In Praise of Rail Road Towns

train

“TRAIN!”

–Gordy, in Stand By Me, 1996

Many of the Crazy Train’s excursions lead us through tiny dots on the map, born of the railroads during westward expansion. Millions of acres lay in wait, untouched by a new breed of American explorers in search of a place to call their own. During the nineteenth century, a herd of iron horses stampeeded westward, forever changing the Western landscape. Likewise, decades later, when the US Department of Transportation paved a spiderweb of asphalt, most of the old railroad towns were bypassed, condemning them to a future of ambiguity. mccloud rail 1930s It was on one of these road trips that I made a connection I’d never made before. Usually, when we arrive in a town, I google its history, and we learn about any little interesting tidbits the town had—or still has—to offer. I usually read a little about how the town was founded, its subsequent growth, and its ultimate decline. Or, in some cases, what continues to keep it thriving.

mccloud train hauling logs It was in one of these obscure little ghost towns that I made an offhanded remark to the tone of, “gee. All these towns are named after railroad presidents and train muckety-mucks rather than the town founders.” My words were still hanging in the air above my head in a bubble as The Hub turned and looked at me in that, “you didn’t seriously just say that, did you?” expression he gets that is at times humorous, and at other times annoying as hell. “Oops. Yeah, Right. It’s a FANTASTIC idea to name those towns after railroad presidents!” I exclaimed, with a guilty giggle.

nera swobe californiaI laughed because, in a way, the Crazy Train has VERY close link to one such town. And what is this link, you may be wondering? In the northern California county of Siskiyou, there’s a tiny dot on the map called Swobe. Depending on which map you use, Swobe, California may, or may not, actually have roads. But, one thing it does not have is a population. Or buildings. Or a sign. Or a zip code. Or a train depot. Or ANYTHING. Swobe is pretty much just a dot on the map.

swobemap So just where did the name for this tiny dot originate? Just who was this “Swobe” person, and why is there a dot bearing his name? My great-grandfather, Dwight Milton Swobe, was born in 1878 in Nebraska, the son of Civil War veteran Col. Thomas Swobe and his wife, Alzina. Col Swobe worked his way up the ranks in the Union Army, ultimately retiring as Quartermaster. It was upon his retirement that he became a partner in Shears, Markel & Swobe of the Millard Hotel, Omaha’s premier hotel at the time, and one of Nebraska’s political centers. His company also provided dining cars for many railroads. swobe dudes It seems that Dwight Swobe got the railroad bug from his dad, because all accounts I’ve read have him working for railroads as soon as he graduated from college. The railroads brought Dwight incrementally west, became a widely respected short line railroad man, and ultimately became president of the McCloud River Railroad in 1921. He saw the Railroad through the devastation of the 1930s, making use of the line for lumber transport. The company was beloved by its employees and became known by them as Mother McCloud for continuing to offer its employees credit in company stores throughout the Depression, and then forgiving their debt afterwards. Dwight raised a family in Berkeley, and, sadly, passed away at the age of 65 in 1943. Mccloud train After his death, McCloud River Railroad honored him by naming a “town” after him. It’s actually just a mile of tracks between markers 12 and 13 along a picturesque span of the Railroad, but the real honor was in the gesture. swobe original mainline 2 Swobe former site 1 Although we rarely depend on the railroads for transportation these days, The Mc Cloud River Railroad, now the McCloud Railway operates as a passenger excursion train, and an 80 mile portion of the former line is being converted into a multi-use trail for hiking, cycling, horseback riding, and other non-motorized sports. train track For a glimpse of my great-grandfather’s railroad, check out the scenery in the classic movie Stand By Me. The infamous bridge the boys run across to escape the oncoming train is the McCloud River Railroad’s Lake Britton Bridge in Burney Falls Memorial State Park.stand04 ***Special THANKS to the people of the McCloud River Railroad and the McCloud Railroad for posting these pictures that I borrowed from you on your webpage. Learn and see more history at mcclourriverrailroad.com, greatshastarailtrail.org/history/railroad-history-summary/, trainweb.org/mccloudrails, ancestry.com, and to my mom, my aunt, and my awesome 2nd cousin Gordon for your assistance in the ongoing Swobe family research!***

The Most Awesome Photo-Op Ever! (Or Not.)

About six months ago, a tiny little dot on the map caught my eye.

phelpsmap

Deep within the Sam Houston National Forest in East Texas lies the town of Phelps.

I KNOW, RIGHT?!?!?! I was giddy. Like, pee-your-pants excited. The Phelps Family Crazy Train would have the most legendarily, awesomely, fantastically EPIC Christmas Card Family Photo in the HISTORY of staged family photo cheesiness, and absolutely ZERO Photochopping would be necessary.

Visions of this monumental achievement danced in my head. I was already deciding where I would hang the custom art wrap canvas print of the family photo at the homestead. I had outfits planned, and a date blocked off on the calendar for the Crazy Train’s most celebrated road trip to date. We were going to OUR TOWN!

blogready2

Photo Idea #1

Finding a town bearing your last name is pretty flipping cool. After almost 13 years of being asked if I’m married to Michael Phelps (spoiler: I am not) I’d finally found something non-Speedo related that we could commandeer and claim as our own. (Since our kids are swimmers, this is pretty fun during swim season, but I digress.) For all intents and purposes, it’d be OUR town, and when people ooohed and ahhhed over our magnificent family portrait in front of the Phelps city limits sign, I could haughtily chortle, “No… It’s NOT photochopped,” and everyone would be really jealous and when they were out of earshot, they would hurriedly whip out their phones and google their own last names to see if they could find their own namesake towns so they could attempt to replicate my brilliant idea.

 blogready3

Photo Idea #2

Basic online research told me that Phelps, Texas had been established around a train depot and telegraph station in the early 1870s, and was named for the Phelps-Dodge Company, builders of the railroad. Within four years, there was a post office, a general store, a church, a hotel, and a school. When a spur of the railroad connected Huntsville, sawmills opened up and families poured in. By the late 1930s, the sawmills were closing up and the town dwindled to around 100 citizens, which is about where it was as of the last census.

Now, this is where I violated the first guideline in the Crazy-Train Bible of Road Tripping. If you have a very specific destination in mind, Google it first.

But no. The dream of the perfect family photo had its grip on me, and there was nothing that could penetrate my fantasy. So on a Saturday morning, we loaded up the Crazy Train and headed eastward into the rising Texas sun. Our legendary trip was beginning, and it really would be truly magnificent. Epic, even. We blew through small town after small town, speeding past historical marker after historical marker, and ignoring countless fabulous looking points of interest, making mental notes of all the places we would return to on another trip. We were too impatient to stop, and, well, we were burning daylight!

 blogready1

Photo Idea #3

After almost three hours on the road, we entered the borders of the Sam Houston National Forest. My heart was pounding. As a documentary photographer, I was salivating over all the photographic opportunities I would have. As a mom, I was so excited and restless and overcome with enthusiasm about what I just KNEW would be the most sensationally unique family picture in the history of EVER.

 blogready8

All five of us had our noses pressed up against the windows as we entered the forest. The tall dense trees and lush green foliage would make for fantastic pictures! It was even overcast—my FAVORITE weather conditions for portraits because the light is so pretty. We drove and drove… and drove… and… drove. No sign. And finally, Mark said, “You said 6 miles. We’ve gone 8. Check the map.” So I did. We had passed it? What? What the WHAT? Not possible.

So we turned around and I followed the blue dot on iMaps as it completely passed through the word PHELPS on the map.

blogready9 blogready10

Fantasy                                             Reality

You’ve got to be FREAKING KIDDING ME. My heart sank.

We saw a side street, so we turned. Again, nothing. We crossed the railroad tracks. Nothing. We saw one church (that wasn’t particularly old or picturesque) and one street sign atop a leaning, rusty, stop sign.

 blogready5

The ONLY building in Phelps

Ssssssssssssssssssssssssss…. (That’s the sound of the wind blowing out of our sails).

 blogready4

The other picture I took in town

No town. No sign. No ice house, no gas station, no ruins, no ghost town, no bones of a former train depot. NOTHING. Nothing but a (maybe 30 year old) church and a dilapidated stop sign with a street sign on top. We drove down every street, every dirt road, every railroad access point. We checked iMaps and MapQuest and GoogleMaps and all of their satellite images. Nada. Zip. Zilch. Zero. Bupkis.

My family photo fantasy was completely annihilated. My plans for the deluxe custom printed art wrapped wall canvas were as wiped out of our future as the town of Phelps had been wiped off the map. Three hours of driving. All the places we bypassed without stopping. The envy-enducing Christmas cards that would not happen. All gone.

I was shattered. I didn’t even want to think about a Plan B. I wanted to salvage my Plan A! Just where was this town of Phelps, population 98? Where was the cool, rusty, roached out old city limits sign? Where was the pristine Texas Historical Marker? I wanted to fling myself onto Old Phelps Road and have an epic tantrum, complete with banging my fists in the dirt and kicking my feet.

The “Voice of Reason” behind the wheel made the executive decision that continuing to search the same roads and bit of railroad track over and over would be futile and a waste of time. So he began the journey out of what I now felt was the World’s Most Disappointing Forest.

As we drove along, I saw a sign that read “Dodge: 2 mi”

Me: “Honey, we must go there.”

Him: “Where?”

Me: “To Dodge.”

Him: “Why?”

Me: “So we can take a picture.”

Him: “Ok then…”

So we went to Dodge (which looked EXACTLY like what we THOUGHT Phelps would look like) and we took this picture and posted it on Facebook with this caption:

 blogready6

 “We’ve gotta get the heck outta here!”

After we finished laughing hysterically at our really, really campy joke, (and our daughter informed us that we were totally stupid) we decided to head over to Huntsville so we could, I don’t know, check out the bail bonds offices and pawn shops and whatever else there was to offer in that po-dunk little prison town, famous the world over as the place where capital punishment is delivered in Texas.

But we were pleasantly surprised. Huntsville was amazing. It was a picturesque little historic town with so many charming old buildings, a cool old courthouse with a Town Square, tons of state historical markers, and Sam Houston State University (which is absolutely stunning). We spent awhile at Sam Houston’s historical estate and checked out some of the antique shops on the Square.

In the end, we had a legitimately fun day filled with so many places on our “return to” list.

And we learned an unquestionably valuable lesson: If you’ve got a specific destination in mind, never, never, NEVER neglect your preliminary research. And always, always, ALWAYS have a Plan B.

(Full post on Huntsville will appear in a future post. And oh yeah, stop laughing at my super awesome drawings. I am a photographer, not an artist.)

Vega, Texas and Adrian, Texas

Remember how I said that I was disappointed in how Texas has failed to maintain much of our Rt66 history and landmarks? (See post “Preface to Route 66.) Here’s what I meant: IMG_1049.JPGAmong the disappointments on our Rt66 journey was our trip west of Amarillo to the towns of Adrian and Vega. Adrian is also known as “Midway” or “Midpoint” because it is EXACTLY half-way between Chicago and Los Angeles on Rt66–1,139 miles to either. And, we were excited to learn that the inspiration behind Flo’s V8 Cafe in the Pixar movie “Cars,” had been none other than the Midpoint Cafe in Adrian, Texas! We knew the cafe itself didn’t look like Flo’s but we’d heard that the owner and the inside were pretty awesome. Rt66 memorabilia was on display in the 1950s-esque diner, and the owner was reportedly the inspiration for FLO HERSELF! “Cars” fans in the backseat rejoiced in excitement!

IMG_1046.JPGAfter leaving Cadillac Ranch, we went west, first to Vega. We saw some of the old neon signs– which, we learned, is what mostly remains of the Mother Road. We parked at the Courthouse and used their facilities to try to scrub the spray paint off the kiddos. No dice. My boys were blue. The paint wasn’t coming off. So we checked out the old restored Magnolia Station (pretty cool) and then headed across the street to Roark Hardware. Of all the places we stopped on our trip, Roark Hardware has got to be filled with some of the nicest people we’ve met. Not only did we want to see the oldest operating hardware store on America’s Main Street, but we needed help getting the paint off the boys. The shop was pretty neat. Filled with modern hardware items as well as some cool vintage stuff on display, Roark’s looked a lot like an old-time general store. Everyone jumped in on helping us find a way to un-paint the boys, and when we wanted to BUY the supplies, they were surprised that we didn’t just want to use some! We insisted, and left with clean kids and a happy feeling because we LOVE supporting small business.

IMG_1044.JPGHowever, our joy was short-lived. Everything else in Vega was closed! Every Rt66 attraction we’d read about, every place our new friends at Roark’s recommended, everything on Trip Advisor and Yelp and our Rt66 app…. Closed. We passed up the restaurants because, well, the Midpoint Cafe was just a few miles down Rt66. So, we took some pictures around the Magnolia Station, and made our way west to Flo’s. I mean The Midpoint Cafe.

IMG_1047.JPGWhen we arrived in Adrian, we were a little surprised. (We have since learned that ANY town with a population of less than 1,000 is more than likely to be pretty sparse, so make a note for future reference!) As our second “destination city” on Rt 66 (after the county seat in Vega), we weren’t prepared for a virtual ghost town. After all, the online sites boasted 12 local businesses, a population of 150, and the Midpoint Cafe! We passed by the Bent Door Trading Post– Closed. The Antique Ranch– Gone. Tumbleweed actually blew across the road in front of us. Yet, optimistically, we pressed on. As we pulled into the parking lot at the Midpoint, our optimism quickly turned to sadness. It was closed. Closed. For the season. The handwritten sign on the door said, “Closed for the 2014 Season! SEE YOU IN JANUARY!” Sigh… (See note at the bottom.)

IMG_1043.JPG
However, we did take a little “scenic” drive through the town of Adrian, and saw some hilariously strange road signs. Since they were mostly in people’s front yards (and residents looked at us like we were nuts for cruising through the residential area) I didn’t snap any pics with my Professional Fancy Candy Apple Red Picture-Making Magic Box (or the iCheese). But now I regret it because NOW I know these were some of Stanley Marsh 3’s bizarre road signs, erected in tribute to the eccentric millionaire when he died this past June. HINDSIGHT PEOPLE!!! DO YOUR RESEARCH!!! I SHOULD’VE BEEN PREPARED!

IMG_1048.JPGAnd, well, I did enjoy the Bent Door Trading Post, even though it was closed. I jumped out and took some pictures (and poked around, like I love to do in old, broken down, scary-looking, dilapidated, ghost-town looking buildings). There was some interesting “rusty gold” as Mike and Frank on American Pickers say, and the gas station fixtures out front were pretty neat. Not to mention the cool front door, which is, in fact, “bent,” as the name implies. It was originally a cafe, souvenir shop, and gas station. Built in 1947 by Robert Harris, it was actually called “Midway Station,” but everyone just called it the Bent Door Cafe” because the recycled doors and windows from a WWII USAF watch tower were “bent.” In 2009, the name was officially changed to “The Bent Door.” It had been saved from demolition, and I’d read that it was in the process of restoration, but, unfortunately, I could see no trace of this when we were there. Sad.

IMG_1050.JPGUnable to take any more disappointment, we turned the SSPhelps around and did what the Crazy Train does best….. We implemented PLAN B! The kids were STARVING (my sarcastic emphasis because apparently, the all-you-can-eat free waffles at the hotel couldn’t have sustained them for another half hour so we could see the TX/NM border) so we turned around and headed back to Amarillo, sights set on the infamous cheeseburgers of the Golden Light Cafe– CONFIRMED to be open and ready to flip some burgers!

(END NOTE: Since we are HUGE proponents of mom and pop businesses, we applaud their decision to take a vacation! One of the best things about owning your own business is having the choice to open whenever you want. Now, we know that if there is a specific place on our “must go to” itinerary, we need to call ahead and check on the hours! Kudos, Fran Houser, for taking the holiday season off! We hope we can catch up with you next time!)