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Night ride to Valparaiso

A fast ride out of Chicago on a PRR open-platform observation car
PRR-Detroit-Arrow-obs
As on the train artist buddies Gil Reid and Howard Fogg rode, an open-platform observation car brings up the rear of PRR’s Detroit Arrow at Englewood on the South Side of Chicago.
R. S. Stemier
One day in 1940 or ’41, I was in my Chicago apartment trying to make up my mind about whether to run down to Richmond, Ind., my hometown, for the weekend. The phone rang.

“Hey, Throttlenose!” It was Howard Fogg, my railfan buddy from art school who later became a great rail artist. “Let’s take a ride on just about the last open-platform observation car pulled by a K4 in this world!”

The train was the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Southland, an overnighter to Cincinnati. All thoughts of Richmond were dispelled while Fogg went on about steam and rear-end-riding at night through the South Side of Chicago, Hammond, and Gary on a fast passenger train. It would be a very late departure, close to midnight, with the first passenger-discharge stop after 63rd Street (Englewood) being Valparaiso, Ind., 44 miles east. Let’s go!

We purchased first-class tickets at Union Station, one-way. We had no idea how or when we could get back to Chicago, but, being young and foolish, we weren’t concerned. The agent tried to sell us seat tickets, but we had no truck with that.

So, armed with our first-class fares, we entered through one of the south gates, where our train awaited. Walking down the ramp, we saw the welcome green and red marker lights on the open-end observation car. With light hearts and cheerful smiles we approached the conductor and attendant guarding the entrance to our chariot. They were reluctant to allow us aboard the train with only first-class tickets but no seat or berth reservations. Fogg and I explained we intended to ride the observation platform only, and would detrain at Valparaiso. After some more talk, we were permitted to board the car and access the rear platform.

We didn’t have cameras or sound recorders—we just wanted to absorb all we could of pure Pennsylvania Railroad sounds and soot and whatever else might blow in our direction on the anticipated journey.

No one else took seats on the platform, so we had it all to ourselves. The train started with a gentle lurch, and we were on our way, threading through the double-slip switches of Union Station. The night air was balmy, and soon the delightful odor of coal smoke saluted us, along with great wheel noises from under our feet—whammy debank clumpity zap—with a faint sound of the laboring K4 at the head end. We were riding within uncountable parallel tracks, but gradually the rails reduced in number as we rode south toward Englewood.

Off to our left as we rode backwards, we spotted a brace of Pennsylvania locomotives being groomed for future runs—the weird lighting and smoky haze of steam and smoke gave the scene a ghostly quality.

Soon the train slowed to a walk for the Englewood station stop. As soon as our car cleared the Rock Island diamonds, the engineer brought the train to a stop. An optical illusion made the scenery to the rear look as if everything was moving toward us, or that the train was backing up.

Out of Englewood, we really started to roll. The New York Central’s main line was to our right. We flowed by refineries and steel mills, all working full blast at night. Then came a rush of noise as an inbound freight ripped past. What a show! The whistle of our speeding K4 up front wailed a mournful warning for the many road crossings as we raced through the darkness.

Too soon “Valpo” came, and we climbed down from our Pullman to stand on the asphalt platform. We watched our train disappear in a swirl of steam, cinders, and whistle noise.

Now to find a way back to Chicago. There were no trains due until the early morning. Undaunted, we found the bus depot and bought tickets to Chicago. The Greyhound was not as thrilling as that ride we had on the train, but we were glad to find a way back, and settled down to sleep. I dismounted at 63rd Street, Jackson Park. After a short walk to my apartment, I hit the hay about 4:30 a.m.


First published in Winter 2006 Classic Trains magazine.

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