A Unique Experience

First of all, I must preface my experience by telling you that the reason today was photography day is that Hannah won Student Of The Month honors for Mrs. Mattison’s class. I figured, since I had the cameras with me I’d run the photography errands I’d been wanting to run since last August. And now, as Paul Harvey would say, the rest of the story…

I love turn-of-the-century Midwestern architecture. I’d love to buy and restore a great big 100 year old frame farmhouse like the one my brother-in-law Loren and his family have on the home place in South Dakota. I also love the old flat-roofed brick buildings common to most Midwestern small towns. Nearby, in Garrison and Belle Plaine, are some beautiful examples of this style of building: brick facades, some of which have large stones installed on the front onto which have been carved names and/or dates. Having visited both Belle Plaine and Garrison over the summer, I vowed that, once the weather got cooler, I would go back and take some pictures. Well, it almost got too cool, but today was the day. After Hannah’s awards ceremony, I drove out to these towns and got photos.

Garrison was pretty ho-hum. The town’s population is around 350, and I don’t think it’s growing. I don’t see any new housing, but there are alot of old, decrepit and abandoned buildings. Garrison used to be home to the Old Creamery Theatre, a place where a theatre troupe used to put on plays and musicals, but after a while the building became too expensive to fix so the troupe moved to Amana. The old creamery (which was a cannery before it was a creamery) is collapsing on itself. No, I didn’t take pictures of that building. But I did get pictures of the old mercantile, the abandoned bank, a doctor’s building turned into apartments, and the town library.

After Garrison I went down to Belle Plaine. That’s a pretty lively town still: it used to be a railroad hub, and a major east-west line of the Union Pacific still goes through it. (Garrison had train service once, but they abandoned Garrison long ago. Now that railbed is the Cedar Valley Nature Trail.) Anyway. So I went around downtown Belle Plaine, snapping photos, then I went to the old train depot which is directly behind the old downtown. (Makes sense, doesn’t it?) I pulled up in a gravel parking lot and started photographing the side of the depot that faced the downtown. It has a neat bump-out like a half-tower sticking out of it, and the fact that it’s run down and unused is a shame. But as I was taking pictures, I heard a train whistle in the distance. I was about to get in my truck when the three sets of crossing signals around me starting ringing, and the rails starting buzzing. It was a really high-pitched buzzing, and it mesmerized me for a second. Then the train came around the bend and man oh man are those things loud up close! I was still standing next to my truck, staring up at this huge train (its entire cargo was coal, and they were heading east) when I realized “Hey, if this stupid thing derails, I’ll get buried in coal!” so I went around to the back side of my truck and waited the train out. I never realized the strange sounds a passing train makes. Besides the expected clickety-clack, it also hisses, buzzes, grunts and squeals. Once the train passed I got back into my truck and drove around to the street side of the depot and finished taking pictures. But I wish I could’ve put my hand on the rails when they were buzzing to see what that felt like. No, I have no desire to be run over by a diesel locomotive, but I wonder what that sensation would be like (touching the rails, that is).

So once the photo card was filled up I headed home, still thinking about the train and lamenting the history that was lost when the trains stopped providing services to the small towns. Places like Garrison and Atkins lost their train service altogether, and towns like Belle Plaine still get freighters, but there’s no passenger service. Once in a while the freighters stop in Belle Plaine to fill grain hoppers at the elevator, but otherwise they just go barreling through, taking their cargo to who-knows-where. The songs about the trains puffing smoke and taking people back to their loved ones at home echo on the wind when the engines blow their whistles, but then the train is gone and the echoes fade. We satisfy our wanderlusts behind the wheel of a car or in the seat of an airplane, but hardly ever from a passenger railcar. That’s a part of Americana that’s pretty much gone unless you’re lucky enough to live near one of those scenic railroads, the ones that take people on short range trips several times per day. I’ve been on those. They’re fun…

that Golden Rocket’s gonna blow my blues away

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