Night Train at Wiscasset Station

Peter Anastas

Showdown at Roundhouse Corral, (Boston Railyard) © 2000 ~ David Tutwiler (b. 1952)

Showdown at Roundhouse Corral, (Boston Railyard) © 2000                              David Tutwiler (b. 1952)

 

I come from the era of trains.  As a child during the war, I would lie in bed on Perkins Road listening to the shrill whistle of the Boston & Maine’s  Gloucester Branch crossing the trestle over the Annisquam River.  Ever since then I have associated trains with the mystery of travel.  I could never get enough of them, pestering my grandfather Angel Polisson to take my brother and me to the station in Gloucester to see the trains arrive.  I especially loved it when we could watch the passengers getting off and I could only imagine where they had been or where, if the train was about to depart, they might be headed.

As we got older, our mother took us to Boston on the train, when she went shopping at Jordan Marsh’s or Filene’s.  I’ll never forget the time I got separated from her in Filene’s basement.  I went screaming up and down the aisles of bargain clothing piled on tables that women fought over, cursing each other, sometimes tearing the garments to shreds in their furious attempts to possess them.  After that incident, my mother took to pinning a name tag on my brother and me, so that if we got lost or separated from her the clerks would know whom to page.  Luckily, it never came to that, and we quickly learned how to navigate our way around the big department stores, or the Peabody Museum in Salem, where our mother also took us so we could look at the ship models that fascinated us, or the life-like local birds and mammals that the taxidermists had exhibited in large glass cases.

Recently I thought of those cities I came to know in wartime when the gasoline ration prohibited travel by car—Boston, Salem, even New York when we got older—and the trips on trains it took to get to them.  I was on the train to New York again, racing along the Connecticut coast, in and out of harbors and across russet colored fields on the way to see my new grandson in Brooklyn.  The train was packed, the early spring day was bright, and I felt like a child again on an adventure.

It was the way I felt in Europe, where I took the train everywhere, never thinking of schedules or reservations.   If you wanted to go somewhere, you showed up at the station and there was a train waiting or about to arrive.  One night a group of us were sitting over dinner at the Buca Niccolini, on Via Ricasoli in Florence, just behind the Duomo.  It had been a grand meal, well moistened with the local red wine the Florentines call “vino nero.”  We were about to order desert when someone suddenly suggested, “Let’s go to Vienna for desert!”

We jumped up, settled the check and set out for the railroad station, a short walk from the restaurant.   The Brenner Express was about to depart.  We knew we would never get to Austria for desert, but we did arrive in time for one of those marvelous Viennese breakfasts.  We took a spin around the city and got back on the train, arriving in Florence in time for dinner.

Naturally, this was the kind of gambit you engage in when you are young—we were in our early 20s, students: Americans, English and Italian.   I never did it again, but I took the train at every opportunity—to Bologna for lunch (best pasta ever); Pisa for a run up the steps of the Leaning Tower with my high school classmate Bob Stephenson; Viareggio to get my beach fix when I missed Gloucester.

Trains were even more important for me before I lived in Europe.  I went to college in Maine and most of the time I took the train to Brunswick or back home.  I’d hop on a Gloucester train to North Station, where the Flying Yankee left for Portland, Bangor and points north.  There was a club car serving beer all the way to Portland, where it was uncoupled before the train left for Brunswick.   On many a night we could be seen stumbling up to our rooms from the Brunswick railroad station.

At midnight the mail train stopped in Brunswick, allowing those who had girlfriends in Boston to post letters that would be delivered to them that morning.   I can see myself hastily typing a letter, throwing on parka and boots, and trudging through the snow from my room on Federal Street down to the railroad station on Maine Street, often getting there just as the train was about to pull out.  The guys in the mail car knew us.  Obligingly, they would lean out of the doors to accept our letters on the fly.

At four a.m. every morning the Milk Train coming through from Northern Maine to Boston woke up those of us who lived near the railroad bridge on Federal Street.  If I was reading or studying late, I knew that its whistle in the dead of night was the sign for me to go to bed. But the big event of the day was the non-stop rush through Brunswick of the freight train.  Imagine an engine pulling 100 or more cars all the way from Aroostook County tearing through the center of town, the late afternoon traffic sometimes halted for close to 30 minutes.  Our philosophy professor told us that if we still believed in the non-existence of un-thinking matter we should stand next to that freight train as it roared through town each afternoon.

While some students had their own cars, most of us depended on the train for a fast getaway to Portland to see a movie or to eat Chinese food.   Often enough we traveled north to Rockland, and sometimes further Downeast, stopping at Wiscasset on the way to Rockland, Camden or Belfast.   There was something special about Wiscasset, a sense of arriving in a small riverine town with redbrick buildings, the train pausing, it seemed, until the very last passenger appeared out of the dark, the conductor waiting with his lantern and finally shouting, “All aboard, all aboard,” as the train pulled slowly out of the station.  I can still hear the chugging of the steam engine, the way the wheels clicked on the tracks, and the eerie whistle as the train plunged into the darkness.

It is the image of that night train at Wiscasset Station that remains with me above all others, a sense of the isolation of the station itself and the deserted town, the slowly diminishing sound of the whistle and the rhythmic clicking of the wheels on the tracks, the lights from the cars gradually becoming bright points in the darkness and then disappearing altogether as the train itself faded into the night.   It is an image that takes me back to the boy awake in his bed on Perkins Road, listening attentively each time for the train to cross the trestle over the river, imagining what it might be like to travel on it, to arrive in unknown places, connected only by the trains themselves, the infinite network of tracks, as they raced through the vast spaces of the night.

 

Peter at Museum (1)Peter Anastas, editorial director of Enduring Gloucesteris a Gloucester native and writer. His most recent book, A Walker in the City: Elegy for Gloucester, is a selection from columns that were published in the Gloucester Daily Times.

8 thoughts on “Night Train at Wiscasset Station

  1. Thank you for this lovely reverie Peter Anastas. I share your attraction to trains and all the thoughts and memories they inspire. I’ve been fortunate to live within walking distance of various train stations all of my life, and I, too, get such comfort from just the sound of the train at night. It tells me I am connected to the city and to people in other towns, and that adventure awaits me . You captured those feelings, and more, in this piece.

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  2. I grew up in Gloucester too, with a soundtrack in the background on a continuous loop, of the music of the waves, the wind, the gulls, the fog horns, the bell buoys, the chugging diesel boat engines, and finally, the train whistle which could be heard all over the island. I have traveled a lot and lived in many places. The one sound that has followed me wherever I have been, is the train whistle, which instantly transports me back home to my beloved Gloucester, my one and only true North. The main reason I love my house here in landlocked Georgia, though it is a fine house in many ways, is because it is close enough to the tracks that I can hear the sound of the train whistle night and day, and easily imagine that I am on my precious island home once again.

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  3. Summer at twilight in the late 1940’s found me waiting at the tiny North Falmouth train station for the arrival of the steam train from Boston that carried my six foot six father, fedora in hand, down for the weekend. I usually put a penny on the tracks and slipped the flattened and slippery result in my pocket to be immediately forgotten as he grabbed my hand and we piled into the old black Ford to go home.
    I knew the weekend would be fun. Me, skinny and brown as a bat with my hair bleached almost yellow from summer sun anticipated his arrival for days in advance as I knew the weekend meant fishing for bluefish off Eustis Cove in our skiff with the 5 horsepower Johnson on the back.
    Five decades later I visit the station which is now abandoned and completely overgrown but I can still see him climbing down those train steps, hear the hiss of steam and grind of brakes and I am still running into his arms.

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    • Flattened pennies! We kids would sneak down to the tracks and lay our pennies down just in time to see the great iron train wheels go over them. We tried hard to keep an eye on the at least one of the pennies as they flew off into the gravel, and grab them, sometimes burning our hands…… Thanks for the memory!

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  4. Thanks for a great story, Peter. Jogged my memories. I grew up in a railroad town in upstate New York. Not long ago I came across and read an essay in a 19th Century publication re. the Adirondacks. As I progressed, I realized the writer was describing the southern end of Champlain where the railroad terminal fed the packets that sailed up and down the lake between Whitehall, my home, and Montreal. The name of the town was never mentioned but the writing was such that for me, the identity was unequivocal. It was home.

    I spent days of a childhood at the D&H station, waiting for the Laurentian headed north or south. I spent days of a childhood cruising the freight yards. (not recommended but I did it.) I could stand for hours watching freight trains hauling coal and iron ore down from Port Henry. So many warm memories of railroads. Both grandfathers worked for the D&H and both taught me the whistle signals. Everytime I hear the Rockport or Boston trains, I hear them blow for the crossings and remember nights lying in bed listening for the sleeper that ran between Montreal and NYC or the gargantuan freights from Rouses Point. Many trips home after I’d moved to Gloucester, found me sitting in the yards painting watercolors of diesels and abandoned box cars. When I worked in Boston, I sketched trains in the yards. It’s easy to love railroads. I can imagine how you feel about trains and what that painting evokes.

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  5. Nice to return in your mind to such,wonderful times in your life sir , ,,i too loved going to the north station as a youngster on the stream trains they looked so huge to a small,child,the steps seemed so high too, to get up into the car !,,, but my excitement helped me make it, i was getting to go to boston,to see Gene Autry he was on leave I believe from the Army Air corps and I was going to see him ,,hooray, I said to myself, I remember looking out the window of the car as we passed every little town and we kept stopping at every little town and seem like it took forever to get out of the station to go to the next station till finally got to Boston and we could buy our tickets and see my hero Gene my mother bought me a manual for the show and I was able to go down after the show and get Gene to sign it we went to Boston many times after that on the train and it was always excitement for a child good memories that you have written about Sir Peter good memories

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  6. Thanks for the story! I wish train travel in the US was as common as in Europe. Instead here we have miles of highways, which have their own history with road trips. I still think there is something magical about train travel. I have a early memory of traveling by train with my mom from Connecticut to Rutgers University to see my father complete a program there. Here on the north shore I have loved taking visiting family to Boston by train on many occasions to visit museums and more.

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  7. When our Railway Bridge is renovated, hopefully in Cape Ann Granite, it will ensure and inspire many more memories such as this. “Mass transit” will be about railways, rather than cars. People will be able to ride comfortably, happily, and reliably TOGETHER, as Peter describes, without the psychic tensions, such as “road rage”, of automobile travel. Highways will be transformed into landscape, gardens and bicycle ways. Europe and Japan are way ahead of us with this. Peter’s essay encourages “sane”, visionary, travel. “All aboard!”

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