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.


17 Replies to “Coins on the Train Track”

  1. Great article, Ken! I also remember taking a train ride to Chaffee with schoolmates from Marquette Grade School, eating a sack lunch at the park, then coming back to Cape on the school bus. At that time, THAT was a big deal!

  2. Ken:
    you amaze me everyday with the photos and short stories you send. I wake up everyday anxious to check and see what youve shared. Coins on the track is awesome. Ive always wanted to do that. Ive been to Wittenberg manytimes but have never seen a train go through. You always find interesting places to take shots when you are here in town. Keep it Up..I love it.

  3. Sammy (Wes) Bartles and I used to do that behind my house on Merriwether St. We would walk to high school traveling down the tracks to shorten our trip. We decided to use some pennies to see how large they got. Thanks for the memories, Ken.

  4. To all of your readers:
    The railroad Right of Way is private property. It is also a dangerous place to be.

    With welded continuous rail and today’s locomotives, trains will seemingly sneak up on you. Many people have been killed when caught by surprise by a fast-moving freight train. A teenager was killed in St Louis a few weeks ago by an Amtrak train, while walking between the rails with earbuds playing music.

    Do not walk between the rails or walk across railroad bridges or trestles. Occupying the track anywhere during the approach of a train is a Federal offense.

    Ken had the advantage of hearing the conversation of the engineer and the railroad dispatcher when he placed his coins on the rails and stood well back while using zoom to shoot the video of the coins being flattened.

    Please heed my advice – don’t become a statistic.

    1. Keith, my go-to rail buff, makes very good points. In fact, I struggled for several days before making the post because I didn’t want to encourage anyone to do something that could get them hurt. Trains are big, heavy objects that move quickly and are very unforgiving to soft human parts. I’ve seen first-hand what happens when the two meet and it’s not pretty.

      I’ve spent most of my life taking calculated risks, and I came to the conclusion that it was one worth taking.

      1. It was a single track, so I didn’t have to worry about a second train whizzing by and nailing me.
      2. I was monitoring the train crew and dispatch, so I knew when the train was going to move.
      3. As Keith noted, I stood well back from the tracks when I was shooting.
      4. When we went back to retrieve the coins (they weren’t easy to find), I was very careful to make sure nothing was coming up from behind us.
      5. No alcoholic beverages were involved (even if this WAS in Perry County).

      We WERE technically trespassing on railroad right of way, but no more than if we had merely walked across the tracks.

      And, its illegal to deface money, but only if you are doing it for the purpose of fraud. (That’s why those machine that smash coins for souvenirs aren’t illegal.)

      Still, if you want to see what happens when you put coins on a track, watch the video. Nostalgia isn’t worth dying for.

  5. I hope everybody appreciates that Ken stays up until 2:30am producing this for you. I don’t know how he does it. Great stuff Ken. I like how you pull together old memories and new fun. Hug Mary!

    1. Thanks, Bob. The really amazing thing is that it looks like the video has only been watched about a dozen times. The one with you, Claire and my mother singing on our anniversary got 10 times that many.

      I like the video. It was the first time I tried cutting in music with live audio and having to balance the levels. That doesn’t mean anything to non-gearheads, but it was a big leap for me.

  6. You are technically correct Keith. But. My father was a railroader and still I raced trains to the crossing in my 36 hp VW Bug. I’m 68 now, and have survived far more dangerous activities. Had I died, I would have died happy. Putting coins on RR tracks is child’s play on one level, but makes one contemplate the value of life and complete attention to it: a very valuable pursuit.

    BTW Ken, excellent post.

  7. I can’t help it. Every time I see news footage of a train derailment I think of the possible cause as being coins on the track.

    1. You DID get to the part of the story where they pieced together a bunch of rocks around the tracks to find out the offending coin was 3-ton slab of stone from the Yap islands, not a U.S. nickel.

      (The whole piece was fiction, by the way, for the humor-challenged.)

  8. Ken, I started to ask you to edit my post for the semicolon fat-finger to keep me from looking stupid and then I realized what your response would be.

  9. Ken, I did the Sikeston-Chaffee trip in the fifth grade from Bernie. Took the school bus to Sikeston, loaded up onto the train while the buses drove to Chaffee to pick us up, then back to the Sikeston Park for the obligatory sack lunch……….as for the coins on the track, I would have been tanned by at least three people for attempting that feat, by our neighbor, the Cotton Belt station master, by my grandpa, retired section boss, and lastly by Dad for being dangerous to my own life and limb! Be Well over there, stay cool in Cape! Regards, kkr

  10. I used to leave penny on the tracks every time I went with my family to eat at Port Cape Girardeau. Sometimes it got squished, sometimes not.

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