Long Walks, Crowded Trains,
and Waits in the Middle of Nowhere...
When a train originated out of St. Louis Union Station or Chicago LaSalle Street Station you would enter the station and walk a distance to your gate which might be more than a city block and go through the door out to a large platform and there would be a dozen or more trains sitting there on either side of your train under the shed. The shed provided protection from rain but it darkened the area for boarding the trains. Since trains had been backed in you would start walking past the Club Car, the Pullman cars, the dining car, and many coach cars. By the time you got to the car for Elkhart you would be at the outside of the shed with only baggage cars and the engine in front of you. The great thing is it was no longer dark and you could see the bright sky and you didn't feel so claustrophobic but the bad thing is that your arm would be tired from carrying a suitcase all that distance and your feet would be extremely tired walking to the end of the train. While you were walking you might see the train on the left leaving or one over a ways leaving or a train backing in. Trains came in and out constantly. One thing I hated was sitting down and waiting to depart and looking out and having the train next to you leave as you would get the strange feeling you were moving when you were actually standing still. When the train was ready to pull out the conductor would shout "All Aboard" in your car and that meant friends and family who had gone on with you had to get off. Within five minutes or so the train would slowly pull out and I mean slowly! It went at a snails pace for several minutes until it got out of the downtown area. If a person went Pullman you didn't have to walk so far to get on the train or when you got off but it seemed when we got to Los Angeles we walked for blocks through the station.
It wasn't unusual on the way to St. Louis or on our trips west to stop out in the middle of nowhere at night on a siding. As a child it seemed eerie to be stopped and look out and see nothing. My dad would say they were waiting for another train to go by and invariably within ten or fifteen minutes another passenger train or a fast freight would whiz by. I always thought the conductor could have made an announcement about what was happening but he never did. Sometimes we would sit almost an hour and two different trains would go by from different directions and it got frustrating because that meant we would arrive so late.
If your train was running late and you had to change trains with close connections you would have to make a dash for it just like you do when changing planes. Once a conductor told us in Kansas City when we got there late not to get out onto the platform as usual but get out on the opposite side and run across four sets of tracks as our train was probably about to leave. I started down the steps and just got my feet on the ground and started to go across the tracks when my dad grabbed me back as another passenger train whizzed by in a flash. I thought they had speed limits at stations but apparently not in Kansas City. I think my grandma who was in her late 80's thought the conductor was trying to kill us as we had to drag her across the four sets of tracks as it frightened her so.
Sometimes during Christmas holidays and the Korean War the trains would be so crowded you would have to stand. My mom and grandma usually got a seat because gentleman in those days would give up a seat for a woman. When we were heading west one summer the MoPac was filled with servicemen so we had to stand all the way into Kansas City and there were so many people stuffed into that car you could barely move. Sometimes at Christmas the trains were so crowded you had to go to the next car to find a seat. Once when we were taking the Santa Fe to my brother's wedding we stopped at a town and several servicemen got on. When all the vacant seats were taken, two young servicemen sat down next to my sister and me as we were sitting opposite each other. I was only fourteen but looked much older and I could see out of the corner of my eye my mom was nearly having heart failure! They rode with us for several hours and Mom was so glad when those servicemen finally got off.
It seemed like every time the trains were terribly crowded dad would disappear rather than stand in the car beside mom and grandma's seat. One day I got curious as to where he was going and decided to hunt him down. I went through car after car and finally at the end of the train there he was in the Club Car. I had never been in a Club Car before and to me it was like going into a country club. The floor was beautifully carpeted with a paisley design and there was a bar in one corner and tables for playing cards and cushioned seating along the sides with lots of windows and a great supply of magazines and newspapers. To a small child it looked twice as big as it was. Dad looked up from the newspaper he was reading and saw me and invited me to sit down. There were no other children and I asked him if it was just for grownups and he said "No". When we walked back to our coach mom said "Oh you found him". Yes I had but I didn't say where and from then on when the trains were full I insisted on going with dad and together we sat in the Club Car. When we went Pullman on extensive vacations we all went to the Club Car when our bunks were being made up. It wasn't nearly as exciting when mom or others were there too.
LaSalle Street Train Shed - Postcard photo