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  Railroads of Madison County
Karen Dinsmore
Memories of a NYC RR Train Girl

What I Learned

Click on Thumbnail for larger picture

Traveling to Chicago and St. Louis taught me many new things about the world like having to ride the EL to get anywhere around Chicago. The level of sophistication in Chicago and St. Louis was way beyond that of Wabash and each trip brought new knowledge and experiences. I saw my first slot machines at my aunt and uncle's Long Lake meat market and Peggy Lee in concert with another aunt at age 10. Wedding receptions in Chicago were so lavish I was in shock. In Wabash you had punch and cake and in Chicago and St. Louis you had sit down dinners or lavish buffets and it always seemed my parents and I were the only people there that weren't smashed. I had my first six course meal at a wedding reception at age 8 at a St. Louis wedding and had no idea what the finger bowls were for. One thing I learned is that the rules for living were different in Chicago. One Sunday I was waiting for everyone to get ready for church and decided to wander up the street a few blocks since it was a nice day. When I got back I was told that you don't do that because this is Chicago. Once an aunt and I went in a dime store and I made a bee line for the coloring books and she chastised me for leaving her side for two minutes telling me that I had to remember this is Chicago. After that I was glad I was growing up in Wabash and not Chicago. One summer when I was about nine I visited my single aunt in Chicago who took me to a huge fair where they introduced the diesel engine to the public for the first time and of course it was a New York Central engine. I thought it looked strange and was rather ugly with its long snout.

I loved music so going to the St. Louis opera nearly every summer was a dream. A woman in Labadie, Missouri where my brother had his first church gave me a bottle of root beer she had made on a visit to her farm on the Missouri River. I had no idea people could make their own root beer. I had no idea people could go out in their back yard and pick their own oranges to squeeze their own juice until we visited relatives in Monterey, California. I was so envious. I never dreamed such beautiful fabrics for sewing existed until I walked into a St. Louis fabric shop. The first thing everyone said when they saw my completed cashmere suit at the 4H fair is "Where on earth did you get such gorgeous material?" I headed back there one weekend when I was in college to get the material for my wedding dress and when I got on the Southwestern Limited on Sunday morning my head was in the clouds as I bought the most beautiful material and pattern I had ever seen. Everyone around me on the train including the conductor admired that material.

One day my brother took me to a vantage point at the top of a hill and all you could see was water for miles. It looked like Lake Michigan but it was a badly flooded Missouri River. I had seen floods on the Wabash River but this was far worse. It was a real lesson in the power of nature. My mother was a great cook and we generally went to relatives' houses to eat on special occasions and suddenly I was eating in elegant restaurants with multiple forks and spoons and pieces of crystal glassware at a place setting. I thought they were giving you a choice depending on the size of your hand so I picked up a small dessert spoon to eat my soup and an aunt gave me a quick etiquette lesson. After that I felt comfortable eating in the diner on trains as they always had multiple forks and spoons. Once when we ate at Bevo Mill in St. Louis my grandma ordered a hamburger and I promptly told her they didn't serve hamburgers in upscale restaurants. I was way ahead of her thanks to my travels. It was there I rode the Admiral up the Mississippi and had so many firsts like White Castle Hamburgers and my first orchid given to me at a flower shop and to this day I believe you really haven't lived if you haven't ever had a Lake Forest Bakery coffee cake.

My trips west introduced me to the vastness of this country and the differing natural beauty from state to state and to places no one could ever see by car. I wondered why anyone would go abroad when there is so much to see here. It opened my eyes to different cultures, different dress, different architecture, different bodies of water, and different plants. I had never seen a huge cactus before or a house that had a yard with nothing but ground cover. I wondered as we wove through the Rockies and across Utah how the pioneers ever made it and what joy the railroad must have brought to those who lived in such remote places and how dependent they were on the railroads for survival. It introduced me to man made beauty like the Rose Bowl in Pasadena and the Morman Tabernacle and historic sites like the Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Indianapolis and Lindberg's airplane in St. Louis. I had never seen such great skyscrapers as Chicago or a real castle until I went to Mexico. My travels introduced me to bigger and better things and endless possibilities for when I grew up and I couldn't wait to finish high school and head out into that world.

I enrolled at Ball State in the fall of 1957 and all went well until right after Thanksgiving when everyone in the dorm was forced to have an Asian flu shot. I got deathly ill from mine and spent a week in sick bay delirious with high fever. It is one week that still is a complete blank to me except for nurses telling me my father was coming for me. My dad took me home to complete my recovery and two weeks later I was finally back on my feet and suddenly remembered the New York Central pass we were to use to go to St. Louis Christmas was still in my dorm room. The pass was a piece of paper about two inches by three inches of ordinary cardstock paper and though it was nothing to look at, it had a great amount of significance in my life as that pass opened up so many new horizons. My parents never knew it but my fiancÚ drove me to Muncie and I tracked down a campus security guard who let me in my room to get the pass. That trip to St. Louis was the last time I used the pass and that was my farewell ride on the New York Central as I got married three months later. While it wasn't the end of my train rides as that summer I rode the Chicago and Northwestern out of Chicago to Cheyenne, Wyoming to join my husband who was called into the military and rode on many trains after, it was never quite the same as it was riding the New York Central.

Karen

Photo Credits:
Chicago Rail Exhibition NYC PA1 Alco - Karen Dinsmore Photo.
Sothwestern Limited with diesel power - Roger Hensley Collection.


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