Postcards Capture the Romance of the Rails

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courtesy by Anthony B. Lovelace
Union Pacific Engine 4014, the “Big Boy.” This picture was taken in Hays, Kan., where the train stopped for the night. The overall size of the locomotive was just incredible. This particular one was delivered to Union Pacific in December 1941, if I remember correctly. Twenty-five Big Boys were built, each measuring 132 feet in length and weighing in at 1.2 million tons. These engines were articulated so they could get around the curves.

A slight breeze drifted by with the sweet smell of fall riding on its back. The rails seemed to glow as the afternoon sun hit them. The wooden boardwalk surrounding the depot was spotted with people, some waiting patiently for the train to deliver family and friends; others waiting for the freight a small farming community needs to survive.

If you stood real still, you could hear the whistle as the train crossed the Beaver River Bridge and make out the plume of iron gray smoke as the steam engine labored up the slight grade outside of town.

Today, we are going to stay right here in Oklahoma. As we continue our visits, it will become clear that I am fascinated with airports, bus stations, truck stops and train stations. In this column, I’m sharing a couple of postcards with pictures of El Reno, Oklahoma.

The first picture shows the Rock Island train depot in El Reno. Like a lot of Oklahoma towns, El Reno was born in the land runs of the late 1800s. The interesting thing about El Reno is that the town was actually born from two different land runs. The land run of 1889 opened up all lands in Oklahoma not assigned to a Native American tribe. The land run of 1892 opened up Cheyenne and Arapaho lands for settlement. As a result, the eastern part of El Reno was established three years before the western part.

The town was named after Ft. Reno, which was located northwest of town. Ft. Reno was established as a temporary fort to protect the Darlington Agency from the Native American uprising right before the Red River War. The area is steeped in history, and many historic sites and buildings still survive. The Rock Island depot seen in the first photo is now home to the Canadian Country Historical Society Museum. For more information, just go to your trusted internet search engine and you can find information about the town and the museum, which is located right next to the tracks.

The rail line passing through El Reno was owned and operated by the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad (also known as the Rock Island line). At one time, El Reno had a large and vibrant rail district. Until 1979, the train yard was home to a repair facility for the Rock Island railroad.

Look closely at the details

The picture of the depot was taken by White’s Studio. The photo is undated but the card was postmarked in 1908 (and hand-dated Sept. 1, 1908). Oklahoma became a state on Nov. 16, 1907, so this picture was taken sometime within the first year of statehood. In the picture of the depot, the first thing that jumped out at me were the 20-some cream cans stacked to the left on the boardwalk. When you look closely, you’ll see some are marked El Reno. The workers and people on the boardwalk are not wearing coats (though some of them have long sleeves), but I would think it would be too warm to keep dairy products in those cream cans sitting out in the sun. Maybe they have something else in them. The single can on the right is about to get knocked over by the wagon; it is actually leaning in the picture.

I am sure many of you know more about trains than I do, but if I have it correct the Union Pacific 4014 is a 4-8-8-4. That means 16 of the wheels are drive wheels. This shows one set of drive wheels. The picture does not do them justice; I bet they were 6 feet tall. The entire engine was massive.

If you look closely at that empty rail cart, you’ll see a board stuck between the spokes of the back wheels to keep it from rolling. When I enlarge the picture on the computer, I can see that’s been done to all the carts. I guess that is what you would call “early day trailer brakes.”

This postcard gives a good view of what life around the depot was like in the early 1900s. Like airports and truck stops of today, the rail yard was the center of activity for small towns all across the U.S. Right above the cream cans and to the left, you will see a team of horses harnessed to a wagon. On the side of the wagon, I can make out argo & Company Express. I am going to guess that it is Fargo & Company Express. It may be a freight service; in the wagon are what look like round wooden crates. I have never seen anything like them before. Maybe one of you readers out there can identify what they would have secured.

Behind the wagon and horses, you can see a real nice building. I am going to guess it’s a hotel and maybe some shops. I think that building is still standing today. Right underneath the El Reno sign are two railroad carts loaded with what appears to be produce or some type of agriculture product. My reasoning for that is the types of crates the goods are in. They are nothing like the trunks and freight boxes on the three rail carts lined up against the depot behind the workers.

Judging by his hat, I would guess that the fellow on left end of the boardwalk is the ticket agent. He is leaning on what looks to be a U.S. postal service mailbox; perhaps people dropped postcards there before boarding the train. Who knows? This postcard might have been dropped in that very box. I am pretty sure this picture was taken looking southeast, as you can see some grain elevators on the right. There are some folks milling around, waiting on the train, but I think the line of guys to the right of the gentleman leaning on the mailbox are all workers, as they are wearing overalls. The guy on the end of that line, wearing a white shirt and a bowler, must be upper management like the leaning fellow on the left.

Getting our bearings straight

The second picture shows a bird’s eye view of the rail yard. Lettering on the card identifies it as a view looking north, but the tracks through El Reno run southeast to northwest, so I bet this was looking northwest. Before we get started, let’s get our bearings straight. Look in the center of the picture toward the top and you can see the depot; the tracks run right through the two boardwalks on either side.

The first thing I noticed about this picture is the tracks toward the bottom left that go off to the left in a zigzag pattern. At first, I thought somebody probably got fired over this, but then realized that they are that way because they match the side tracks.

The postmark is impossible to make out so I can’t tell if this picture was taken before or after the other one. Look at the building directly behind the depot in the first picture and the big building to the right of the depot in this picture. Are they the same building? This picture was also taken by White’s Studio, so maybe the photos were taken around the same time.

If only this picture could talk

One of the neatest things about this postcard is visible on the right, just below the multi-story building. I do believe this is a tractor dealership. If you look closely, you will see what I believe to be steam traction engines. One of the engines even has a canopy to block the sun. A steel wheel leans against the building. The two arched doors look like doors to a shop. There is a sign on the left side of the roof (interestingly enough, pointing toward the railroad tracks), and another sign on the building directly across from it, but I can’t make out either one.

To the right of the equipment dealership is a windmill. You don’t see many of those in town anymore. Moving on to another one of the wonderful mysteries in this picture, in the center of the postcard and down a bit, you will see a small building with three small rail carts. Look at the northeast corner of that building. There is a man there who doesn’t look like a railroad worker. Wouldn’t that be neat if it was a hobo staying clear of the railroad bulls!

When I enlarge the picture, it looks like there is something right by his right foot and he is looking down at it. Man, if only this picture could talk. On the south side of that building is a bench, or maybe a sign leaning against the wall.

The last object I found interesting is located almost directly in the middle of the picture. When I first saw it, I thought it looked just like the wooden pulpits that you’d see in old churches. When I enlarge the picture, I noticed it is enclosed. It has windows and a ladder leading up to it. I wonder if that is the yard supervisor’s spot. It doesn’t seem high enough for him to be able to see over the cars, but it has to be used for something like that.

Picking out the people

And what about the people? You would think a bustling town would have a good bit of traffic at the local depot. At first, I hardly saw anybody, but on closer examination, I found them. There are two men on the left of the “pulpit,” and what appears to be another on the right. I assume they were working in the rail yard and in motion when the picture was taken, accounting for the blur.

Near the blurry guy on the right by the little building, it looks like there is another person sitting on the steps. You can see a man walking on the boardwalk toward the depot. On the road behind him are two buggies pulled by horses; one is heading for the corner and the other has just turned the corner (you can see the horse).

Two final things I want to point out: If you look toward the bottom of the postcard to the right of the loaded coal car, there is a rectangular hole right between the tracks! I wonder what that was for. If you look at the road that crosses the tracks, right by the “pulpit,” and follow it to the left, there is a bigger building. A sign on the front reads, “American Iron Works”; maybe it’s a smithy’s shop.

Remembering an American treasure

Railroad tracks once crossed every corner of the U.S. They carried travelers from coast to coast and brought in the sodbusters, whose arrival officially closed the vast open spaces of the prairie. They carried hobos, hungry and looking for jobs, as well as senators and representatives and, on at least one occasion, they carried a president home one last time. They carried livestock from places not big enough to show up on a map and delivered them to bustling cities like Chicago, Kansas City and St. Paul. They brought life to places like Slapout, Oklahoma; Bugtussle, Kentucky; Turkey, Texas; Chugwater, Wyoming; Nicodemus, Kansas; and Hay Springs, Nebraska.

In the early 1900s, there were more than 250,000 miles of railroad tracks in the U.S. Today, some 100 years later, only about 140,000 miles of track remain. Many of the communities that depended on the railroad have slowly withered over time; some are gone forever. People now travel on approximately 4 million miles of public roads and highways, flying by the now-forgotten towns of their ancestors.

I recently had the opportunity to get a glimpse of the glory days of the railroad in Hays, Kansas. The Union Pacific’s Engine 4014, the “Big Boy,” was making an overnight stop there. I refuse to bore you with details of why the engine was traveling, and the height, width and weight of the big locomotive: You can look that up at home or the library. What I can tell you is that, for a brief moment, maybe even only a few seconds, it was 1941 and I was standing on the wooden platform next to the depot, staring down the lines waiting on the train.

I hope you enjoyed getting together as much as I did and I look forward to seeing you again. Until our next visit, remember to take time out of your busy schedule and enjoy the view from the back roads. FC

Anthony Lovelace lives in Alva, Oklahoma. He enjoys traveling and collects anything old, has a very small cow herd, and writes. Write him at P.O. Box 174, Alva, OK 73717; email:

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