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Wednesday, 28 July 2010

A Trip on the Santa Fe


Image, Source: digital file from original transparency

Passing a section house along the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad, Encino vicinity, New Mexico, March 1943

The heavy industries that built and shaped our lives are dying
The sights and sounds now but memories of their once throbbing rituals
That echo and reflect their death throes
In retrospect
A pall of absence hangs over things
Yet time continues to move forward
Along the rusted tracks and corroded rails
Around blind corners
Through a labyrinth of empty corridors

We've perhaps been here
We will never be back
The tracks go on unscrolling
And we go on following the tracks
These endless parallels endlessly unravelling

A flagman
A pale glimmering signal light
Against the deep blue of the sky
Space drifts
We move forward as a scroll is unscrolled
There is no turning back
The pale glimmering of a signal
A level crossing
The stark figure of a man
He holds up one arm
As if beckoning
We pass another level crossing
Time floats
We follow the tracks
Iron rusting under snow
The tracks continue on toward infinity
And a vanishing point
Debris of a past cluttered with activity and use

Oblique lines do bend and may greet but parallels though infinite may never meet
Rust covers everything an iron blight of time oxidizing
The past
We won't be back this way again soon
We were never really here so how can it be we're leaving
The blight of time an irony corroding what we've left behind

Time that is the ghostly material medium in which we think and act
Compelled onward yet never knowing where we're going
Turned aside, derailed, misled, diverted, confused, disoriented, finally lost
Time continues to grind on as long as we keep breathing

The world of time through which we travel which we have made and which has made us
Has only one direction
And one speed
This speed
And one destination

Image, Source: digital file from original transparency

Santa Fe Railroad freight train about to leave for the West Coast, Corwith yard, Chicago, Illinois, March 1943

Image, Source: digital file from original transparency

Re-tiring a locomotive drive wheel, Santa Fe Railroad shops, Shopton, Iowa: the tire is heated by means of gas until it can be slipped over the wheel; contraction will hold it firmly in shape, March 1943

Image, Source: digital file from original transparency

Servicing engines at coal and sand chutes at Argentine Yard, Santa Fe Railroad, Kansas City, Kansas, March 1943

Image, Source: digital file from original transparency

Santa Fe Railroad locomotive shops, Topeka, Kansas, March 1943

Image, Source: digital file from original transparency

Yardmaster in Santa Fe Railroad yards, Amarillo, Texas, March 1943

Image, Source: digital file from original transparency

Grain elevators along the route of Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad, Amarillo, Texas, March 1943

Image, Source: digital file from original transparency

A completely overhauled engine on the transfer table at the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad locomotive shops, Albuquerque, New Mexico, March 1943

Image, Source: digital file from original transparency

Santa Fe Railroad train near Melrose, New Mexico, March 1943

Image, Source: digital file from original transparency

Santa Fe Railroad near Melrose, New Mexico, March 1943

Image, Source: digital file from original transparency

Flagman standing at a distance behind a Santa Fe westbound freight train during a stop, Bagdad, California, March 1943

Image, Source: digital file from original transparency

Mojave Desert country, crossed by the Santa Fe Railroad, Cadiz, California

Image, Source: digital file from original transparency

Activity in Santa Fe Railroad yard, Los Angeles, California: all switch lights, head lights and lamps have been shaded from above in accordance with blackout regulations; the heavy light streaks are caused by paths of locomotive headlights and the thin lines by lamps of switchmen working in the yards, March 1943

Folks around these parts get the time of day
From the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe
-- Johnny Mercer, 1944

Photos by Jack Delano for the Farm Security Administration (Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection, Library of Congress)


TC said...

On the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe: written and sung by Johnny Mercer, 1944

John B-R said...

This is beautiful, Tom

TC said...

Thank you, John.

Now we must get the time of day another way.

Sandra.if said...

the idea of time....well said...

Curtis Roberts said...

I usually find everything about trains to be uplifting and elemental, which I suppose is childish and connected to my first US (and subsequent foreign) travel experiences, model railroads, westerns and other old movies. I’m totally able to disconnect negative school return train experiences, work commutation hassles and the aesthetic decline in US train travel from these persisting happy thoughts.

If I could “come back” as something, I think a well-tended train might be the thing to be.

Therefore, reading a sad train poem is striking. I think A Trip On The Santa Fe paints a mathematically accurate picture of the current state of our collective journey (to the extent the collective is interested in considering things collectively) – funerary but not unfair. All the parts of speech slowly synchronize, chugging along. At least something’s still working.

The Delano photos are surprising and sensational. I find the Topeka locomotive shop one heartbreaking, however; what I imagine it would be like looking at the autopsy of a loved one.

The Johnny Mercer song is wonderful.

TC said...


Ah, the idea of time... and the weight of its passage.

Thank you for feeling that with me.


Well, I suppose it's but a teardrop's distance from the elegiac to the funerary. Sorry about that.

The Santa Fe carried the burden of many childhood dreams for me, and sorting through thousands of photos to put together this sequence was a labor of exhaustion and love and nostalgia and regret and discovery and rediscovery, by turns and all at the same time.

With his Santa Fe assignment as with his trip to the Vermont State Fair, the New Yorker Jack Delano sees the subject with what feel like extremely fresh eyes. You get a sense of the majesty of those spaces and the magnitude and scope of human care involved in the traversing of them.

Doubtless the joy of rail travel still survives in some sectors, including yours, Curtis. And that is swell.

The Santa Fe died in 1996.

Cross country voyages on the Santa Fe inspired romances, songs, and played a role in the composition of at least one great novel, Marguerite Yourcenar's magisterial Memoirs of Hadrian -- which, Yourcenar said, she completed in a state of "controlled delirium" during a rail voyage across America:

"Closed inside my compartment as if in a cubicle of some Egyptian tomb, I worked late into the night between New York and Chicago; then all the next day, in the restaurant of a Chicago station where I awaited a train blocked by storms and snow; then again until dawn, alone in the observation car of a Santa Fe limited, surrounded by black spurs of the Colorado mountains, and by the eternal patterns of the stars. Thus were written at a single impulsion the passages on food, love, sleep, and the knowledge of men. I can hardly recall a day spent with more ardor, or more lucid nights."

Johnny Mercer died twenty years before the Santa Fe, and also left many memories in many minds. He was a great songwriter and a wonderful singer, perhaps the only white popular singer/writer of his time to assimilate the genius of black music into his art. (He came from Savannah.) "Ac-cen-tu-ate the Positive..." The 1940s live again!

The lyrics to "On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe"-- he threw in that extra "the" for the rhythm -- were all Mercer's own (Harry Warren wrote the music), but two years after he recorded it Judy Garland performed it in the MGM big production style in "The Harvey Girls", and it became a huge hit for her. Her version and the much later John Denver hit version are pretty much saccharine stuff, to my ears. The second temple is never like the first. Harry Connick Jr. recorded the song in 1992, and while Connick's version is musically far superior to the Garland and Denver versions, it makes their treacly renditions sound like quicksilver in comparison. Connick performs the tune as though he had boarded the train with a case of codeine cough syrup and finished it off before Albuquerque.



Yes, beautiful, "time floats" --- what great photos. . . .

(Johnny says 'hi')

Curtis Roberts said...

That's ok. I'd prefer to think of it as elegaic and will endeavor to do so. It's funny about Harry Connick, Jr. He gave such a lively performance as the serial killer in the film Copycat. During the course of her long music industry career, Caroline knew several very talented singers who would swear (if they were awake and able to do so) to the all-purpose wonders of codeine cough syrup. The passage from Marguerite Yourcenar is wonderful.

TC said...

Hi Johnny!

And hello Steve.

Another chilly grey morning on the Bering Sea.

Curtis, yes, let's agree on settling for elegiac.

I've probably been unfair to Harry Connick. To not be as bright and smooth as Johnny Mercer is no crime. In that fifty year span a lot of the bright and smooth left our world. It's not the Forties anymore, Virginia.
Connick's version is a different mood. Spacey, loopy. Great syncopation and wonderful ballooning bass lines from the master Ray Brown.

Curtis Roberts said...

I listened to Harry Connick's version and I quite like it. Now, if I could only get On The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe out of my head. It's very catchy.

Elmo St. Rose said...

Railroads are back.
Watch the stock market.
With intermodal terminals
one of the most environmentaly
friendly ways to move freight.

Amtrak...not as cool as the
Harvey girls...who wants to get
frisked at the airport
I always do. I have a metal

I suspect the rail experience
for travel still exists much
like it used to with a little
effort. And so do the stark

Here's a trip. Albuquerque to
Eugene Oregon, you'll like it.

TC said...


The lilt is irresistible at almost any tempo.


This is cheering. Were I able to travel any more, that is a trip I would like to take.

To make it perfect there would be a dawn sleeping car awakening to find oneself deep in the previous century.