About the Holiday
Falling at the end of National Tourism Week, National Train Day honors the history of train travel and its importance to the opening of new frontiers as well as its continued use for pleasure and business transportation. Train museums and train enthusiasts across the country celebrate with special events, rides, and educational opportunities for all ages. Some celebrations occur today, while others are held on May 14.
By Brian Floca
“Here is a road made for crossing the country, a new road of rails made for people to ride.” So begins Brian Floca’s sprawling paeon to the locomotive and its influence on America and the Old West. Amid the Clank Clank Clank of hammers on iron spikes, men from all over toiled from coast to coast to build the rail lines that carried the trains across the country: “Three strokes to the spike, ten spikes to the rail!”
Families who have sold all their possessions to pay for tickets for the week-long trip west stand on the platform in Omaha, Nebraska watching for the approaching train. Suddenly, they hear the clang of the bell and “see a puff from her stack—a puff of smoke, a smudge in the sky.” The awesome train pulls up at the station huffing “like a beast.”
Her crew—the brakeman, fireman, engineer, and conductor—make the train ready. They gather the passengers, stoke the firebox, push forward the Johnson bar, and get the train underway. The passengers sit back, ready for the long journey. The engineer “is the master of his machine, he knows her moods and tempers, where to set her bars and levers….Westward, westward runs the train, through the prairies, to the Great Plains, on to the frontier.”
In the cars the travelers read, play games, meet their neighbors. In winter they are warmed by a coal stove in one corner, while in the other corner a “modern” convenience is provided. Eventually, the train must stop to refuel. The passengers scramble to the railroad restaurant at the station. They have 20 minutes to eat what the menu offers: buffalo steak, antelope chops, or chicken stew (which tastes suspiciously like prairie dog).
As night falls a new engine is carefully attached to the cars by the switchman, who has learned to be quick to avoid the rolling, jumping cars that can take a finger. “Through the night the engine runs. Those up late hear her whistle, her wild and lonesome cry. It echoes on far hills and homes, it sounds in distant dreams.”
By morning the train has reached the mountains. The going is steep and slow. A second engine must be attached to give the train power enough to climb. On the other side of the mountains the terrain is rugged, and the train must traverse long, rickety wooden bridges. Days pass as the train travels through beautiful, mysterious country, skirting land formations such as Castle Rock, The Witches, Devil’s Slide, and the 1000 Mile Tree.
In Utah at Promontory Summit, the train comes to the meeting place of the tracks built from the East and the tracks built from the West. The passengers disembark and change trains, changing train companies also, from the Union Pacific that brought them here to the Central Pacific who will take them the rest of the way. Now the train passes through desolate, dry country, home to the Paiute and the Shoshone.
The mighty Sierra Nevada rises up ahead. A second engine is again required. If the tracks are slick, the “engineers can pull a handle to drop some sand down a tube, onto the tracks. The wheels hit the grit, the traction does the trick!” Closer and closer the train comes to its final destination, puffing through long wooden sheds that keep the tracks clear in winter and into dark tunnels blasted through the mountain rock.
Down, down the train progresses to the end of the line. The weary but excited travelers jump from the train to meet their friends or family or to start a new life in San Francisco!
If you love trains, American history, or the Old West, or if you are simply enamored of travel, you will want to read Brian Floca’s Caldecott Medal Winning and Silbert Honor book, Locomotive. Floca’s lyrical language makes poetry of the steam train’s inception, from the laying of the rails to the inner workings of the engine to the long journey westward. Fascinating facts of the train crews’ work, conditions for the passengers, and the territory crossed make this a page turner that any age will enjoy.
Readers can almost hear the sounds of the clanging bell and huffing engine, as these sounds are represented in a variety of typefaces and sizes, growing larger and larger as the train approaches the station. Every page is a joy. As the train chugs across the country, the paintings are swept in rushing brush strokes and the train whooshes into view from the edges, filling the page. The vast empty plains nearly dwarf the locomotive, and the mountainous regions pose chilling challenges for the iron horse. The nighttime scenes are beautifully lit by starlight and the single headlight of the train, reflecting the dreams of a new nation.
Although Locomotive is a longer picture book, its rhythms, depth of description, and gorgeous language will appeal to even very young children. Make some tea and hot chocolate and settle in for a cozy read of wonderful book!
Ages 4 – 12 and up (adults will also enjoy this book)
Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2013 | ISBN 978-1416994152
National Train Day Activity
All Aboard Maze!
Trains travel over intricate terrain, over mountains, across vast plains, and through exciting cities. It’s a little like finding your way through a maze! Have fun completing this printable All Aboard Maze! Here’s the Solution. Choo choo!