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Fiction: The Truth Be Told 
By Alfred Barten 

Originally published in Woodbridge's Train Simulation Craftsman Volume 2, Issue 3, Third Quarter 2003. --Ed 

When was the last time you read a good railroad story or novel? Have you ever read one? Turn back the clock 50 to 100 years or more and you will find railroad literature a significant part of popular culture, appearing in magazines like McClure’s, Harper's Weekly, Saturday Evening Post, Scientific American, and Argosy. Railroad enthusiast magazines such as Railroad Magazine, successor to Railroad Man's Magazine and Railroad Stories, could be counted on to have a handful of fiction and nonfiction stories in each issue.

Even the best known authors -- Rudyard Kipling, Robert Louis Stevenson, Zane Grey, Jack London, Agatha Christie, Mark Twain, O. Henry and others -- contributed to the genre of railroad stories and novels. 
The gulf of difference between then and now is not surprising. In its heyday the railroad dominated American life and industry. 

The railroad helped build the country and tie it together. It planted steel rails along the wagon trails and through the uncharted wilderness, following rivers, crossing plains, and climbing mountains while giving rise to real life adventures involving trappers, miners, hunters, cowboys, Indians, ranchers, railroaders, engineers, hoboes, homesteaders, speculators, adventurers, politicians, outlaws, and lawmen.

The railroad employed many hundreds of thousands of people nationwide and supported as many more indirectly in related businesses. It touched nearly everyone by being the de facto mode of travel. Through two world wars the railroads performed yeoman service hauling goods, food, fuel, weapons, soldiers, and civilians with characteristic efficiency. During the latter 19th century the railroads were the center of controversy and struggle for power between the magnates and shippers. In all, the railroads provided a rich source of characters, adventure, romance, villainy, and heroics -- the stuff of which stories are made.

By contrast, the railroads of today have settled into the steady, reliable operation of a mature industry, something most people take for granted. Many of us seldom ride trains any more or get to see them except in fleeting moments. Yet there is an allure about trains that remains. Just witness the attendance by "kids" of all ages at train shows. The presence of the train, its motion, and its connection with distant paces all add to the railroad mystique. A little bit of railroad fiction may be just what you need to satisfy the railroad lure.

Historical Value 

For any true student of railway history, the railroad stories and novels are valuable resources. It doesn't matter that Walter Neale, the UP civil engineer in Zane Grey's The U. P. Trail never existed, or that Gordon Smith in Frank H. Spearman's Whispering Smith never secretly loved the estranged wife of the villain he was obliged to hunt down for murder and robbery on the railroad's Mountain Division. What matters is the pictures of a people set in a time and place, encountering circumstances and events, were imaginatively and realistically -- or should I say plausibly? -- presented by authors who based their novels on thorough research and understanding of the eras involved. What we are left with forms more vivid, living impressions than could ever be possible with a straightforward compilation of raw data. A fiction writer gives the spark of life to an otherwise cold body of facts. For our effort as readers we are entertained, transported to another time or place and immersed in an adventure that becomes part of us. Thus we are united with history.

It has been often said that the artist, intentionally or not, holds up a mirror to the civilization in which he operates. That is certainly true of the fiction writer and is why fiction is a valuable resource to the historian.

Train Simulation 

But what has this to do with train simulation? Quite a lot. A train simulation, like a model railroad, is a work of fiction. It doesn't matter how hard or carefully or thoroughly we work to replicate the original. What we produce is still fiction. I prefer the term creative response to characterize the effort because that's what drives the urge to create models. We see something, we like it, we respond to it by creating another version. This is the same with writing, whether fiction or nonfiction. We see something and we respond to it –- be it a description, a comment, or a work of fancy.

That said, why not give railroad fiction a chance to enrich your appreciation of the railway and all that surrounds it? When you next build or operate a train simulation, try to imagine yourself in the scene –- perhaps as the engineer responsible for a train full of passengers, or perhaps as a passenger looking out the window at the passing towns and villages. See people going about their daily lives. Which ones are happy today? Which are suffering a crisis? What is the economic basis for the town? What do people do there? How is this town different from the next one? Or the last one? With a little imagination the fiction writer in you will make each trip an adventure and enhance your appreciation for the railroad. It may even get you to modify the route or the operation.

This approach got me started modifying a route I had downloaded. I had developed a schedule for picking up and dropping off cars. Very quickly I realized the route was self-contained and shippers had nowhere to send their goods. Townspeople had no place from which to receive goods. The towns themselves were too small to consume all that the shippers were producing. So I set about adding an exchange track and a through track at one end of the line. Now my operations make sense and my imaginary shippers are back in business.

Finding Railroad Literature 

Finding railroad literature from the late 19th century through the end of the 20th century is a challenge, but not impossible. The best starting point I have found is a website called Railroad Stories. There you will find an extensive listing of authors, works, and dates of publication as well as some actual stories now in the public domain. While nothing is implied as to completeness, the list does include well-known and other works and provides the information needed to get started in web searches and used bookstore explorations.

Works that are more than 75 years old are considered public domain in America, which means they may show up at Project Gutenberg as electronic texts. Sometimes these texts will have been converted to Palm-OS or Pocket PC format and posted at Memoware. Some may even appear as e-books at Amazon. This latter site is a great place to begin looking for authors because used books from numerous dealers are also listed when you conduct a search.

Some books have been reprinted within the last 30 years or so in paperback form. Prices for these books in very good condition may be as low as 3 dollars. Prices for hard cover originals can vary from 7 or 8 dollars to as much as 50 or 60 dollars, depending on factors such as demand/scarcity, age, and condition. One classic set of books by Frank H. Spearman has recently been reprinted (see Paper Tiger). I even found a listing for a book -- The Octopus by Frank Norris -- in audio form.

A Few Titles 

Here are a few titles to look for:

The U.P Trail by Zane Grey, 1918, centers around the building of the Union Pacific line in Nebraska and Wyoming as part of the first transcontinental railway. The book is available in electronic format from Project Gutenberg and Memoware.

Whispering Smith by Frank H. Spearman, 1911, deals with lawlessness hampering operations on a western railroad mountain division; reprinted in 1999 by Forge (Tom Doherty Associates) in paperback. Spearman is considered the dean of the railroad school of fiction. This is probably Spearman's best, and the basis for a 1949 Alan Ladd movie of the same title. Six of Spearman's books have been recently reprinted in hard cover by Paper Tiger.

A Treasury of Railroad Folklore by Benjamin A. Botkin and Alvin F. Barlow, 1953, provides a good collection of railroad stories. The book is hard cover, printed in several editions.

Tom Swift and his Electric Locomotive by Victor Appleton, 1922, is an adventure story of teenage technical whiz Tom Swift. There are many books in the Tom Swift series covering all sorts of topics. Most are available in electronic format from Project Gutenberg and Memoware.

Short Lines by Rob Johnson, 1996, is a modern-day collection of classic short stories, available in soft cover.

.007 by Rudyard Kipling is a delightful short story of locomotives speaking to one another in the roundhouse. The story is available in electronic format from Project Gutenberg and Railroad Stories and is part of Rob Johnson’s Short Lines.

Next time you find yourself in a used bookstore or poking around on the web, be sure to keep an eye out for some railroad literature. You won’t be sorry. 

Article and screenshots ©2003 Alfred Barten. All rights reserved






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