The Way It Was
I was born in 1944. When I was three or four, my mother and I took the train (two or three times) to visit her parents in Bath, South Carolina. I spent much of my time there on my grandparent's front porch, much of that spent watching trains go by.
Their house was fronted by a dirt yard and the "street" it sat on was a dirt road. On the opposite side of the dirt road was a grassy ditch and, maybe seventy-five feet further and parallel to the dirt road, were the railway tracks.
In those days, trains had cabooses -- living quarters for the railroad crew who traveled with the trains -- and often one or more of the crew would wave to me, the kind of thing that endlessly fascinates a four-year-old. Sometimes I would get a wave from one of the crew in the locomotive.
Even better was watching the mail trains pick up the outgoing mail. The mailbag was hung between two arms on a special pole that stood right by the tracks. An arm that extended out from the mail car grabbed the mailbag and shunted it into the car as the train sped on! I don't remember how the incoming mailbags were handled -- they may have just been thrown out. The point was to allow the mail to be transferred without the trains having to stop (I can't even say that they slowed down, though they may have). If you were shipping cookies to a loved one, it was no surprise that many of them ended up broken!
And, speaking of the locomotives, almost all of them were coal-fueled steam locomotives. I vaguely remember seeing the occasional diesel locomotive, but that may well have been years later.
In those days, the Interstate Highway System was still years away from its 1956 start. Highways and roadways were narrower, less well marked -- once you got off the main highways, it was easy to get lost (and we did) -- and less well maintained. And there was nothing to compare with the services you find now.
Cars were slower, less reliable, and not as safe (though, in many cases, roomier and so, in that respect at least, more comfortable). I do not remember riding in a single car then that had air conditioning, though it's possible that it was an option on luxury cars.
Steel-belted tires were uncommon or non-existent, so flats were common. You seldom went more than a few miles without seeing someone on the side of the road fixing a flat.
Oh, you could take the bus, but it was easy to gag on the cigar fumes, and no small number of passengers tended to be drunk and disruptive. My mother, especially, was no fan of the cigar fumes. On the whole, buses were quite a bit downscale compared to trains.
Another option to trains, air travel, was still very much in its infancy. It was expensive and, by today's standards, very unreliable, and dangerous. But, mostly, it was just so expensive as to be completely out of the question for the average person.
So, if you were going any distance at all, trains were probably the main choice. I guess I made five or six train trips in those days, including one with my mother and young sisters, from Roanoke, Virginia to San Francisco, where we got on a ship and sailed to meet my father on Guam. (And, when we came back from Guam -- by plane -- our last stop on the way was Hawaii, where the thing that most excited me was the sight, for the first time in a year, of a train -- just a little sugarcane hauler of a train, but a train nonetheless!)
Trains permeated our travel consciousness in those days, much as autos and planes do now. You saw them all the time in the movies and in the magazines. (See Boston&Maine's reply to "Model trains in the movies" in the General forum for a nice film clip of an electric train being used to deliver food and drink around a dinner table!) One downside to lots of trains and relatively undeveloped roadways was that car/train crashes -- with the cars always the losers -- were much more common then, and were common news stories.
It's hard to exaggerate how prominent trains were in the late '40s. Now, cars and planes are fairly equal, I would guess, in hauling people long distances cross country, with buses a distant third, and trains a very distant fourth. In those days, for cross-country travel, trains won, hands-down. And that was probably true, too, for most trips over a few hundred miles, though buses might have been cheaper and went some places the trains didn't (though, in those days, the trains went far more places than they do now, and much more frequently).
And trains weren't just the most common way of long-distance travel -- they were relatively comfortable and classy, with sleeping cars and dining cars, and even club cars, where you could get a drink (clearly not an issue then, for a four-year-old!).
I wish I could think of better examples to bring home how prominent trains were then.
Oh, yes, one just came to mind. In those days, one of the breakfast cereals -- Rice Crispies, if I remember correctly -- printed toy trains on their cereal boxes. You cut them out, folded them up, and glued them together (I'm not completely sure about that last part). The wheels used toothpicks for axles. They didn't work that well, of course, but I remember my mother going to the trouble to put at least two of them together, no doubt after some badgering from me.
Oh, yeah, one other small and silly thing. In those days, not only were trains more common, so was smoking. When my grandparents took me to the store and my granddad bought a carton of cigarettes, he would let me take all the packs of cigarettes out of the carton, line them up, and push them around on the floor pretending they were a train with all its cars. I tell you, we were obsessed with trains in those days!
One big effect of trains being prominent, was that model trains were, too. Probably most boys had model trains -- electric trains -- and most who didn't wanted one. They were prime Christmas presents for boys, right up there with bikes and BB guns (o.k., probably not quite up there with bikes). It was quite common at Christmas to set up electric trains around the bases of Christmas trees; I'd guess you'd only need to visit five or ten households with boys in them -- and that was most of them, since families were larger then -- to find a Christmas tree with an electric train around it.
While boys were the biggest users of electric trains, some of them grew into adulthood without outgrowing their interest. I remember visiting one man who had given over an entire room to his electric trains, complete with some very elaborate scenery. Needless to say, I thought that was great!
And electric trains weren't quite all there was to it. Boys too young for electric trains sometimes got wind-up trains. These usually came with just a simple circular track, perhaps two or three feet across, a station, and maybe a water tank. They were nice enough, I suppose, but were a huge let-down if you were hoping for an electric train...
Anyway, I hope this is some help in conveying the popularity of trains, and model trains in particular, in the late 1940s.