Column: Old times have moved on down the road

“Hey, talk about her travelin’ she’s the fastest train on the line, it’s that Orange Blossom Special, rollin’ down the Seaboard Line,” – Ervin T. Rouse

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MARQUETTE — The section of road I’m on today used to be a railroad grade.

As I move south through these varying habitats that switch from hardwoods to lowland conifers to poplars and cutover timberlands, I imagine it would have been a grand view from the locomotive cab.

I wish I would have been able to take that ride, even once.

It’s hard to imagine today that at one time trains, and their associated lines, were so revered that numerous popular songs were written about them.

After the old bluesmen mimicked the rhythmic sounds of trains in their performances, there would be a great deal of train music to come down the line.

Jimmy Rodgers – the father of country music – did a great deal to popularize train songs and was nicknamed “The Singing Brakeman,” after he worked as one on the New Orleans and Northeastern Railroad.

He was part of the earlier tradition of country singers usually having a colorful nickname that accompanied their names, like the “Tennessee Ploughboy,” “Singing Ranger,” Southern Gentleman,” “Coal Miner’s Daughter” and more.

Numerous country singers would subsequently offer tributes to Rodgers including Hank Snow, Lefty Frizzell and Merle Haggard. Other musicians also popularized train songs, including Johnny Cash.

When I was a kid, I knew tons of train songs. I think what grabbed me most about them was they were as much story songs. I quickly recall the Orange Blossom Special, Rock Island Line, Wreck of the Old 97, Ballad of John Henry and Wabash Cannonball.

Just by listening to those songs, my mind would open-up wide and it would be easy to imagine train riding and working on a railroad. Trains don’t exist much today in that kind of old-style traditional sense.

Kids like me didn’t need much imagination to be fascinated with trains. Most of us had a train set of one kind or another. I had small plastic HO scale model railroad cars and an older, heavy set of engines that rolled on silvery tracks set almost two inches apart.

Even today, just looking at those HO railroad cars in pictures gets the steel wheels turning in my mind. Just the names of the lines themselves evoke strong feelings of identification, travel and exploration. I’m thinking of monikers like Burlington Northern, Santa Fe and the old Duluth, South Shore and Atlantic, a precursor to the Soo Line and Canadian National Railway.

In this part of the country, a lot of former railroad routes have been turned into trails for recreational purposes or the steel rails have rusted and grown over in weeds.

I would love to hear the steam old locomotive whistle sounding loudly on a hot afternoon like this one, with the drivers moving, rolling that big heavy train right here through these woodlands.

Instead, the big show out here today is the warmth of a summery afternoon and the spectacular showing of summertime wildflowers.

The milkweed plants are almost waist high, with yellow daisies, buttercups and orange hawkweed dazzling the sides of this now backwoods roadway. At a place where a little brook gurgles into the bushes from a small pond, there are beautiful purple swamp verbena, or blue vervain.

This is the time of the season when the plants are peaking, the time when walking along the riverside may mean pushing through plants as tall, or taller, than myself. It feels stuffy, as though the only air to breathe is a thin layer covering my face.

All the little tendrils of all the little vines are reaching, touching and grabbing – around my ankles and legs, wrists and the crank of my fishing rod as I pull through the underbrush to try to get a glimpse of a slow-moving stream.

Recent heavy rains have left the waters here clouded with sands and mud that washed into the water from hillsides and quiet country roads like this one.

The rain likely flushed red worms and other food into the water for fish. Grasshoppers of varying color and confederacy jump and flip in the lower-height grasses and flowering plants – more fish food.

I’ve spotted a couple of big trout today, but their chases were less than spirited. More like a dog that has tired of chasing a stick, these fish seem like they’d rather drift down to a resting place on the bottom.

I can’t blame them for that. It seems like settling down on the couch with a cool drink and a newspaper or book to read.

I hear a chestnut-sided warbler singing from the depths of a thorn-apple tangle. I whistle back and he flies right at me, landing on a small limb just inches away. He tilts his head back and forth as he looks at me, seemingly wondering where that sound came from.

At this place, the river makes a wide turn and flows silently, but determined over a granite outcropping. Someone here before me had a fire on these rocks. They left baby socks, a beer can, some plastic and a full diaper.

I let my bare feet sample the warmth of the sun on the water-worn rocks. I notice a place where the granite has flaked off in thin sheets, some about as big as my hand. The water here is dark too, carrying a load of sediment from the rainstorms.

I take a few casts and get a couple of strikes from small fish.

I hope to see a bear or a wolf slip from the comforting shade of the trees into the open. However, that doesn’t happen. No deer today either. Quiet. Dog day.

I’m still distracted by the thought of riding in a steam locomotive through these woods. I would love to have seen the little communities and railway stations that had been built along this line but are no longer in existence.

Even the withered pale ghosts here call them ghost towns.

I certainly became a cross tie walker as a kid. We used to climb the red ore hillsides to get to a viaduct not far from our house, knowing the schedule of the trains. It was a bit scary and exhilarating to be up on that steel structure looking down through the spaces at the train headed perpendicular beneath.

There are many a creosote-covered railroad bridge that I’ve walked across or under to go fishing or just walking. As kids, we used to play around those old bridges, water, fishing and trains.

I checked back recently on one of our favorite railroad bridges. Like the viaduct, it’s been long removed. What remains familiar here is that hook in the river’s path to the north. The grassy banks are still there, and the smell of creosote isn’t far from the surface if you scratch with a boot heel.

The flowers at this old place are big stands of goldenrod. In the water, I see long, waving strands of yellow-green grass pulled taut by the downstream current. That grass is one of the features than defined this place.

Like so much water, and those old times, it’s all moved on, way downstream.

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John Pepin is the deputy public information officer for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Outdoors North is a weekly column produced by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources on a wide range of topics important to those who enjoy and appreciate Michigan’s world-class natural resources of the Upper Peninsula. Send correspondence to pepinj@michigan.gov or 1990 U.S. 41 South, Marquette, MI 49855.


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