November 27, 2011

Westward ho


---- — Editor's Note: This is the first installment in a series detailing Richard Frost's cross-country train trip.

My co-worker Amy dropped me off at the Plattsburgh train station on an ordinary Thursday. Her quizzical expression constituted the only tip-off that this was unusual. In fact, everyone who knew about my plan had given me incredulous looks. Maybe the skepticism came from knowing my destination wasn't Albany, or even New York City, but California.

No degree of disbelief was likely to dissuade me. I wanted to go all the way across the country on an itinerary that included the original transcontinental rail route. And I wanted to begin just down the road at my local depot.

Those waiting for the train exhibited a relaxed sense of anticipation. We heard the whistle somewhere in the direction of the Macdonough Monument; then the silver engine rolled into view. I jumped aboard and grabbed a seat on the left, so as to maximize views along Lake Champlain. Duffle bag and backpack safely stowed on an overhead rack, camera and notebook at the ready, I began my journey.

All American passenger trains are Amtrak, but we started on track once part of the Delaware and Hudson Railroad. At one time D & H monopolized both rail traffic and steamboat routes here in northeastern New York. Unfortunately, I couldn't catch a glimpse of Hotel Champlain, now Clinton Community College, originally built by D & H to stimulate passenger traffic.

Bucolic farm scenes, orchards and mountains alternated to form the backdrop. Views along the lake are high points. Deep rock cuts testify to the challenge of building track through the region. There's a spectacular vista over the Essex County Fairgrounds in Westport, to Lake Champlain and its islands, with silhouettes of Vermont's Green Mountains at the horizon. We stopped briefly at Westport's vintage rail terminal; it doubles as a professional theater in summer.

We rolled into a siding to let a northbound train go through. Known as a "shuffle move," the brief stop gave me time to get a microwaved cheeseburger for lunch. The shore steepened as we raced a blue heron into Port Henry. That community's compact stone depot with its squat turret is a personal favorite, even more so in comparison to the sterile brick shelter that serves Ticonderoga. A look back provided a view of the famous fort.

At Whitehall I saw locks of the Champlain Canal. For a brief period, canal, rail tracks and modern road run in parallel, essentially a condensed history of transportation in the region. Fort Edward offered another classic rail depot, this one built of yellow clapboard. Now terrain began to flatten, and signs of development intensified. At Saratoga we were greeted by a modern brick terminal that marked a clear departure from the traditional. When the train got to Schenectady, I disembarked.

Schenectady's station, built in 1973, replaced the 1908 Union Station. Its location allows easy strolling to downtown, but I spent the time browsing displays on the city's connection to railroads. Schenectady Locomotive Works began operations in 1851; by 1901 it had become the American Locomotive Company. Five decades later, ALCO survived as the only steam engine manufacturer successfully making the switch to diesel production.


The Lake Shore Limited, Amtrak's train from New York and Boston to Chicago, roared in almost exactly on schedule. Sleeping car attendant Tom Finnegan helped hoist my luggage aboard, then showed me to my quarters.

My roomette was as compact as possible. A seat folds up to reveal a toilet; the sink folds down from the wall. Two comfortable lounge chairs would be transformed into a double-decker bed while I was at dinner. Add a couple of cup holders, a hinged tray and ample reading lights, and I was set for the night.

My room was on the right, but I managed fleeting glimpses of the Barge Canal and Mohawk River opposite. As the sun began setting ahead of us, we passed through remnants of industrial landscape. Boarded brick factories, tall square towers and long warehouses occasionally revealed their identities (Bowlers Brewery, Amsterdam Bedding) in faded paint.

Bright blue silos marked still-operating farms. An array of small 19th century downtowns such as Fonda made their appearance. I spotted a turreted Queen Anne home here, a flat-roofed Italianate house there.

Let me lay to rest fears of meals on a train resembling airline food. Every meal turned out to be quite good, from the New York strip steak I enjoyed en route to Chicago, to the final breakfast as we arrived in California. There are no tables for singles or even pairs in the dining car. Every meal meant meeting new people and hearing new stories. On the first night, I dined with a food manufacturer on his way to a major convention in Chicago.

By the time dinner ended, darkness had set in, so sightseeing was limited to armchair experience. I read a history of Chicago for a while, pored over a map of the train route, then settled in for a good night's sleep.

Tom woke me at 7 with coffee and a copy of USA Today. I glanced out the window at cows grazing on pastures stretching to Lake Erie, then caught a quick shower (no line!). At breakfast, I met a couple from England who had flown to New York specifically to ride the train across America. By the time I finished eating (a satisfying vegetarian omelet), farmland had given way to the industrial Midwest.

Elkhart, Ind., announced itself with acres of motor homes, trailers and campers. I knew it was the home of Winnebago; I learned it's also the birthplace of Conn musical instruments and Alka-Seltzer. We passed South Bend (though without spotting Notre Dame), then traversed a gauntlet of huge grain elevators and electrical grid towers (infrastructure on parade). Rail yards at Hammond offered a staggering complexity that I had no hope of understanding.

We neared our destination. I spotted a commercial canal, steeples, the occasional rounded top of a mosque, U.S. Cellular Field (sterile commercial name of what the White Sox once called Comiskey Park), the Chicago River (nicely landscaped on one bank, chockoblock with warehouses on the other) and the beginnings of a glittering skyline. The train entered a tunnel. Minutes later my steward shouted "Chicago."

I gathered my things and headed up into Union Station.


Chicago offers plenty of sightseeing options. I enjoyed the advantage of having my niece Susan, a graphic designer and Chicago resident, as a guide.

Stop No. 1 was the Museum of Science and Industry. Only surviving building of the famed White City from the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893, it was renovated as a science museum with funding from Julius Rosenwald, chairman of Sears Roebuck and Company. Rosenwald, one of the country's leading philanthropists during the first half of the 20th century, had a Clinton County link — his wife, Augusta Nusbaum, grew up in Plattsburgh.

I focused on railroad exhibits, beginning with the sleek stainless steel Pioneer Zephyr, launched in 1934 as one of the country's first aerodynamic trains. A cutaway engine and accompanying diagrams taught me how diesel locomotives serve as generators, producing electricity to drive DC current motors on each wheel.

Tour guide Dennis ushered me through the baggage and club cars, then the observation car in which celebrities like John Wayne and Bob Hope lounged. Life-size figures depicted the excitement of such a well-equipped train, the first boasting baseboard heating, air conditioning, a radio car and a full kitchen (meals were served by the Zephyrettes).

Early locomotives on display included a full-size replica of the John Stevens, built in 1825, and extolled by its inventor as surpassing the capacity of horse-drawn cars for carrying freight. An 1893 engine manufactured near Albany became the first to exceed 100 mph.

The museum features an enormous model-train layout portraying the route from Chicago to Seattle.

Its most famous exhibit (also one of its oldest) guides visitors through a simulated coal mine. At another installation, kids (and adults) learn concepts of computer-aided design and robotics, then customize their own toys and watch them go through the assembly line.

Susan insisted a baseball fan coming all the way to Chicago should see Wrigley Field. Built in 1914, this stadium hosts the hometown Cubs; it also played a prominent role in the movies "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" and "A League of Their Own." Our enthusiastic guide Jan led us on a mile and a half of walking — much of it straight up. We toured the press box and clubhouses, climbed to the topmost patio for spectacular views and strolled along center field to the manually operated scoreboard.

We also visited the National Veterans Art Museum, with its often challenging and poignant artwork created by military veterans.

Over three days we sampled Ethiopian food at Demura, Latin American cuisine at D'Noche, a southern-style breakfast at Feed, plus Chicago-style hot dogs and pizza. I felt well fortified for the continuation of my journey.