If Only This Stuff Could Talk (Sometimes It Does)

Text & Photographs by Jack Norris

    As part of our passion for the O&W or just railroading in general, most of us Iím sure have a favorite artifact or two. It could be Grandpa Joeís conductors uniform, that whenever we look at it brings back memories of the person and his stories. Maybe we have something a lot less personal, like a switch lock, for instance. Maybe we found it at a garage sale or flea market somewhere. This little lock can tell us some things. Through the name or initials stamped in it, it proudly proclaims that a railroad once truly existed where only a dirt trail exist today. The fact it is a switch lock tells us of the important job it had while employed. The style or maker can give us a clue to its age. All little things that we can discover by just picking it up and holding it.

    There are many things it canít tell us however. Where did it live? Next to the mainline where it witnessed the countless passage of steam locomotives battling the grades with a coal train? Did it witness the passage of the sleek Mountaineer? Did it live on a little used branch where it was visited only a couple of times a week by a train? Only the lock holds the answers to these questions in its soul. We have no way of going in there to find out. If this lock could only talk. This brings us to the main part of this story.

    Some of the things I love to collect are dining car items: the elegant china, the silverware, and the menus. These speak of happy, glamorous times of rail travel. The china is like artwork, the silverware finely crafted and highly polished, the menus proclaiming what delicacies where available to fill your hungry belly. These items were all accessible to John Q. Public. They tell us of the train, but can they tell us stories of the passengers they met?

    Letís meet 3 of our cast members for tonight. I really doubt that anyone has to be told of the significance of these three trains, some of the most elegant and famous trains in the country, if not the world. Volumes have been written about these trains and the people that rode these queens of the rails. They proudly proclaim the railroads they worked for, the dates they worked, the routes they traveled on. The 20th Century Limited offered Roast Prime Rib with baked acorn squash, Rissole Potato, soup, salad, rolls & muffins, choice of dessert and beverage for $6.00. Other delicacies abound. This is information that they willingly volunteer to us.

    Just what these menus witnessed during their careers however, is a story that will remain only with them. Were they there when an important business deal was negotiated over wine and dinner aboard the Century? Did the Santa Fe menu witness a movie deal going down during a private dinner party in the Turquoise Room of the Super Chief as it streaked between Los Angeles & Chicago? Did the Broadway menu listen in as a young couple made plans to be together for the rest of their lives? These are things that are only known to the menus themselves. Alas, if only this stuff could talk.

    This brings us to the hero of this tale. A generic system menu from an unknown secondary train operated by the New York Central between points unknown. We know the menu was born in August, 1956. We know it worked for the New York Central. It tells us this. However, unlike itsí previously mentioned brethren, this menu gladly tells us who it met during itsí career. On a late summer day in 1956, the train this menu worked on had some mighty special folks on board. The fact that we donít know the train doesnít matter. The one thing we do know is that itsí schedule was obviously well suited for the travelers. And thanks to an unknown crew member our menu can tell us the rest of the story. The travelers this day were none other than the 1956 Boston Red Sox, and the menu contains 9 autographs of players, including the legendary Ted Williams. This unremarkable menu has told us things that the glamorous others never will. Which brings us back to the beginning of this story: If only this stuff could talk. (Sometimes it does)