The army sent him halfway around the world and forgot him. He was wounded and they remembered him long enough to take the shrapnel out of his chest – they said they took it out but they never showed it to him and he felt it still in there, rusted, and poisoning him – and then they sent him to another desert and forgot him again. He had all the time he could want to study his soul in and assure himself that it was not there. When he was thoroughly convinced, he saw that this was something that he had always known.”
― Flannery O’Connor, Wise Blood
This looks like a back alley somewhere, but it is actually a street – with a name and signs and everything. It is Clover Street, in Deep Ellum, Dallas, Texas.
Although it is little known outside Dallas, Deep Ellum has a long and illustrious, often infamous, history. The rise and development of today’s music owes as much to Deep Ellum as it does to New Orleans, Chicago, California, or Nashville.
Riding my bicycle down Clover Street I see these old steel rails rise up for a couple blocks before disappearing back below the tarmac and concrete. What story do they tell? Was there a streetcar line running down a narrow lane? Or were the buildings factories and the rail line built to bring in raw materials and to haul out product?
That was probably it. Looking at Googlemaps, Clover starts at Trunk Avenue (a railroad name, of course), runs down and ends behind the Adams Hats Lofts. These are urban living spaces converted from an old hat company. But the building’s original use, built in 1914, was one of Henry Ford’s original assembly plants for the Model T.
So you can imagine trainloads of parts going down that line a hundred years ago, and completed automobiles rolling back out to all over everywhere. These would be any color you wanted… as long as it was black.
“We start off with high hopes, then we bottle it. We realise that we’re all going to die, without really finding out the big answers. We develop all those long-winded ideas which just interpret the reality of our lives in different ways, without really extending our body of worthwhile knowledge, about the big things, the real things. Basically, we live a short disappointing life; and then we die. We fill up our lives with shite, things like careers and relationships to delude ourselves that it isn’t all totally pointless.”
― Irvine Welsh, Trainspotting
My son, Nick, is home for a few days before he heads back to school. I told him I was going to do, “A stupid Dad thing.” I said I was going to drive down into South Dallas and sit around and wait until I could see an old train engine go by.
“Yes,” he said, “That sounds like a stupid Dad thing.”
When our kids were little, I used to take them down to Fair Park. It’s an underused and unappreciated piece of our city. We would stop off at the Age of Steam museum on the north side of the park. That was a little-known, overcrowded spot where they had an amazing collection of rolling stock – a true history of the American railroads.
The museum was always neglected by the city and actively discouraged by Fair Park officials. It became more and more threadbare and run down. I was worried that it would fade away. But, eventually, the city of Frisco came through and decided to build a brand-new, spacious Museum of the American Railroad. It seemed to take forever, but the thing finally came together. I can’t wait to visit the place when it opens.
One challenge was to move all the rolling stock from the Fair Park sidings all the way out to Frisco. No mean feat – over the last few years they have been using slack time in the various railways across the Metroplex to move their cars and engines out to their new digs.
Only one piece of equipment remained – but that was a doozy. Union Pacific Big Boy 4018. One of twenty-five “Big Boy” coal-fired steam engines built in the early forties – arguably the largest steam locomotives in the world. 133 feet long, and weighing one and a quarter million pounds (with its tender) – that’s a big hunk of iron to move across a giant modern city.
I wanted to see this.
For months now, the move has been scheduled and canceled – due to technical and scheduling problems. Finally, this Sunday, it looked like the thing was going to go off. I followed on facebook and twitter and made sure it was going to be leaving home – then packed up my bicycle, folding chair, camera, notebook and pen, and some cold water and headed out.
The route was available online and I picked out a spot in South Dallas where the rail line ran along a deserted stretch of grass and trees – that still had a road (Railroad Avenue) right next to it. When I arrived, I realized I must have picked a good spot – there were quite a few folks there, including news reporters, official rail line photographers, railroad dispatchers on their days off, and a good gaggle of serious train fanatics.
Unfortunately, there were some serious delays and we waited for several hours while a number of other trains sped by, but no Big Boy.
A freight train stopped on the track, blocking the route, waiting for clearance ahead and we all realized it would be several hours more – so I took off and went to a favorite place in Exposition Plaza – Pizza Lounge – for a slice, an IPA, and watch the Rangers get beat on the television over the bar. I was able to keep up on twitter – and when it looked like the train was moving again I headed out.
This time I stopped at Scyene road, near the DART station. The train would reach that spot first, and there was a good crowd of folks still waiting. It still took about another hour, but it was pretty darn cool – worth the six-hour wait. Several serious railroad fans were saying, “Seeing an engine like this moving on the tracks is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
Of course, it wasn’t under its own power. There was talk once of restoring this engine to operating condition, but it would be prohibitively expensive, nobody wants coal burning trains around, and there isn’t much track left that can take this size of machine. It was pulled along by a diesel engine, and was hooked to a long line of tank cars to provide braking and stability.
I was expecting the size but not the fantastic complexity. The size, number, and beauty of all those parts spinning as the train went by was incredible. Now I understand why the train fans wanted to see it move. When you look at these things in a static museum it’s easy to forget and hard to comprehend that they were built to move, move fast, move long distances, and pull unimaginably heavy loads.
Once it went by I drove back to Railroad Avenue, and as I pulled in, the Big Boy was already passing. I managed to get a shot of it as it went over Bexar Street.
The Union Pacific photographer told me of a spot where I could get a picture of the train with the Dallas skyline in the background, but there was another tall container train on a siding blocking the view. The train still had a long way to go, but I was getting tired and needed some water, so I headed home.
“Choose a life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television. Choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players and electrical tin openers… Choose DSY and wondering who the fuck you are on a Sunday morning. Choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing, spirit crushing game shows, stucking junk food into your mouth. Choose rotting away in the end of it all, pishing your last in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish, fucked up brats you spawned to replace yourself, choose your future. Choose life… But why would I want to do a thing like that?”
― Irvine Welsh, Trainspotting
A few more photographs from my bike ride down to the old, Fair Park, location of the Museum of the American Railroad.
Years ago, when my kids weren’t much more than toddlers, I made a discovery down along the edge of Fair Park – The Museum of the American Railroad. Along one side of the Art Deco complex of buildings was a strip made up of a half-dozen sets of steel rails with an amazing collection of rolling stock. They had everything from an old station to restored dining cars to some of the largest steam engines ever made.
The kids loved the place. They would clamber around an on the huge masses of steel. Their favorite thing, of course, was to climb up into the cab and sit in the driver’s seat, looking out and around the giant boilers. You could see their imaginations working.
The only problem was that it was a terrible location. A weedy, hidden spot, neglected, unknown – the powers that ran Fair Park obviously didn’t want the trains there and had no appreciation for the unique and amazing history on steel wheels. I kept expecting to read that the place was melted down for scrap.
Nevertheless, over the years, there were rumors of renewal and movement. For a while I read about a spot in downtown’s West End where a developer would use the trains to anchor a new complex. But the ups and downs of the economy always killed the ambitions and plans and the railroad museum began to get more and more run down.
There is nothing worse than watching a potential jewel, especially one in a city that is so sorely lacking in any history whatsoever, slowly corrode and die. It was obvious that the city and the Fair Park management were waiting until the place was so far gone they could kill it once and for all without fear of reprisal.
Then, a couple years ago, I read that the City of Frisco was coming to the rescue. When I moved to North Texas, Frisco was a small town, far to the north of the Dallas Fort Worth Metroplex. Over the last few decades the urban sprawl has vomited itself out across the cotton fields and swallowed Frisco whole. Now it is a huge shiny new city and hungry for signature attractions. What could be better than a museum made from a collection of antique locomotives? They already have a nice local museum up and going. So they put together a piece of valuable property right in the new city center and started plans for a new railroad museum.
When I first read about this a couple years ago my first thought was, “I’ll believe it when I see it.” I had seen this act before. However, I underestimated Frisco’s ability to get something done, and now, a short few years later, the site is ready and the rolling stock ready to move out to the suburbs.
The other day, I rode down the Dallas Santa Fe Trail from White Rock to Deep Ellum, and took a left turn under the mixmaster and into Fair Park. I rode around and took some photos. One stop I had to make was to see what was left of the railroad museum. It was sealed up with only a watchdog to bark at me through the wire. There weren’t any signs of activity that day, but I’m sure they were working on getting these huge old hunks of steel ready to move.
I’ve been following the news, trying to figure out when the big steam engines are going to move. I’d love to see these things on their journey – the first time they’ve moved in decades. That is so cool.