it’ll weld them onto the passing wheels or onto the track. To get good results, you had to do it on a siding or when the train was just starting out.

 Kindergarten ride to Chaffee

I did the obligatory kindergarten ride to Chaffee from Cape; I rode the train from Cape to Chicago for a photo seminar right after high school; a train delivered me to Philmont Scout Ranch when I was 15; I took passenger trains to and from college in Athens, Ohio.

Over the years, I don’t know how many “last rides” I’ve photographed as passenger trains dwindled to a passing few. I rode the Silver Meteor from Florida to Chicago through a 100-year blizzard with drifts so high that they knocked out the headlight on our engine. I rode in the engine of a freight train along the east coast of Florida (where I learned that I couldn’t handle the stress of seeing so many cars drive around closed crossing gates with our engine bearing down on them.

In Gastonia, N.C., I saw a train hit a car that tried to beat it to the crossing. A 16-year-old kid died in my arms.

So, I don’t encourage you to do what I did. Still, like Guy Clark sings in his song, “Oh, but me, I got a nickel smashed flatter than a dime by a mad dog, runaway red-silver streamline train.”

Maybe I’ll leave a coin for Dad

Maybe I’ll leave one of the coins on Dad’s gravestone to show him that I finally pulled it off.

 

Advance Train Depot

The Advance train depot was originally supposed to be located in Lakeville, described in 1875 as a “thriving town” with a population of about two hundred and all of the necessities of life in that era: a post office, a Union church, Masonic lodge, hotel, public school, general store and a saw and grist mill.

When Louis Houck extended his Cape Girardeau Railway line through the Old Field, heading south and west, though, he balked at the $30 an acre price Lakeville owner Jacob Kappler was asking.

Land in Advance was $10 an acre

Houck agreed that Kappler’s price wasn’t THAT far out of line, but he instructed his civil engineer Major James Francis Brooks to “advance” about a mile west near a stand of mulberry trees and lay out a new town where Joshua Maberry would sell the land for $10 an acre.

New Lakeville thrived and was later named Advance, with the accent on the first syllable. The original town dried up when it was bypassed by the railroad.

Railroad abandoned

I shot these photos for a story that ran in The Missourian June 24, 1966. The first train trip on this line was made in 1881. The last was Nov. 30, 1965. The tracks which once carried as many as four passenger trains a day in the 1920s were being abandoned. The ties were sold to Vernon Lee of Puxico; most of the right of way became part of the property that it adjoined. (What a great rails-to-trails bike path that would have made.)

A Missouri Railroad Pioneer

I picked up a book, A Missouri Railroad Pioneer: The Life of Louis Houck (Missouri Biography Series), when I was in Cape in the spring. I quickly set it back down when I saw it was forty bucks.

Reader, railroad buff and frequent commenter Keith Robinson highly recommended it, so I swallowed hard and bought it when I was in Cape this fall. It’s a great read about someone whose name I had heard all my life. I knew he must have been important enough to have a SEMO stadium named after him, but I never realized how key he was to the development of the Southeast Missouri region. (There might not have BEEN a Southeast Missouri State University if there hadn’t been a Louis Houck, by the way.)

Paul Corbin

Another reader, Madeline DeJournett said I should give local historian Paul Corbin a call. We chatted a few minutes and he mentioned that Missourian photographer Fred Lynch had published some audio recordings of him talking about the railroad and growing up in the Advance area. They’re worth a listen.

The old depot wasn’t just a place where the trains stopped. There’s a sign on the building saying that it’s the Railroad Express Agency, the way you got stuff to you in the days before Fed-Ex and UPS. I had a big box of stuff shipped by Railway Express from Cape to Athens, Oh., when I was in college. (They crushed the box and I had a devil of a time getting them to settle, but that’s another story.)

Another sign proclaimed that it was the Western Union Telegraph and Cable Office. I suspect it was a mail and newspaper drop, too. The Missourian used to put out an early edition for train delivery. It was a mishmash of yesterday’s news, today’s news and bad layouts. You had to have wanted a newspaper pretty badly to accept that one.

I’m not sure when the depot was finally torn down.