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Railroaded

By Jim Ganley

As an infant I was often awakened by the horns of Boston & Maine Railroad freight trains resonating into the night as they rumbled along through Manchester, New Hampshire up and down the length of the Merrimack River. My family’s home was located several miles away, but the atmospheric conditions served to transmit this sound far beyond its origin.

Knowing nothing of trains and railroads, I conjured up visions of leviathans roaming the city emitting the sounds which had disrupted my midsummer's, midnight slumber, and was frightened beyond words A year or so later I was in a high chair as my mother attempted without success to spoon feed me soft boiled eggs, which I refused to consume.

“You must be sick,” my mother observed, knowing all too well how I detested them. “Daddy won’t take you to see the trains unless you can finish your breakfast.”

I forced down the eggs and was allowed to go off with my father in his gray, ‘47 Plymouth sedan. The way things were in 1952, my parents had attended the 7:15 Mass at St. Joseph Cathedral while my older sister Alice baby sat for me. On my parents’ return home from Mass, my father and I would take Alice to the 8:30 Mass where she sang in the St. Joseph High School For Girls Choir under the direction of Rev. Edwin Francoeur. While Alice was singing, Dad would drive me down to Union Station so I could see the trains. This was the high point of my week.

We would drive down Bridge St. past some of the old Amoskeag Corporation houses and exit onto Canal Street, heading south toward the train station. Red brick was everywhere, from the corporation houses to the mill buildings. Lining Canal Street as a barrier to the train tracks was a gray, picket fence. I always knew we were nearing Union Station by the jarring vibration of our car rolling along over the cobblestones near the train station. There were yellow and black crossing gates there at Canal and Granite Streets as well as a booth for a hideous looking crossing attendant. Union Station was a large, solemn-looking structure made of yellow brick and tied into a four-sided clock tower. It was the perfect example of Victorian era architecture, the product of a different time, place, and way of life.

My father and I came here every Sunday from 1951 until 1955. On our last excursion my father had a few brief words with one of the conductors and an introduction was arranged. We walked up to the diesel-electric locomotive coupled to several Pullman cars. I had no idea what was going on.

“How’d you like to meet the engineer?” I was asked by my father, and in an instant he had boosted me up the ladder on the side of the locomotive where I found myself face to face with an honest to goodness train engineer. The engineer said hello to me and put his hand out through the window for me to shake. To me this was better than getting to meet Santa Claus for the first time at Leavitt’s Department Store.

While I may have been amazed by this experience, it was nowhere near as memorable as my first train ride in the summer of 1957. Once more it had been my father’s idea. Recent newspaper reports told of the decline of railroading in the Northeast. Most of this had to do with the advent of the Interstate Highway System, one of the more memorable accomplishments of The Dwight Eisenhower Administration. My dad related to me that trucks would soon be taking over most of the freight transportation and that airplanes would be assuming responsibility for passenger travel as well. He explained that railroads had linked the country together from East to West and from North to South and that at one time a person could go to any place in the entire USA by rail. According to what Dad had to say, such an important part of Americana should not pass away without receiving its historical due. Then he asked if I would like to take the train from Manchester to Concord and back. My father didn’t have to twist my arm. The very next day he and I were on our way to Concord gazing out the window as the telegraph poles , trees, and houses whizzed past. I found myself wondering why we were going to Concord, New Hampshire instead of a larger city like Boston.

“Because the Concord train station will soon be demolished,” I was told, but did not understand. So Dad went on to explain that the Concord Station had been the largest building north of Boston. He assured me that I would be impressed, and I was. On display in the rotunda of this massive, red brick edifice was a stage coach just like the kind I had seen in the TV westerns like Wild Bill Hickock and The Lone Ranger. Concord Coaches had been manufactured in Concord, NH and were used all over country. And as I was told this, I realized that I had learned more about local history in a few minutes talking with my father than I had in all three years that I had been in school. This fact continues to puzzle me.

By the eighth grade I had progressed to walking the railroad tracks between Manchester and Concord. The best part about this was that the area had been spared development along the rail corridor and everything was as it had been for the past hundred or more years. Mike Frederick and I could walk for miles without encountering another person. There were deer, rabbit, and fox as well as red winged black birds, pheasant, hawks, wood chucks, and snapping turtles. We hiked this route at many an inopportune time. Once, while walking along on the rails at 11 p.m. on a foggy Saturday night, a NH State Police cruiser pulled alongside on the access road and the trooper very shakily made inquiry as to what we were doing.

“Uh.....where ya goin’, fellas?” he asked.

Mike pointed to the north and said, “That way.”

The trooper, who appeared to have been a young rookie, swallowed audibly and asked from where we had come. Mike pointed in the opposite direction and replied, “That way.”

The trooper nervously cleared his throat, mumbled, “Okay.....,” and drove off leaving me and Mike doubled over in laughter on the tracks.

On another occasion Mike and I were making our way along the tracks when our ears were greeted by the rumble and blaring horn of a mile long coal train being pulled by five locomotives. Soon the ground around us began to tremble and we observed in awe as a young man leaped out of the nearby bushes where he had been hiding. He appeared distressed as he jumped up and down and then rolled around beside the tracks, shouting what to us sounded like gibberish. The closer the train came the more agitated he grew. With the train now bearing down upon us, the man from the bushes ran up and shouted out.

“LOOK! A FREIGHT TRAIN! I LIKE FREIGHT TRAINS!”

Mike and I just kept on walking to the north, leaving him rolling around on the ground crying out in what sounded like orgiastic ecstasy.

About a half mile up the tracks after the train had passed and was long gone I had a question for Mike.

“Hey, Mike......aren’t you afraid we might wind up like that guy?”

Mike had nothing to say.

Some time prior to that we had discovered an old, wooden bridge that went over the tracks and provided access to the PSNH power plant near Amoskeag Falls. As I showed Mike, we could climb up into the bridge’s support beams where we were eye level with the engineer on passing freights. In fact, so close were we to the locomotive that, had we wanted to, we could have reached out and slapped the engineer. Many times late at night we were at our post watching the trains. The strangest incident took place late one Saturday night in the summer. For reasons unknown to us, the train was passing very slowly, perhaps 10 to 15 MPH at the most. As Mike and I leaned out from our observation post we both had the sensation that something was amiss. From my perspective, I detected a change in air pressure and Mike and I pulled back simultaneously as a large, prefab building mounted on a flatcar squeezed past the bridge barely, and, had we not recoiled when we did, surely would have been decapitated. No sooner had that happened than the chain holding a score or more of logs on another flatcar broke and the logs came flying our way. Startled, I fell from my perch and was knocked off the bridge, feeling several of the logs come so close to me that they could have parted my hair. Serendipitously I made a soft landing in a pile of freshly dropped hay and was uninjured though the logs landed all around me. Mike told me that from his frame of reference I had been hit in the head by the logs. As I lay there amidst the logs in the hay, I understood just how close I had come to death and dismemberment.

Mike and I moved on to what we felt were safer alternatives. It was while in high school that I began hitching rides on freight and coal trains. Typically I would go down to the Boston & Maine freight yard out behind Bradlee’s Department Store and, making sure I was unseen, would sneak inside a gravel hopper or coal car. The rides I took were interesting, passing through East Manchester and out through Auburn past Lake Massabesic and on to the Seacoast. Once I stowed away on a small freight going over the railroad bridge to West Manchester. Sometimes I would ride the rails to Concord and hitch-hike back home. My mother often questioned me extensively as to how I had gotten coal dust all over my jeans, sweat shirt, and face. My explanation was simple if not original.

“Oh,” I told her, tongue in cheek, “Messin’ around, Ma.”

She chose not to pursue the matter.

Mike had his own ideas about fun with trains. Every night he would drive his ‘62 Chevy Corvair down to the freight yard to wait for any late night freights that might be passing through as they always did. Then he would race them to Concord along Route 3A, often stopping at. the gate crossings to watch them pass. Sometimes on weekends I would tag along on these late night jaunts of his, surprised that the police never stopped us for speeding. To Mike’s way of thinking, hopping rides on trains was too extreme for him, though on one occasion I had cajoled him into trying it with me. There used to be a double set of tracks running from Manchester to just before The NH State Industrial School. With oncoming traffic, a train heading north would have to park there on a siding until the southbound freight passed. It was here late at night, I told Mike, that we would have the best chance of stowing away for a ride to Concord and points north. It was while we were preparing to board a boxcar with an open door that we heard footsteps and bolted for the woods. As Mike and I sat in some bushes catching our breath, I asked about what had happened.

“Rail detectives,” he explained, pointing to the boxcar we had planned on boarding. Sure enough, we could see several men searching the area with flash lights. Apparently by this time they had heard reports of stowaways and were seeking to interdict this activity. We stopped after that and never went back.

As my father had told me in 1957, rail service in New Hampshire has declined abysmally. Union Station was demolished in 1963 as was Concord Station. The Boston & Maine filed Chapter 11 many years ago, and most if not all of the rail lines in New Hampshire have been closed, replaced in many instances by bike trails. Freight is moved via trucks and passengers regularly fly out of what has been renamed Manchester-Boston Regional Airport. In this part of the state the only remaining rail service is provided by Guilford Transportation which has an old, repainted B&M diesel locomotive and does a mere fraction of what the Boston & Maine once did. The Manchester Freight Yard and accompanying “Hobo Jungle” is now the home of MerchantsAuto.com Stadium and Hilton Gardens Hotel. The site of the Concord Station is now occupied by Ames Department Store.

Yet every once in a while, when the atmospheric conditions are right, I can hear the horn and rumble of a freight train making its way along the Merrimack River more than ten miles away from my Bow, New Hampshire homestead. I always smile, recalling my boyhood adventures on the rails.

(C)opyright 2007 Jim Ganley All Rights Reserved

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