Posted by: David Carlson | January 8, 2011

Boomer Express Engine 1946 – Memoirs and Trains

I had fun with my first blog post in this series. I hope my use of the title Boomer Express doesn’t conflict with a Rose Parade trademark.

You don’t have to be old to have been onboard a train pulled by a coal-burner steam engine. My earliest years growing up in St. Paul featured busy rail yards and sooty skies.  After all, St. Paul was established as a rail center by James J. Hill by the 1880’s.   The first house we bought in 1974 was from a widow whose husband had worked for the Great Northern Railroad.  Fathers of some of my childhood friends worked the rail yards.

Some of Hill’s descendants live in my neighborhood on the North Shore of Lake Superior. One is a good friend in Duluth. A bronze bust of Hill can be seen on a major thoroughfare in Superior, WI.

I think it was a bad business decision to rip up the old rail lines.  When did that start, in the 1970’s?  Benefits of that change include fantastic bike trails all over Minnesota and Wisconsin.  We ride them.  Some of the wilderness roads we depend on in Lake and Cook Counties have “Grade” in their names, meaning railroad grades. A statue of St. Urho in Finland, MN marks an intersection where Cramer Road begins, another abandoned rail line through the wilderness.

Cuylar and Caitlyn with St Urho at Finland 

Not only did we lose “good” infrastructure, but I think it’s a bad business model that lops off less profitable routes to save a business that’s failing for other reasons. AT&T customer service still doesn’t know they own equipment on a new cellphone tower a mile west of my house.  High speed fiber optics are being connected to it as I write.  AT&T’s left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing. AT&T abandoned every land-line customer in nearby Cook County less than ten years ago on short notice.  We subscribe to Verizon.

That cellphone tower was built a couple of years ago despite a permanent population of only 20,000 in two counties.  Never mind that 50,000 people drive Highway 61 every weekend from May through October to their lake homes and tourist destinations, with little or no cellphone coverage.  American Tower wanted to complete a regional network. Don’t forget the core business, of course, but one of the secrets of Wal-Mart’s success locates businesses in regional centers that other big businesses have abandoned. 

Governor Walker lost hundreds of permanent jobs and billions of dollars for the State of Wisconsin before he took office this week.  He turned down Federal Government stimulus money to build a key link for high speed rail service between Chicago and the Pacific Northwest.   That decision killed an important potential business development link for the Twin Ports of Duluth-Superior.    Meanwhile, he hired the Mayor of Superior to head up a new state agency to regulate small business, billed as a better potential for new job creation.

One of my childhood memories has me waking up at 4 AM in Deer Park, Wisconsin.  I could hear the loud train whistle at the crossing a mile west.  It blasted again less than 300 feet away. I stayed with my cousins in what had been a hotel in the 1880’s. A railroad warehouse was right across the street.  One of the first outdoor movies I saw starred Audie Murphy in “To Hell and Back”, projected on a wall of that building as we sat on blankets on the lawn. 

My mother was born on a farm in the Town of Black Brook, about five miles north of Deer Park.  As a young woman, she took the train from Deer Park or Amery to St. Paul to go shopping, just an hour away. If you visit Deer Park today, you will find the old depot relocated, but a historic site. Amery has a park with a Lion’s Club lion for a drinking fountain where the railroad crossed the main street.


A story that belongs in my Dad’s memoirs also happened at this spot.  He had been driving at night, a 1932 Model A Ford loaded with friends.  This Amery rail crossing had no signals.  Oncoming headlights could be seen on the other side of the raised rail bed, as if a train were not there on the tracks.  Only he survived the wreck.  In March 1999, almost seventy years later, he woke up from a stroke, speaking as though the accident had just happened in 1932. He died six weeks later.

St. Paul’s Union Depot was a busy place in the 1950’s.  I remember a year when daylight savings time was so screwed up that railroad time was different in the depot than it was outside.  The only train ride I took as a child was in the Vista Dome, ten miles between St. Paul and Minneapolis. 

The St. Paul Union Depot was busy again when I went to Air Force boot camp in Montgomery, Alabama, 1966.  There was a nationwide airline strike at the time.  I could see Martin Luther King Jr. leading a march down a street in Cicero as we rolled into Chicago.  I got on the Georgia Hummingbird at Deerborne Station, less than two blocks from where my daughter lived when she attended Columbia College.  She still lives in Chicago.  We’re all expert riders of the CTA, the El.  A Mega Bus runs from Chicago via Milwaukee to St. Paul in less time than Amtrak can get there.


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