News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Opinion

May 2, 2014

RONN MOTT: Remembering our railroad history

TERRE HAUTE — Last week, my wife had an operation on one of her eyes. The operation was for cataracts and glaucoma. And despite the fact that she is an independent woman, with this procedure she would not be able to drive for a day or two.

So, I played the part of concerned husband and chauffeur. Sitting in the waiting room of the Wabash Valley Surgery Center, I was sitting across from a gentleman who was also waiting. He was there to drive a family member home from her procedure. He was a Mr. Earle and, in conversation, I learned he was a retired railroad man.

Mr. Earle and I talked about railroads and how important they were to the development to Terre Haute. In 1865, if I have my figures correct, Terre Haute was a town of approximately 8,000 people, and at the turn of the 20th century some 35 years later Terre Haute was a town of about 60,000 people. The large increase in population and growth of the city coincided with the growth of the railroads.

There were roughly about seven different lines, or railroad companies, with trains running through Terre Haute. Because of the increased carrying power of railroads, Terre Haute became a manufacturing and shipping center and, for all the people on the trains, an entertainment center. There would end up being a handful of national railroad unions headquartered here. That attracted the attention of national politicians and gave rise to the legend of Terre Haute being a strong union town.

Mr. Earle said being a railroader was a good job, and it wasn’t until after World War II that railroads began to consolidate, and he stopped enjoying his job as much as he had when he first began.

This railroad retiree has been married to the same woman for 60 years. Railroads, by the nature of the business, have many of their employees away from home for a great deal of time. With that as a circumstance, Mrs. Earle is to be congratulated.

We talked about many of the things that happen to us while traveling and, because I was in the military (USAF), I was at the tail end of the large amount of people who traveled across the country on a train. I had some wonderful times, and I got to see this great nation.

While we often hear nothing but complaints about the railroads, I was glad to end the conversation with Mr. Earle while feeling good about the railroads.

But wouldn’t you know, the very next Friday, I was stopped on Maple Avenue by one of those terribly long freight trains, and the chap in front of me had a flat tire, or something wrong, and got a jack out and began jacking up his car. I knew at that time it was advisable for me to find another way home.

Just as I was pulling out to get to another street, the very long freight train (I guess it wasn’t so long) ended. But, I’m sure changing a tire in the middle of Maple Avenue caused some frustration and consternation. Again, complaining about the railroads that day in Terre Haute.

So I’m happy to remember the history of the railroads and what they meant to our city. But at that moment, I would have wished the railroad tracks to have been somewhere else.

Ronn Mott, a longtime radio personality in Terre Haute, writes commentaries for the Tribune-Star. His pieces are published online Tuesday and Thursday on Tribstar.com, and in the print and online editions on Saturday.

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