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Madison’s Slice Of Americana With Train Trip To Chicago

October 5, 2014

There are those moments when it feels like a slice of Americana is being presented and all that is required is just living in the moment to receive it.  Such was the case for over a hundred passengers who were the first on Saturday to enjoy a train trip in 43 years from Madison to Chicago.  There were countless smiles to be had and memories to store away from the journey, but it was not until Ed Ellis, Iowa Pacific’s rail line president, brought out his Martin’s guitar that the train experience all came together like the stories from history books so richly detail.

We all, at one time or another, hum or sing songs about trains.  Over the past week I had been singing bits and pieces of City Of New Orleans as I anticipated riding the rails with my partner, James, to the Windy City.  As I walked to the rear of one of the train cars Saturday night and spotted Ellis leaned back in a seat with his guitar cradled in his arm crooning the famed Steve Goodman song that many recall being sung by Arlo Guthrie I was most struck by the mood it created and as a result got goose bumps.


With the low soft rumble of the cars over the tracks, the every now-and-then metallic noise at the point of connection between train cars being more pronounced due to a bump in the rails, along with the passing lights of homes or small villages came the singing by Ellis of that great folk song.

Dealin’ cards with an old man in the club car
Penny a point, ain’t no one keepin’ score
Pass that paper bag that holds the bottle
And feel the wheels a rumbling neath the floor
And the sons of poor men porters and the sons of engineers
Ride their father’s magic carpet made of steel
Mothers with their babes asleep rockin’ to that gentle beat
And the rhythm of the rails is all they feel
Good morning America…

History books tell of boys and girls who fell asleep over the years while listening to the far off sounds of the train whistle and wondering where it had come from, and what were the stories of those who rode the rails late at night.    Throughout the day as we passed along at every stage of our nearly four hour journey there were rail fans and curious onlookers with cameras and video equipment in hand to catch a memory of the  two-engine, five-car train as it passed them.  Though we live in a far different time with so many competing ways to capture attention and excite young minds than when Goodman penned his words I kept looking at the young faces along the way who reached their arms up into the air for a wave and I just knew from their faces that the romance of a train passing along had not lost its place in our country.

As readers to my blog are aware I am most fond of Roy Acuff and also with Saturday evening’s Grand Ole Opry over WSM radio.  So after listening to a few songs I asked Ellis if he knew The Wabash Cannonball and with a quick adjustment to the capo he launched into what for me was simply the perfect way to ride the rails.

Listen to the jingle the rumble and the roar
As she glides along the woodland through the hills and by the shore
Hear the mighty rush of the engine, hear the lonesome people call
You’re travelin’ through the jungle on the Wabash Cannonball

At times we slowed down to 15 miles-per-hour in urban centers but then there were those times when we hit 79 miles per hour and I have  no doubt the engineer was grinning ear-to-ear.  I can report from seeing those seated near me there were noses close to the windows along with sounds of excitement.

The sound from inside a train car is so much different from that found in a bus. The sound of laugher and conversation abounds with the ability to get up and stretch ones legs and meet new people.  The added appeal from riding this Pullman Rail Journey (Pullman being a subsidiary of Ellis’ Iowa Pacific Holdings) were the quality of folks who provided friendly and most capable service in all aspects of the journey.

I know it not fair to mention some, and not include all the others who equally deserve sincere recognition, but it needs to be stated that Conner and J.D. (who in his own right is a fine musician and plays blues and jazz guitar in Chicago with a variety bands) who I will term (though likely incorrectly) carriage attendants were not only conversant and knowledgeable with the tasks that the day required but more importantly were truly nice people.    When someone takes a bus ride it really does not matter if the driver is grumpy, but when one travels via train it is important to have sincerely nice folks who are engaging and real.  That was found to be the case with all the employees throughout the entire journey.   It  speaks volumes about the rail owners that such quality people were hired.

These train trips will hopefully be the start of something that will  grow and expand as more people see the joy of riding the rails, separating themselves from traffic congestion, and discovering more about the past and how it is still relevant to our furfure.

Finally, but not least, I want to thank my cousin, Brian Allen, who alerted James and myself to this opportunity to ride the rails.  Now I encourage my readers to make their own plans to get on board and feel your own train songs come to life.




  1. DeJordy permalink
    October 30, 2014 11:30 AM

    “Sons of Pullman porters.”

  2. mlerc permalink
    October 17, 2014 2:10 PM

    Considered taking Amtrak to DC…until I found notice in Union Station that the train would be running 4 hours longer due to repairs…It is already a long ride…Might have to try the Madison one…

  3. October 7, 2014 11:59 AM

    Glad you had an opportunity to take that ride. We’re inveterate train riders over here in the land of Uppityws — and this sounds from all accounts like it was a great ride that we unfortunately missed. I was always the guy who was bewildering the travel office at various places I worked by wanting them to book me on Amtrak rather than a plane. Every year I’m afraid that choice is going to be taken away. Here’s hoping for more commutations to the sentence.

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