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Jack’s Mid-Missouri Memories: “The Monsters That Lived Down The Street”

Steam Engine
rgusrail.com

This Mid-Missouri Memory is about a special love in my life. Those smoke belching, steam spitting trains that ran through Sedalia while I grew up just two blocks away. Was anything more frightening, and at the same time more fascinating to small children? I don’t think so.

 The Monsters That Lived Down The Street

When I was a child, monsters lived just two blocks away. They squealed, hissed, banged and spit. They shook the house, and woke me in the middle of the night with loud screams. They were the trains. Not the sleek diesel trains of today, these were fire breathing, soot belching steam engines.

They were then, and still are today, awe inspiring to watch.  Unlike the diesels, steamers always appeared to be moving, even when setting still. They spit, clanged, chugged and generally refuse to be quiet and passive. I guess that’s why they made such an impact on me, because like a racehorse, a steamer always looked ready to run.

I could stand in my backyard and watch the trains go by, but the real thrill was when my mother would take me to the Emmit street railroad crossing, so I could get a closer look at the fearsome beasts. It wasn’t long before fear was replaced with fascination, and I begged for ever closer looks.

One day, when mom and I were standing at the crossing, an engineer hoisted me into his cab and showed me all the gauges and levers and explained how they worked. I don’t remember a single word he said, but I can recall the heat and smell of the oil in that cab to this day.

The diesels put steamers on the endangered species list, and initiated a fifties version of downsizing for the railroads, which meant they employed less and less people, until Sedalia became something other than a Railroad Town.  The two depots that were always so busy in the first half of this century have become something else too, as freight trains just pass though, and Amtrak does little more than a rolling stop. I know diesels are progress, and progress is good, but losing the sight and sounds of those magnificent machines is a high price to pay for those of us who saw the romance, mystery and awesome beauty in those old steam engines.

I go to the Missouri State Fair grounds once in awhile to look at old engine #4516. It stands silently on a short piece of track there as kids climb on it. They are awed by its size.  Most of them have never seen a steam engine huffing and puffing, with black smoke pouring from its stack. To them it is just a big inanimate toy.  There must be a lot of people like me, who feel nostalgic about those old trains, at least the ones who never had to rewash a line of clothes when the wind deposited soot on it.

I love all trains, even diesels, but when I am awakened by a rumble in the night, as a train passes through town, I find myself waiting for the distinct wail of a steam whistle and am always a little disappointed that it never blows.  I guess I will always have a soft spot for those “monsters that lived down the street.”

Tune in to Jack Miller on Newstalk 1050 KSIS every Monday morning to hear excerpts from his book of Mid-Missouri memories, titled ‘Unhurried Days.’

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