Riding the Rails of Milwaukee Road

by : Larry Lee Phillipson

I walked to the top of the hill to start the water pump. I could see farmers in the surrounding countryside working in their fields. I had wanted to get an early start in the field but Pa was sore at me for not helping with the morning nilking instead so he wouldn’t go into town to buy gas for the tractor!

Now, for some reason, the water pump engine wouldn’t start. I cranked and cranked, to no avail. “To hell with it," I said and walked down the other side of the hill. “Why fight it."

I walked to Whitehall and was standing by the railroad depot. I looked at the new leaves sprouting from the buds on the maple trees. The faint scent of spring flowers bursting from their buds mingled with fresh, growing grass tantalized the air. The warm May sun felt good on my cotton, plaid shirt.

With its dynamic throb, the diesel engine appeared down the tracks, and pulled up to the station. The train slowed almost to a stop. The porter tossed the mail bag to the station agent. The engineer opened the throttle and the engine roared with a burst of power and the boxcars began rolling by with increasing momentum. The wheels made fast clicking sounds on the steel tracks.

I waited for the train to gain enough speed so that the brakeman wouldn’t order me off. I didn’t want to miss my grip, I remembered someone had slipped as he tried to hook a train and he had fallen under it. I reached out and grabbed a rung of the steel ladder on the side of a boxcar. I strained to swing myself up off the ground and then climbed to the top and sat down on the narrow board catwalk. I turned my head and watched the town diminish behind in the distance. The train whizzed by trees and telegraph poles as the steel rains reflected the sunlight like long, silver threads streaming back into the horizon.

Around hills and through valleys the train rolled and then climbed a grade that led toward the Mississippi bluffs. The train turned a bend, and there I could see the majestic Mississippi River shimmering in the sunset.

It was getting colder now, and I wished that I had brought a jacket. Thousands of mayflies, that looked like huge mosquitoes, swarmed over the tops of the boxcar and I jumped up and ran along the catwalks leaping from car to car until I found one that was lower than the others. Then I laid down flat on my stomach as the mayflies, like drifting snow, blew past me from the higher car in front. I was getting hungry, but nothing could be done about that at the time so I took off my belt and tied my wrist securely to the catwalk, and in a short time I had fallen asleep.

When I awakened, it was dark as the train was pulling into the Twin Cities. Off to either side as far as I could see were lights twinkling, and then with a deafening roar the train plunged into a tunnel. When the train had emerged on the other side, it began to slow down and then finally stop. The big diesel unhooked up ahead and left the train sitting still. I sat up and put my belt back on and then slowly climbed down the ladder onto the ground.

In the darkness my feet tripped on the steel tracks and I tried to find my way out of the stockyards. I began to walk faster as the rumbling sound of moving trains grew louder. Suddenly, I was blinded by the glare of powerful headlights on trains coming from both directions toward me. The tracks were so close together that for a moment I became confused, but I stepped aside just in time as the two trains thundered past on either side.

Soon another train rolled past where I was standing. I climbed aboard an open topped gondola car that was loaded with lumber. There was an empty space in the corner and I laid down. I listened to the rthythmical sound of the wheels clicking on the steel rails, and soon I was asleep.

I awoke at daybreak, and the train had stopped. Standing up, I peered over the side of the gondola car and saw a town up ahead. I crawled over the side, dropped to the ground, and began walking along beside the train up to the station. There was a sign on the station printed in big letters. I read the words, “WILLMAR, MINNESOTA", and then I sat down on a wooden bench on the station platform. A new adventure had begun