Monday, October 28, 2013

Riding the train called The City of New Orleans - part 1

In 1972 I bought Arlo Guthrie's 33 long playing album "Hobo's Lullaby."  My favorite song in the album was called "The City of New Orleans" and I played it on my stereo constantly until I knew all the lyrics.  Several years ago our daughter gave us Hobo's Lullaby on a CD so we could play it in our car.

The song had been written by Steve Gooman and recorded by him in 1971.  Steve wrote the song in 1970 aboard the Illinois Central train when he and his wife Nancy were going to visit his wife's grandmother.  Steve described what he saw while on the train and when he came back home he found out that the train was scheduled to be removed from service because of lack of passengers.  He released the song to help save the train.  At about that time Steve Goodman was diagnosed with leukemia so he approached Arlo Guthrie at the Quiet Knight, a bar in Chicago, and asked Guthrie to include the song in his repertoire.  Goodman was hoping that the song would become successful and provide money for his wife after his death - he died in 1984.  The song became a hit for Guthrie but also for Willie Nelson who recorded it in 1984.  Willie's version reached #1 on the Billboard Hot Country Single.  Below is Steve Goodman singing his version of The City of New Orleans.

A couple of years ago I bought a book for my grandsons called "The Train they Call the City of New Orleans" showing Goodman's lyrics and illustrated by Michael McCurdy.  My grandsons love trains and I thought they would like this book - they did.  The book contains all the lyrics and shows the stops on the train journey to New Orleans.  Click on collages twice to enlarge and see better.

Here is the famous refrain -

Good Morning America, how are you?
Say don't you know me, I'm your native son
I'm the train they call the City of New Orleans
I'll be gone five-hundred miles when the day is done

Fast forward about 4 months ago.  Our daughter who moved from Long Beach, California, and now lives in Memphis, Tennessee, asked us to come for a visit in the fall.  While I was looking at the calendar and making plans for the trip to Memphis I heard a song in the background and it said "Memphis, Tennessee" - it was The City of New Orleans song.

I stopped and thought "can this train still be running?" and I quickly checked with Amtrak.  It is.  It seems that the train called City of New Orleans, which had been introduced in 1947 by the Illinois Central Railway, was now part of the Amtrak passenger system and still doing the Chicago to New Orleans run.  Then I checked the timetable from Memphis to New Orleans and back, the price, rooms in New Orleans and also found a discounted cruise from New Orleans.  It all worked out and this is how we came to board the City of New Orleans from the Memphis Central Station on October 3rd, 2013.  We arrived at around 6:00 am for our 6:50 am departure.  I did not take pictures outside the station as it was still dark but below are some old postcards showing the station in 1910 and later, as it is still now, the vintage Illinois Central City of New Orleans train and the other side of the station, near the single track.

There were less than a dozen people waiting for the Amtrak Superliner train.  Such a big station for a single train, coming twice a day - in the morning from Chicago to New Orleans, and in the evening arriving from New Orleans and going to Chicago - just those trains, that's all.  I was a bit amazed, really.  I took so many trains in France, to high school every day, to Normandy or Brittany, to England, to the Riviera or Italy or Switzerland, to Belgium and the stations were always so crowded with trains arriving and departing constantly - but the Memphis station was quiet.  Memphis is the largest city in the state of Tennessee with approximately 656,000 inhabitants.  I went outside and took some pictures.

The train arrived on time, around 6:25 am.

I had booked a "roomette" as meals are included, free of charge.  There were 2 seats, which could be extended.  Roomette shown below and the indoor corridor.

The train pulled away from Memphis as the sun was rising.  The conductor announced that we could go to the Dining Car for breakfast as soon as we were away from Memphis.

As we ate our breakfast (eggs, bacon, multigrain biscuits, grits for me but potatoes for my husband, coffee and orange juice) the sun was getting brighter and the scenery was sharper, but the train was shaking a lot and as we went back to our seat we had to hold on to whatever we could.  Later the conductor told us that the tracks were used mainly by freight trains.  They damage the tracks which have to be constantly repaired.  Our first stop was in Greenwood, Mississippi - a 15 minutes stop.

The landscape was rural with fields, farms and small towns.

A City of New Orleans Route Guide was given to us.  It showed the train route and gave information on the points of interest.  The entry for Greenwood said "Greenwood has a reputation as a cotton producer dating back to pre-Civil War times.  Today, its historic downtown boasts upscale shops, antique shops ... and it has retained a small-town, Deep South hospitality.  Florewood River Plantation State Park is the recreation of a 1850 antebellum cotton plantation."

Our next stop was Yazoo City, Mississippi.  The Route Guide said that it is known as the place where "The Delta meets the Hills" with the Panther Swamp Wildlife Refuge nearby.  Yazoo City was the main location for the book and the movie My Dog Skip.

Our next stop, Jackson, was going to be a "smoking" stop (the train is non smoking) so it was a bit longer.  Jackson is the capital of Mississippi.  It was originally named LeFleur's Bluff but was changed in honor of Andrew Jackson.  It was invaded three times during the Civil War and burnt to the ground.  It sits on an extinct volcano.  The gold dome of the state capitol was built in 1903 and resembles the nation's capitol in Washington, DC.  We stepped down from the train and I took pictures of the capitol behind some fencing and then walked a bit further.  There was not much traffic in Jackson in that part of town, but many birds were perched on the electric line above.

My husband walked in the other direction toward the back of the train.

We re-boarded the train and went toward the Sightseeing Lounge Car.  It was very light but there was too much reflection from the panoramic windows for my picture taking.  The train stopped in Brookhaven, Mississippi, but just for a short time.  I asked someone to take our picture but at that moment the train started again with a bump and it made the camera move ...

As we approached the town of McComb, Mississippi, it was time to return to the Dining Car for lunch.  McComb enjoys the distinction of being the "Camellia City of America," with the largest variety in the US of this flower.  A gentleman from Christchurch, New Zealand (he is in the center of the collage below) came and sat at our table and we talked with him as the train was rolling along small towns and fields.

He said he was surprised to see such many houses that were crumbling or without roofs or boarded up.  He added that in New Zealand these houses would have been condemned as a health hazard and destroyed.  I replied that I had seen an article stating that Mississippi had the lowest per capita income in the US and the highest percentage of people living below the poverty level (37% of the population is African-American) so many lived in these houses.  The state has the highest percentage of infant mortality, deaths from cardiovascular diseases and diabetes in the US - it also ranks 51st (after the District of Columbia) for life expectancy (below Vietnam and Jamaica and the same as Albania, Lebanon and Jordan.)  Mississippi ranks dead last in national health care and is on par with many developing countries for diseases.

The state is also one of the most conservative in the country where anti-abortion is very strong and a priority - there is only one clinic left out of fourteen and the Governor is trying to close it and even trying to criminalize miscarriages and stillbirths.  The man from New Zealand shook his head and said that he could not understand all this in such a wealthy country as the US - why this insensitivity toward the poor he asked?  I answered that this was a baffling subject and would take time to discuss and lunch was now almost over, so he listed the major sights to visit in New Zealand.  A conductor stopped by and told us that starting after Hammond, Louisiana, the scenery would be beautiful.  Already we were crossing a river.

Our ride in The City of New Orleans and back to Memphis ten days later took about 16 1/2 hours total (8 hours + each way) and I took over 350 photos.  This post is getting long, so I'll finish it on my next post.  More to come...


bayou said...

Vagabonde, I went just through the first bit of that amazing travel and will continue later as I have to leave. But what a story. Already the song and then your story with it how it came that you hopped on that train - I am all goose-pimply! Looking forward to later to continue the travel, thank you so so much! (P.S. Have been lucky enough to have seen New Orleans by myself) said...

Dear Vagabone.. Trez trez magnifique.. I loved this tour.
My daughter and husband ..have just returned from a tour of Memphis and Tenessee..
They are Harley riders. This is their second bike ride trip to the south.
They loved the southern hospitality.
The poverty is terrible. Nina my daughter lives and has her own business school in Lucern switzerland.
she belongs to the Lucern chapter.
This tour was so so interesting.. thank you for sharing.
Would you give me permission to send your link to nina.!!! valerie..

The Broad said...

Fantastically interesting post! What a wonderful journey -- how I envy you! As usual great pictures and wonderful commentary. Really looking forward to the next chapter!

Starting Over, Accepting Changes - Maybe said...

I love riding trains. Like you, I took trains since I was a young girl including a 45 minute trip each way to high school and a few years later to work. This summer we took Amtrak from Philly to Providence RI and it was marvelous.

The City of New Orleans train looks like a fun experience I like that on your stops, you could get out and look around. Most of our country is so beautiful to see and we miss so much while driving in congested traffic or flying over in planes. Trains, though, take us on a different route and we get to see both the good and the bad. Some is hard to look at, as you saw in Missisippi and like the gentleman from down under expressed, hard to understand why these conditions exist in such a rich country.

DJan said...

I always enjoy vagabonding with you, VB. This was both enlightening and sad. I knew it was bad in Mississippi, I just didn't know how bad. I agree with the man from New Zealand: how can this be in a country with so much wealth? It reminded me once again that we have a long way to go towards equality. Thank you for the post, and I look forward to your next one. :-)

David said...

Vagabonde, One shameful fact is that Memphis is the only city in Tennessee where a person can board a passenger train. The US passenger rail system is an embarrassment. Mississippi is a sad state, that's for sure although we have explored it a bit and have found some nice people and places. Much would have to change to bring an end to poverty in the USA...and those with money wouldn't like the changes. My wife and I love New Zealand...where we spent 2 weeks exploring the South Island. In NZ, they have a totally different outlook on money and the country is much more socialized. I blogged about our NZ adventures for some significant period of time... Take Care, Big Daddy Dave

Geo. said...

Thank you for this excellent account. I delight in train travel and in the song. Goodman's melody is a hauntingly beautiful. Joe Dassin used it for his fine lyrics in "Salut Les Amoureux", but it is the Guthrie version that I most enjoy.

Elephant's Child said...

Thank you. Train travel has a romance like almost nothing else. I was so very sad to hear just how bad things are in Mississipi. I don't think a country can really claim to be 'civilised' with such huge inequalities. And on that basis my country is not civilised either.

Jenny Woolf said...

I am a sucker for trains, and I would really love to go on the City of new Orleans. Thanks for this fascinating post (and the clip of the song, it's a lovely version. Believe it or not I wasn't that familiar with it)

Down by the sea said...

I always love travelling by train and it was lovely to take this journey with you. How wonderful that the song inspired to take this journey.
Sarah x

Rosaria Williams said...

So much to see and so much to ponder in this country of ours.

Al said...

That looks awesome - I'd love to do a train ride like that one day.

Nadezda said...

Vagabond, this trip is startling! You traveled 16 hours! I love to watch all your collages, as I was in that train!

Pat said...

how super - a double decker train. I'd love to do that journey.
Thanks for the trip:)

Magic Love Crow said...

Great post! My mom and I have taken many train rides across Canada and we have taken trains from Canada to the United States too! My mom and brothers have been to New Orleans, but I haven't! Yet ;o) Take Care ;o)

OldLady Of The Hills said...

As a kid, I use to LOVE to travel by train. And we did travel that way, quite a lot. There is something about the way Train Travel was back in the day that had a certain romance to it. But, what was always shocking was the poverty. The Train Routes always went through frightening and shocking areas of poverty....As children, even WE were shocked, just like the man from New Zealand.
I LOVED taking this trip with you, my dear....It brought back many memories of days gone by...! As always, your pictures were WONDERFUL!

I wanted you to know I was without Internet for a few days and I WILL email you soon, my dear....!

Mandy Southgate said...

Gosh, the story of Steve Goodman is really touching as is your conversation with the man from New Zealand. I've always dreamed of taking one of those double-decker train rides across America. It must have been such fun and I love that viewing carriage!

Vicki Lane said...

Oh, this sounds like a wonderful trip! I'm glad to know that there are still trains like this -- it's been over fifty years since I traveled by train in the US but I have such fond memories...

Craig Baumberger said...

Wrote the following lyrics after riding "City of New Orleans".

The Train
"When the jokes just aren't funny,
You have more time than money,
And nobody's watching your back.
You were up now you're down,
It's time to leave town.
Get you ticket and start making tracks.

There's soldiers and sailors,
Successes and failures,
And others caught somewhere between.
Coming and going, without ever knowing,
They just might be living the dream.

To the engineer driving,
Conductor a striving,
To keep track of the bags and the fares.
To the cook in the kitchen,
To the men throwing switches,
Can't see you, but know that you're there.

Take a beer, take a wine,
Drink a toast to the Line,
And the country that we're passing by.
Thank God for His blessing,
Just don't start confessing,
Don't tell us no secrets or lies.

She's just two years old,
Hanging onto her Momma,
Getting on in New Orleans one day.
Nobody tells her just where they are going,
She's just two years old anyway.

She's been sleeping since Memphis,
It's three in the morning,
At a station in south Illinois.
Waking up from her dreams in the arms of her Daddy,
Too tired to laugh or to cry.

On the Train, on the Train,
Leave your sorrow, your sadness and pain.
Ain't no boat on the ocean gonna rock you no better,
Than riding all night on the Train".

All rights reserved.
Craig Baumberger

Arti said...

This is one of my favorite 'America' songs... song depicting the deep roots of a culture and a geography with a story that needs to be told and appreciated. Thanks for doing that on your post. As always, your photo-journalism is informative and inspiring, VB. As you've pointed out, there weren't too many people there at the stations, while in Europe, all train stations are packed with people. Yes, American (and Canada) is built on the culture of the automobile, while Europe has a long history with the train as the most efficient means of travel.

Marja said...

Oh I love train trips It reminds me of Holland as travelling by train is very common in Holland. In NZ there are hardly any although the ones we've got go along beautiful scenery.
I didn't realise that there was such poverty in Mississippi. Here we have a lot of hidden poverty as well. The West is not as good as it shows off to be
What a coincidence a man from Christchurch on the train. The South Island is hardly populated so it is very easy to get around and to know all the spots.
Let me know if you ever plan to come this way

Jeanie said...

What a fabulous post, VB! I love every detail -- the train, the stops, the fellow from New Zealand -- What a wonderful way to get to New Orleans. I have always loved trains, though never done an overnight. The train looks rather spacious compared to the Amtraks that head to Chicago. Certainly the dining car is much nicer!

I will be making my first trip from Nashville to Mississippi in December. After Rick's trade show, we will drive to see his son who recently was transferred there. It will be a change in scenery, that's for sure!

hidden art of homemaking said...

Oh Vagabonde,

I just love this post. It makes me want to book a trip on this train...Your pictures tell a wonderful story..You really do have such a gift for writing about your travels..Thank you for sharing your stories..I enjoy them so much..
Love, Mona

Jocelyn said...

I am just crazy for train travel, so this felt like a pleasurable escape from my day. The illustrations in the book photos you've put up is incredibly appealing, too.

With regards to Arlo Guthrie: my dad was a vocal professor at a college in Montana, and he had Arlo in his choir the first semester that Arlo went to college. Turns out, college wasn't the right fit for Arlo, and he dropped out after a semester--but not before my dad got his paws on him!

Also, unrelatedly:

At the risk of being obnoxious, I wanted to direct you to a post I’ve put up on a not-the-usual blog. Here’s the link, and the password is 28notes.

Gail Dixon said...

Gosh, we must've crossed paths in New Orleans at some point! I was there with my family at the same time. I do hope you had a nice visit down South. :) I remember that song City of New Orleans very well. Nice one. Have a great weekend!

Sandi McBride said...

I am stunned...this has always been a favorite song of mine and as soon as I saw the title it began to reel off in my head like a dream I once had...thank you dear Vagabonde for such pure memory brought to life...

Lynn at Southern Fried French said...

WHAT a story! And a nostalgic trip for me too, as that music brings back memories.

Ginnie said...

I just told Astrid about this train and said, "Wouldn't that be a great trip!" I even have a sister who lives in Chicago!!! WOW. This is very educational, Vagabonde. Sad, but true, especially the part about Mississippi.

The Silver Bunny said...

Oh-mon-Dieu ! Je vous laisse Paris et je vais vivre dans ce train; tout-de-suite, maintenant ! Talk about exotic ! That post is beautiful !x

Linda said...

Fascinating post and lovely photos! I have always loved trains!

Friko said...

I visited here days ago and thought I’d left a comment, but it’s not there.

What a marvellous journey and everything to do with it is romantic and mouth-wateringly attractive. Lucky lady.

I love train travel, I once travelled from Cologne to Thessaloniki by train; it wasn’t luxurious but very exciting all the same.

My Maine Blog said...

Dear Avagabonde,

First I'd like to thank you for visiting my blog and for your lovely comments. I'm so glad that you did stop by because it lead me to yours. I have just spent some time starting to read your posts and I have to say you have one of the most interesting blogs I have ever read. I especially love the last one of your train trip. Not only is it filled with all of your beautiful photographs and history but you have made it so full of interesting facts along the way. I too love to travel by train and do it often here in Maine.

You spoke about poverty in Mississippi to that gentleman and it really hit home when he said that he didn't understand how that could happen in our country and that is a question I ask myself almost everyday. It's truly shameful how the poor have to struggle and how they are treated and denied the basic necessities of life. It is everywhere and makes me so very sad.

I am your newest follower and I am looking forward to reading more and more of your blog...seems we have a lot in common and even though my traveling days are over...well except for the occasional trip to Nashville...where my daughter lives also... by reading your blog it's almost like being there. Thank you so much for sharing your travels.

Glenda Beall said...

I read both of the posts on the train trip and felt like I was there with you. I've never ridden a train like that and someday I hope I can. I liked having a place with big windows to watch the scenery.
Great photography, as usual.

Jeanne Henriques said...

Wow! Vagabonde, what a sensational trip. I loved the music interspersed and your tales of travel. I feel you embrace your trips heart and soul which every traveller should do, no mater where they venture. I like your style!

Thanks so much for your lovely comment on my blog, your father sounds like he was wonderful man. Am I correct in thinking that we have a case of 'like father, like daughter' ? Just a guess but from what I have read so have a gusto for life.

I look forward to following along!

Warm wishes from Saigon...

Jeanne ;)

Kay said...

I've never ridden one of those trains and now you've got this to put on my bucket list. I remember that song very well and used to love listening to it.

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