Saturday, July 4, 2009

The North Coast and the Olympian ...

Yesterday a friend of mine who's interested in railroads jokingly complained to me that this blog has been ignoring the Northern Pacific, one of the three east-west transcontinental railroads that once traversed the state. That same day, the current issue of South Dakota History arrived in my mailbox, and it featured a reproduction of a typescript journal that included a journey on the Northern Pacific in Montana. So even though the quote is a bit longer than usual, I thought I'd reproduce it here.

This is part of a December 1932 journal entry by a young man named Philip Cummings, who was traveling from Cody, Wyoming to South Dakota for the holidays. Nothing profound, I suppose, but full of great details on railroad travel of the era ... and on how to spend a cold winter night in Billings.
We reached frigid Billings, Montana about twenty minutes of seven, but before that I had finished A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the long stream of consciousness of James Joyce. There seem at times unnecessary crudities of language and thought. As a writer of vivid and concentrated descriptions there could be no one better. In Billings we went to the Hotel Northern Grill for a late dinner. There was seafood on the menu and I was not long in getting oysters and scallops. I hope they came from the Pacific, otherwise they would be eligible for the old age pension. Some of the boys who finished early went to the billiard room in the basement, then we all gathered and went to the Fox theatre to see Clive Brook do a fine bit of acting in Sherlock Holmes. The Fox theatre there is so different from the one I know best, that of Saint Louis, which is in the oriental temple motif. The Billings "Fox" is in the modern clear-cut severe style with nickel-plating and medallions with severe symbolic figures.

After the movies we went back to the hotel for a while and then straggled down to the station. Our car was on a siding but very warm, being hitched to the steam line. We went between the car and the station, then ran every now and then into the Northern Pacific restaurant for coffee and fresh doughnuts.

The North Coast Limited was half an hour and then three quarters of an hour late on the arrival-board. Finally at 1:17 a.m. the headlight flashed in the dim distance down the track. We were all expectancy but when the light was nearly to the end of the platform, it stopped. We waited and wondered what had happened and when the train finally pulled in we found that the air-line had become disconnected just there. We all got into the car, although some had been in bed some time. I said good-bye to those awake and went to bed. Due to arise at 3:45 to get out at Miles City, I knew we were late so didn't get up until 4:15. We arrived at 5:20 a.m. I was very much afraid that the Milwaukee train, the Olympian, might have been on time due to the long stretch they have electrified; however they were half an hour late and I had ten minutes' grace. I bought my ticket and walked up the platform to a little roofed-over space where an old stage coach stood in mute testimony of the past.

Since riding on the Olympian, I could never wish to ride on a better train. The cars are vivid rust-orange and red and the inside appointments are the last word. The food service was great and the luxury of an elegant haircut was appreciable as were the comforts of the observation car. Here I met a charming Japanese gentleman and we discussed everything from the Nippon Yusen Kaisha and the Osaka Kusen Kaisha to philology. On the Olympian I saw the first of the tourist sleeping cars that I have heard of. It seemed like an old style Pullman more than anything else.

(The full article, by the way, is well worth reading ... and pages 159-160 of the essay include a description of a second Montana rail journey. For those who are interested, it's titled, "Capital City Sojourn: The Pierre Journal of Philip H. Cummings, December 1932 to January 1933," edited by Patricia A. Billingsley and published in the Summer, 2009 issue of South Dakota History. Many thanks to Pat Billingsley for her willingness to see such a substantial quote from the journal reproduced here.)

No comments:

Post a Comment