Wednesday, February 23, 2011

there is something haunting about a train whistle

I have always lived near a river, train tracks and Route 2. Don't know why--and I think Route 2 is just a fluke--but that is the way it is. Growing up the train was across the river--you could hear the whistle blow off in the distance. What dreams of other places. I used to take Amtrak from Massachusetts to visit my folks in Illinois--the chug chug of the cars rocking through the night. That whistle loud and sure as it blew past silent sleeping towns. In the dining car we really did sing The City of New Orleans on the train they called The City of New Orleans. Now the train runs right behind my studio--I hear the whistle, the rumble. The power of the trains with a hundred boxcars and the extra engine to cross the Berkshires. Urgent.  Mysterious. So many memories.  How can we understand this? Do we need to?

As those who follow my blog know, I have been spending time thinking of the importance of size recently. Large quilts whose size encompasses the viewer and adds to the expression of the piece.
The intricacy of my small pillows where it is the detail that sends the message. The play between the two. You can read some thoughts here.

Luckily for me my DH has his own fascination with trains. Today after set up for the Baltimore show it was a no-brainer that we would walk over to the B & O Railroad Museum just past Camden Yards. We had been there before and I remembered how large the trains seemed. You can walk beside them and feel absolutely dwarfed. Wheels taller than I am. Locomotives that stretch so high my camera can barely encompass them in the view. Even the smells are right of steel and grease. The industrialization of America--might and strength. In some ways a different world and yet at the museum we could still hear the constant whistle of trains actually arriving and leaving. Have you ever been there?  They advertise it is the most important American railroad collection in the world and it is part of the Smithsonian.  For more info

Oh there was so much to see and do there. The main building is a huge roundhouse which had been used for repairing passenger cars. Just look at the size of this structure. Isn't it a gorgeous? Yes, of course it was the biggest round building for industrial use in the world--or some other claim to fame. The facts were coming right and left and I just wanted to absorb the feeling if you know what I mean.

I had not realized that the roof had collapsed in a major snowstorm some eight years ago. I was doing the show during that storm--but that is another story and I digress. They had to take down the entire roof and rebuild it--an amazing feat. A volunteer told us all the metal is original. They scraped off eight layers of paint and discovered that the inside had been painted white and black. Just look at the detail. The volunteer added they have archives they haven't even read yet--apparently B & O kept track of everything. Oh there was so much to hear. I couldn't absorb it all.

Inside here are some gorgeous early trains. A few you can walk inside with great sound effects. Others you can stand beside and admire.  Look at the care that went into the design and painting of these engines. Wow.

This train is huge and spotless. There was a car that had been retrofitted to drive on the rails so the executives could check out the rail lines. Very early passenger cars that looked like fairy tale coaches for Cinderella with leather straps for shock absorbers. A Conestoga wagon.

In another barn they have the Allegheny-- a locomotive with 389 tons of power and mass. Hard to capture in a picture. There are only two of these engines left. They let you sit where the engineer would sit and run the train--so many valves and switches. The auger that fed the coal into the engine to provide the power. We were so far back from the front of the engine we sure couldn't figure out how they saw what was ahead on the tracks. No computers back then. I know this picture does not capture it--I think you have to see it.

There was a sleek engine with almost Art Deco styling that seemed to stretch up forever. I loved the simplicity of the lines and the boldness of the color.

But then just when you get absolutely overwhelmed by the size and mass there is the model train. Now this model takes up an entire passenger car. It was built to portray the progress of the train from Baltimore out to the coal mines, farms and logging forests that relied on the train.  It took a professional builder 13 months to create. Just look at the detail. There is a scene of a car getting towed. So many tiny scenes. So many trains running on there tracks. While we were there, they were even polishing the tracks under one train which the docent said didn't sound quite right.

That scene is two trains passing on the tracks. I couldn't resist. Then alas--reality set in. Our feet ached. I remembered that tomorrow the show will be open to the public. This show is the largest juried indoor craft show in the country. So it was time to escape the magic of the train whistle. The power of these locomotives and head back to my reality. The reality of a person who makes quilts in 21st century America. 

I am not sure how to make a quilt that capture the magic of that train whistle. Not even sure if I need to. But it is still important. Do you ever think of trains? Do you ever think of those distant horizons or that power? Have you been to the museum?


  1. I LOVE trains!! I grew up collecting shiny rocks on the tracks in front of my acreage as a girl. I used to run outside and try to count every single box car. On my blog, I have many photos of trains. I feel LUCKY when a train is crossing my path and I get to park ant stare at the giant chug by. I like to show off to my children how I can make a train honk while driving out to the lake. I roll down the window and wave, and every time, they pull on the horn. It's very exciting! : )

    We feel very fortunate to hear trains at night in our now home. In the distance at bed time we hear the horn/whistle. It's such a good memory for me that it feels like a good omen.

    Aah thanks for bringing it up! : )

    Friday night, my husband is helping to set up a model train display at the local museum. He's the new owner of a local hobby store. There are trains all over the store - so fun! : )

    ~Monika in Saskatoon

  2. Great stories Monika. Are the trains out there spray painted with graffiti also? I do love looking at the designs. And yes, I always count the cars also. Where my parents used to live there would be trains with 300 cars heading out west. Amazing sights.

  3. I had to give the laptop to my husband so that he could read your post Ann. He's a huge rail fan and likes all of them, from the big ones all the way down to the N-scale ones that he models in. He loved your post. Thanks for sharing this Ann!