Winter Rail Escapade for 5,000 Miles by Katy Tahja

I know Katy Tahja from her days at the Gallery Bookshop in Mendocino.  She has brought her grandson (a train addict) to our layout. I have passed on train books to her so that she might entertain her grandson. I read with great interest her book “An Eclectic History of Mendocino County ” I know she and her husband have traveled wide and near on trains.

So, quite fortuitously I found that she has been a contributor of articles to the Anderson Valley Advertiser. here’s the story of her “heroic” trip. I say heroic ‘cos you couldn’t have gotten me to go on it for love nor money.

“Every few years my husband and I save enough to go on a tour with our favorite travel group, Mountain Outin’. The tour director finds unusual and wonderful places to visit with rail travel to get you there and back. This year the Winter Rail Escapade was to Wisconsin.

Wisconsin? In the snowiest winter that just won’t stop, with things like bone chilling cold and wind chill factors? Yep…that Wisconsin, for six days with thousands of miles of AMTRAK added in. For two weeks we saw something other than never ending rain.

Since the tour’s formal departure point was Los Angeles we took the “San Joaquin” train from Martinez to Bakersfield, then a bus to L.A. I don’t know whose responsibility it is to collect trash and disburse the homeless encampments along railroad right-of-way but it’s NOT being done. Trash ankle deep and populated and abandoned homeless campgrounds blemish every approach to every station stop. Stockton was particularly shocking, what a mess. Municipalities and railroads should work to correct this visual blight. As an interesting aside, of all places Alpine Texas had the cleanest approaches to the station of anywhere we visited.

The “Texas Eagle” left L.A. for San Antonio Texas and a route north to Chicago. We arrived two days later and eight hours late. Note: AMTRAK is never late…it’s “delayed” they say. Part of the problem is the tracks belong to the freight carriers and often freight goes before passenger cars trains can travel. But this time it was air brakes on the locomotive breaking down not once, but twice. We were literally hauled into Union Station behind another AMTRAK train in ten degree weather with wind blowing sideways. The tour had arranged for a bus to pick us up to take us to Racine and it had been waiting eight hours. Twenty-five weary cold travelers piled in for a midnight arrival at the hotel.

Texas Eagle

Sightseeing out the window of the “Texas Eagle” or any train always generates questions and observations in my mind. Why are there so many lone palm trees scattered through the Delta outside Martinez? People are obviously living in their boats in the marinas along the Sacramento River…what do they do for sewage? Fruit blossoms look like snowfall covering the ground in orchards. Fields once cow pastures are now sporting solar panel arrays. Hops are still being grown by Fresno.

Cactus first appear as native plants in the landscape on the Arizona-New Mexico border. Cell phones glow like Lightning Bugs when you walk through a dark coach car at night. (Always get a sleeping compartment.) Nut orchards we passed in the southwest were always pecans. Coming into El Paso were hundreds of empty auto rail carrier cars. We were told car bodies manufactured in the USA were shipped to Mexico to be accessorized, then shipped back completed for sale here. The infamous Border Wall is incompletely built here and anyone could walk around the ends if they were brave, or foolhardy enough.

Where does the orange pumice for rail bed gravel come from in Texas? The Franklin Mountains to the north of El Paso are considered the southern end of the Rocky Mountains. A quick view of white deer and exotic hooved animals out the window turned out to be a “hunting preserve” with a gun club next door. The highest elevation on the train route is at aptly named Alpine Texas at 4,485’.

Everything is bigger in Texas. The sunset turned the skies golden over a horizon that went on forever. Even sagebrush is pretty trailing long shadows across the grasslands at day’s end. Texas featured Drive-Thru Taqueria y Cerveza fast food stops and Temple had a trackside railroad museum with a Pullman Troop Car. The railroad sleeping car company built military barracks on wheels. Del Rio proudly proclaimed itself the “Goat & Sheep Capitol of Texas.” Then I got really into watching small town motto’s on welcome signs. “The West at it’s Best” or the “Best Little Town on Earth” and the “Crossroads of…” or the “Gateway to…” proclamations. “America’s Home Town” vied with a “Little City Doing Big Things.”

Some things seen out a train window are universal. Yes, Walmart and Dollar General stores cover the face of the earth, but so do backyard trampolines, corner liquor stores, brotherhood and VFW halls, self-storage units and Subway sandwich shops.

Going north from Texas we started experiencing snow and frozen weather. Snow and ice can be highly amusing to a Californian. How do ponds freeze making different concentric circles scattered over the surface? Cemeteries with uniform gravestone markers under snow would melt potholes around the monuments and give a three-dimensional appearance to the grounds. Snow would make snowballs the size of garbage cans balanced atop broken off upright tree trunks. Icicles four feet long hung off of roofs. What happens when one falls off and lands on your car? Do school buses have snow tires or chains?

After a frigid late arrival in Chicago we took off for Racine Wisconsin and bright sunny frigid weather. We visited the Johnson Company that makes makes the wax based products we all grew up with. Five generations of one family had enough money to have Frank Lloyd Wright build them a 500 window house that eternally leaked called Wingspan. We were introduced to a Danish pastry called a Kinngle and watched them made (I was highly unimpressed with the taste).

Factory tours were fun because those of us who didn’t want to go on a 10 block walk through production facilities could stay in the visitor center and pester people with questions. We asked everyone if Trump’s tariffs on imported steel were impacting them. We asked why unionization of workers was never mentioned in their historic displays. We were polite but curious…and yes, all three factories we visited were unionized.

At a Case-International Harvester tractor factory we saw new units with no seats for a human being…all operations were done with computers with a drone flying ahead of the tractor. In Oshkosh we visited the Chudrow Museum of Yesteryear where a salvage dealer collected so much stuff he filled a 15 room museum. Ever drink PBR (Pabst Blue Ribbon) beer? You should see the mansion he built. Now a museum. We stayed at the Pfister Hotel built in 1893 and lovingly restored to its Victorian elegance and full of art. Great German food is to be found in Maeder’s Restaurant in Milwaukee, the best meal of our trip.

The Grohmann Museum deserves special note. Here was a three story museum of painting and sculpture dedicated to man at work. Every art object showed men and women at work…right up to the stained glass windows. The Lakeshore Culinary Institute students in Sheboygan prepared us a great meal and the Kolher factory showed us the production of bathroom and kitchen fixtures by the thousands. I loved the 1960s lavender porcelin sink, tub and toilet in their museum.

Grohmann Museum

In Oshkosh we explored the Experimental Aircraft Association Museum, then traveled through Wisconsin to catch the “Empire Builder” train in Columbus. There are 18 states with a town named Columbus…I checked…just out of curiosity. Have you ever eaten at a Golden Corral? This restaurant seems to be uncommon in the West but they are a real adventure. You enter, pay a fee, and can eat as much as you want of anything you find. There’s a huge salad bar, a grill, side dishes, breakfast food, and even a gluten-free vegan could find food. For the first time in 60 years I got brave and ate a single slice of liver (I HATE liver). This was grilled, thinly sliced, served on garlic bread with a BBQ sauce and actually wasn’t bad. And for my five year old grandson we took a picture of an ever circulating chococate fountain you can dip fruit chunks into. He now can’t wait to experience this himself.

The prettiest natural thing we saw was a long lingering sunset in Montana. Peachy golden light spread across the prairies, with cows and tiny calves in the foreground. Locals said those calves were supposed to be born in grassy pastures but Mother Nature was not cooperating.

Again, as we looked out train windows or acted like tourists, we learned a different vocabulary. Tractor dealers are implement companies. Prisons are correctional facilities and you don’t go to a parking garage in a city…it’s called a “Ramp.” You drink from a bubbler, not a water fountain and car racing fans go to a dragway, not a race course. You are warned “Don’t Pass on the Right of the Snowplow” and “Do not follow this streetcar.” White bread was 49 cents a loaf at the mini-mart and a Driftbusters club was for snowmobilers.

We watched a rancher trying to herd a loose steer down a frontage road with his pick-up truck and wondered what else was offered for dinner at the “Catfish & More” restaurant. Why do white propane tanks never have snow build up on them? Questions… questions… questions…

Departing AMTRAK at Portland Oregon we rented a car and drove over the Cascades to see old friend and AVA columnist Bruce Patterson and wife Trish in Prineville. Out to dinner we knew we were back in the Old West when the restuarent had a light fixture of a spotted tanned cow hide nailed to the ceiling with barbed wire and dried flowers hanging down with LED bulbs inside old power line glass insulators for illumination. Pattersons send their regards to their Anderson Valley friends.

David & Katy Tahja, Trish Beverly and her husband Bruce Patterson”

Wonderful Katy, just wonderful.

An Eclectic History of Mendocino County by Katy M. Tahja

Author Katy Tahja holding her latest book An Eclectic History of Mendocino County

Whilst I have been incarcerated here at home because of the pandemic I have been trying to read at least some of the 30 plus unread books I own. My latest was this book. I was going to write a review of this fascinating history when I stumbled upon this superb review written by Grace Woelbing for the Ukiah Daily Journal.

“In Mendocino County, stories are inevitably boundless and regional history is sure to be a tale of diverse influences. In truth, perhaps the most fitting word to describe a collection of such historical accounts is “eclectic,” for an author attempting to capture the themes throughout 150 years of county history must utilize a multitude of sources.

Author Katy Tahja, with her recently self-published book “An Eclectic History of Mendocino County,” has managed to achieve the feat of simultaneously informing and entertaining readers with both brief accounts and lengthy histories that define what makes Mendocino County an interesting place to call home.

“Every area of the county has its own interesting history tidbits,” says Tahja, who has previously authored several concentrated guidebooks and histories. “An Eclectic History of Mendocino County” is the first of hers, however, to involve the entire region.

The timeframe of Tahja’s new book spans 150 years, from 1852 through 2002. She began to accumulate little-known information that sourced from the vast time period during research phases for former books she has authored. “For years, I’ve kept interesting things on file for Mendocino County. I’d write down whatever I’d find and throw it in,” says Tahja.

Her decade of experience as a museum docent at the Kelley House Museum is responsible for her valuable knowledge of what attracts a reader to historical works. She shares that [along with] what she personally looks for – an account of why people settled and what kind of lives they experienced. That was her focus as she compiled the stories that make up “An Eclectic History of Mendocino County.”

The book’s cover greets the reader with colorful photographs of characteristic sights located around Mendocino County—the Skunk Train, Leggett’s Chandelier Tree, and Bowling Ball Beach are a few highlights. One photograph features a particularly bright building in Mendocino, the Temple of Kwan Tai, which was built by the Chinese in the 1850s as a house of worship. As Tahja later divulges in the book, the building was a celebration of their survival of the long journey across the Pacific Ocean.

Tahja explores similar topics throughout her writing, such as the county’s rich history of agriculture. From the famous apples that were cultivated for years in Anderson Valley to pear trees populating Ukiah Valley to the current crop of wine grapes dominating county soil, Mendocino County has long been known for its farming.

The record of the logging industry bringing settlers to the coastline, the transition of regional governorship from Sonoma County to Mendocino County in 1859 when the population was finally large enough to elect its own public officials, and the beautiful description of native basketry are subjects also found within the pages.

“There were so many fun and interesting stories to tell,” interjects Tahja. “I thought that if I was going to take a page to talk about Winston Churchill’s 1929 visit here, I would include similarly surprising accounts.”

Wabash Cannonball

Our Club’s VP, Lonnie Dickson, thought I would like this Johnny Cash version of the song, “Wabash Cannonball.” He was right – I think it’s great!

It turns out that the song is old and has quite a history. What follows is from Wiki ……

The Wabash Cannonball” is an American folk song about a fictional train, thought to have originated in the late nineteenth century. Its first documented appearance was on sheet music published in 1882, titled “The Great Rock Island Route” and credited to J. A. Roff. All subsequent versions contain a variation of the chorus:

Now listen to the jingle, and the rumble, and the roar,

As she dashes thro’ the woodland, and speeds along the shore,

See the mighty rushing engine, hear her merry bell ring out,

As they speed along in safety, on the “Great Rock-Island Route.”

A rewritten version by William Kindt appeared in 1904 under the title “Wabash Cannon Ball”. The Carter Family made one of the first recordings of the song in 1929, though it was not released until 1932. Another popular version was recorded by Roy Acuff in 1936. It is a signature song of the Stephen F. Austin State University Lumberjack Marching Band, the Kansas State University Marching Band, the University of Texas Longhorn Band, and of the Indiana State University Marching Sycamores, as ISU is close to the Wabash River. It was also used as the theme song by the USS Wabash (AOR5).

The song “The Wabash Cannonball” is part of the The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll list In addition to The Carter Family’s 1929 recording and Roy Acuff’s 1936 recording, many hillbilly artists recorded “The Wabash Cannonball” during the Great Depression era of the 1930s and 1940s. Bing Crosby recorded the song for his album “Bing Crosby Sings The Great Country Hits”. The song increased in popularity during this time. In the wake of the song’s popularity, the Wabash Railroad named its express run between Detroit and St. Louis as the Wabash Cannon Ball in 1949, the only actual train to bear the name, which it carried until discontinued in 1971. However, the train was named after the song, not the other way around.”

Some good loco footage in the vid:

The wreck of the Ole 97

I think that I have every record that the Seekers and their lead singer Judith Durham have ever made. I had the shuffle control on the other day and this one came up:

It sounded very authentic but, was it? The ‘net coughed up this vid which tells the “real story” better than I can:

At the end of the above vid is a reference to the original best-selling version of the record.:

I hope I am not the only twit around here who didn’t know the whole story!!!

Stagecoaches used along the Mendocino Coast

A stagecoach is a four-wheeled public coach used to carry paying passengers and light packages on journeys long enough to need a change of horses. It is strongly sprung and generally drawn by four horses. Widely used before steam-powered rail transport was available a stagecoach made long scheduled trips using stage stations or posts where the stagecoach’s horses would be replaced by fresh horses.  Coachmen carried letters, packages, and money, often transacting business or delivering messages for their customers. Coaches with iron or steel springs were uncomfortable and had short useful lives. Two men in Concord, New Hampshire, developed what became a popular solution. They built their first Concord stagecoach in 1827 employing long leather straps under their stagecoaches which gave a swinging motion.

What was is like to ride one? In his 1861 book Roughing It, Mark Twain described the Concord stage’s ride as like “a cradle on wheels”. Around twenty years later in 1880 John Pleasant Gray recorded after travelling from Tucson to Tombstone on J.D. Kinnear’s mail and express line:

That day’s stage ride will always live in my memory – but not for its beauty spots. Jammed like sardines on the hard seats of an old time leather spring coach – a Concord – leaving Pantano, creeping much of the way, letting the horses walk, through miles of alkali dust that the wheels rolled up in thick clouds of which we received the full benefit … It is always a mystery to the passenger how many can be wedged into and on top of a stagecoach. If it had not been for the long stretches when the horses had to walk, enabling most of us to get out and “foot it” as a relaxation, it seems as if we could never have survived the trip.

The horses were changed three times on the 80-mile trip, normally completed in 17 hours.

Here are the pics I have gathered of stagecoaches used along the Mendocino Coast:

A four horse stagecoach

A four horse stagecoach

On stageline from present terminus of the CWR to Willits

On stageline from present terminus of the CWR to Willits

Stagecoach in Mendocino

Stagecoach in Mendocino

Stagecoach in the County Museum in Willis

Stagecoach in the County Museum in Willis

Through the woods on the road to Fort Bragg

Through the woods on the road to Fort Bragg

This vid is from the movie, “Calamity Jane,” starring Doris Day. The first scene shows you how many folks yo could cram inside.