Chasing Trains

In Memory of Dad …

I remember “chasing trains” with Dad when we were kids. I was too small to remember Cass Scenic Railroad in West Virginia, but I’ve seen photos of my brother Jeff and me wearing funny hats. I do remember visiting railroads closer to home when I was older — Strasburg Railroad and the Lehigh Gorge Scenic Railway in Jim Thorpe.

Dad’s snapshot of Jeff and me at Cass
Dad with me and sister Chris in Jim Thorpe

Riding a steam train was exciting as a kid, but obviously for Dad too, as he never lost his childlike wonder about trains. In fact, I imagine that one of the reasons Dad wanted to work at Ted Black Advertising was its proximity to the railroad tracks used by the Lebanon Valley branch of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad.

As a child, I remember Dad taking me along to his office in that old house on North Fifth Street when he had to catch up on work. On one occasion when Dad was developing his photographs in the basement darkroom, I became uneasy drawing alone in the muffled quiet of the conference room — I felt some sort of presence so was sure that someone else was in the house with us! Dad then shared the story of the ghost who could be heard wandering the house late at night, watching for the Reading Railroad’s steam locomotives that no longer ran on the tracks below the house. The ghostly inhabitant that Dad reported hearing when working those late nights was consummate “railroad man” William Dechant, who worked on that railroad in the 1880s and later built that house alongside the railroad tracks. I think my Dad would have enjoyed knowing him!

A Reading Company locomotive

Dad’s obsession with trains never abated. In 1990, Dad took me along on a 500-mile summer excursion to Maine so that he could follow a defunct railway line and visit his father’s cousin. While I admit to being bored looking at abandoned railroad tracks, I enjoyed our time together and the drive along the rocky coast of Maine. On the way home on Interstate 80 in New Jersey, Dad saved both our lives when he narrowly avoided our being hit head-on by a car that lost control in a heavy rainstorm. While it ended our trip in a disconcerting way (to put it mildly), I still have happy memories of our only father-daughter road trip. Years later, I read his notes from the trip, and his last comment was “a horrible end to a wonderful trip!”

Dad surveying the old tracks
Me in front of an abandoned railway car
Our car before the crash
Riding through a cranberry bog
The rocky coastline of Maine

After selling our childhood home, Dad’s later years were spent living at the B’Nai B’Rith Apartments on Franklin Street in downtown Reading. I learned only recently that one of the railway stations in Reading was located merely a few blocks from his apartment building, and of course that station was named the Franklin Street station. I don’t even know how many times we drove over the railroad tracks on the way to his place, but I never made the connection! The train station, which had been abandoned for years, was converted into a bus depot in 2013, followed by a gastropub in 2019.

I feel like Dad’s lifelong passion for trains came full circle, from his childhood days in soot-covered Altoona and his proximity to the railroad when working at Ted Black to the elaborate model railroad that he built in the basement of our family home, and of course all the family trips to ride steam trains while teaching us their history, even if we rolled our eyes as he shared his passion with us. It’s perfectly fitting that Dad spent his final years on Franklin Street in Reading, home of the railroad that he loved.

Ride the silver rails, Dad. Five Hundred Miles.

Author: polishamericangirl

I'm a librarian and amateur genealogist who runs a women's memoir book club. I'm working on a memoir project about my own family.

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