Travels to the 50th TCA National Convention – “Bet you CAN’T read the whole thing.”
By Gordon Wilson TCA 76-10233
What a trip! Since moving to Arizona, we have driven to all buy one TCA Convention. That one was in Atlanta, when we rode Amtrak. That was a mistake we will never repeat again. This year we left Arizona on May 28 and some 8,240 miles and 16 states later, we returned late on the evening of July 3, 2004.
This will not endear me to many persons, but I’m sure there are more who will agree with me than who disagree. If you’ve ever driven on a two-lane road with no readily available place to pass a slow moving vehicle, and that slow moving vehicle was an RV, then you know from whence I come. I do believe that such vehicles should be banned from all roads, other than multi-laned main thoroughfares. I’m certain many of the drivers get a big “thrill” out of seeing how long a back-up line of traffic they can create.
Leaving the Phoenix area, where we’re told by Governor Napolitano that the cost of fuel is high because everything must be piped or trucked in, the costs jump downward as much as 30 cents per gallon. The further east from Arizona one goes, the lower the prices seem to go. The only conclusion one may draw is that communities and states outside of the Phoenix area must all have their own private petroleum reserves and refineries.
Needless to say, by driving, we are able to stop, go, visit or not visit things along the way. One of the really great things about northern Arizona and New Mexico is that the railroad more or less parallels Interstate 40, from Holbrook all the way to Tucumcari. Heading east on I-40 from Holbrook toward New Mexico, we suddenly find ourselves in the Jurassic Age, as all manner of dinosaurs appear north and south of the highway. When we run out of these ancient creatures, the mind-boggling billboards for two-headed cattle, world’s largest rattlesnakes, Indian crafts and teepee motels begin. The dollar speaks.
Paralleling I-40, in addition to old Route US 40, is America’s first intercontinental highway, US Route 66. Because of the resurgence of interest and nostalgia associated with this road, virtually every town between California and all points east in which Route 66 ran, has now dedicated a part of that road for “old time’s sake.” Some are better than others; it all depends upon how long your nostalgia and wallet hold out. For railroad buffs, I have five favorites: 1) Barstow, CA; 2) Seligman, AZ; 3) Flagstaff, AZ; 4) Winslow, AZ, and 5) Gallup, NM. Trains pass nearly on a non-stop basis.
As you near the eastern Arizona/western New Mexico border, along I-40, not only are you treated to an abundance of BNSF freights and Amtrak passenger trains, you also will notice the plethora of mesas and buttes suddenly climbing toward the sky from the barren desert floor. Although spectacular at any time of the day, the rays of first light and the evening’s sunset make them absolutely stunning. A camera is an absolute must! However, make sure your bodily functions have been well cared for before entering this stretch of highway, as the roadside rest stops have been severely neglected in New Mexico. Pray that your kidneys can last until you are nearly in Albuquerque. If you are a collector of useless minutiae, then you will enjoy this tidbit: from Fountain Hills, AZ to 30 miles west of Albuquerque, at an average speed of about 70 mph, I was able to listen to all 9 of Beethoven’s Symphonies. Once leaving the beauty of the northern New Mexico’s mesas and buttes, I-40 turns into another one of those monotonous super highways whose humdrum is broken only by herds of cattle, packs of wild horses, Indian gaming casinos, and distant BNSF trains. It is not until Albuquerque that civilization (as most of us understand it) returns. At Exit 160 is a very worthwhile food stop. Rudy’s Country Store and BBQ is guaranteed to satisfy your hunger and thirst, leaving you refreshed and enthusiastic enough to continue eastward toward Tucumcari.
Clines Corners is probably a sign of the times. There was a time when this was THE most major truck and rest stop between Albuquerque, NM and Amarillo, Texas. Those days are gone, and I suspect that within the year, Clines Corners will be a thing of the past.
Tucumcari has two unique features. The first, obviously, is its name – a legendary Indian chief. Second is its reason for existence. If it were near anything of interest, it would be ideal for a TCA Convention. There are over 2000 motel rooms, nearly double the population of the town itself. Its sole purpose for existence and the only businesses in town revolve around the motels put there for the benefit of the Interstate traveler. From Oklahoma City to the east and Bakersfield, California on the west, the most common road sign implores the Interstate traveler TUCUMCARI TONIGHT. Apparently most people make it there: be sure you have a reservation.
While the main lines of the BNSF and UP continue east toward Amarillo, Texas, a major spur at Tucumcari takes a left hand turn and heads northeast toward Wichita, Kansas. Coincidentally, that is how we were going also. Across New Mexico, the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles, and into Liberal, Kansas, the trains continue unabated. The loads change from auto carriers and trucks to grain hoppers, as those large grain elevators dot the horizon in a never-ending pattern. Heading northeast we were on our way to Wichita, Kansas, via US Route 54. If you wish to have some geographic fun with your friends, tell them that you crossed Texas and Oklahoma, each in less than an hour. In both instances you are taking shortcuts, across the panhandle sections of these states on your way to Liberal, Kansas. Liberal is the mythical home from which Dorothy and her dog Toto were swept into the Land of Oz by a Level V tornado. It seemed for all the world that from Liberal and on into Wichita, we were destined to follow in Dorothy’s footsteps. I drove the largest and heaviest car on the road, a Fleetwood Brougham, and I had to literally fight the crosswinds clear across Kansas. I estimated them to be blowing at from 20 to 25 mph. Was I ever wrong!
There are three big highlights in Liberal. One is the display dedicated to Dorothy, Toto, and the Wizard of Oz. There is a world-class air museum with an emphasis on the planes of WW II. The final attraction is an antique mall on US 54. I have never been disappointed in finding toy trains and related items at this site. It is on the east side of Liberal and very hard to miss. Plan to spend at least an hour.
Roughly half way between Liberal and Wichita is the town of Meade. Once a thriving cow town, it is now virtually a ghost town, as most economic opportunities have ceased. If you head north out of the center of town, in roughly 30 minutes you will come to arguably the Old West’s most famous metropolis – Dodge City, with its infamous Boot Hill. Returning to the center of what remains of Meade, there is one legitimate tourist attraction – the hideout of the famous Dalton Gang. The entry fee is quite reasonable. If you are a fan of the Old West, this is a site you might find extremely interesting. Unlike Tombstone, Arizona, which is now excessively commercial, this area seems to remain consistent with its traditions. Roughly another half hour east of Meade is a “World’s Record” site, which few persons really care about, but it is interesting nonetheless. The world’s deepest hand-dug well is in Greensburg. A stop here will help break up the monotony of this unscenic road. It will also allow you time to stretch your legs, drink a cold pop, and see something very unusual. You can also ask an unanswerable question: “Why?”
In Wichita, indulge yourself at the wonderful Railroad Museum in the former AT&SF station/yards of the restored downtown area. Not too far away is an extremely interesting museum devoted entirely to Coleman lamps and camping equipment dating back more than a century. A bit further from the railway tracks is something one would NEVER expect to see in Kansas. Would you believe the sailing yacht “America” and the America’s Cup? A boathouse on the Arkansas River has been restored by KOCH Industries of Wichita and turned into a free exhibit dedicated to the America’s Cup Yacht Racing Series.
Our first evening in Wichita we were scheduled to go to a Wichita Wranglers AA level Texas League baseball game.
Unbeknownst to us, we arrived in Wichita during a Tornado Alert, which is the highest level of the warnings issued by the National Weather Service. (A “Warning” is Level 1, a “Watch” is Level 2, and an “Alert” is Level 3 – basically “Get to cover.”) Although the tornado did not directly strike Wichita, it did do severe damage to a community just south, and the threat of a tornado was enough to postpone the ballgame. The winds we encountered coming across Kansas? Officially they were measured to have a force of 40-45 mph, 20 mph higher than I had estimated. Later that evening, when we felt comfortable that a tornado was not coming near the vicinity, we headed out to one of our favorite Wichita dining establishments, the Amarillo Grill.
The next day the storms were long gone. Along with my host, Jerry Brammer, we visited another baseball enthusiast. Baseballs, gloves, photos, baseball bats, occupied as much, if not more, space than all the room devoted to trains in my Fountain Hills, Arizona home. Actual game bats once used by the likes of Stan Musial, Ted Williams, Jimmy Foxx, Jackie Robinson, and Henry Aaron, to name a few, were in abundance. So were autographed baseballs signed by the likes of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Ty Cobb, and Nolan Ryan. I guess it goes to prove that train collectors are not the only obsessive hobbyists around! The “tornadoed out” baseball game from the previous night had been rescheduled, so we made our way to Lawrence Dumont Stadium, a strange place with an artificial turf infield and a real grass outfield. Minor League baseball is affordable, very competitive (batters actually run out every batted ball), and lots of fun. Christie entered a contest for an in-between innings drawing and won a $100 savings bond and 6 movie tickets.
Leaving Kansas, our next stop would be at the Missouri Museum of Transportation. But first, an observation. Between Kansas City and Columbia, Missouri, Lady Bird Johnson’s highway beautification plan has all but been forgotten. The height of the vegetation in early June rivaled that of the measuring stick for the growth of corn, “knee high by the Fourth of July.” It was either that or the MDOT was planning to cut and bale hay. Virtually every “scenic” billboard on this stretch of highway was advertising a strip club, a gentlemen’s club, or a porno web site. Where is Lady Bird when you REALLY need her?
In the Missouri Museum of Transportation is everything from a super customized car of Bobby Darin to General Motors Turbo Locomotive, made for the Rock Island Railroad. A trolley serves as a people mover around the expansive grounds. There is a real F-3, the prototype developed by GM; a Camelback loco from the Lackawanna; one of the last 7 Big Boys and the last articulated steam engine made at the N&W shops in the early 1950’s. Rolling stock is plentiful and varied and is “rail fan” friendly, allowing you to walk through the interiors of tank and refrigerated cars. Plan to arrive early and stay late. To see and grasp everything, you’ll need at least half a day.
French Lick, Indiana, is best known as the boyhood home of NBA Hall of Famer Larry Bird. I knew it long before then as the childhood home of Martha Cleveland, who was to become the wife of my lifelong friend Phil Nesty. Martha, by the way, is Larry Bird’s first cousin. I have long wanted to visit French Lick because I had heard so many favorable things about the excursion railroad. However, it has a very restricted operation schedule. On this day, we got doubly lucky. IT had just switched to its summer schedule, and it was running a charter prior to its regularly scheduled run. And EUREKA! There was lots of extra room for non-charter passengers. It lived up to all of its advance billings and it should be a “Do Not Miss” if you’re in the area. However, there is more to French Lick than just the train, and I have taken Martha to task for not telling me about them. There is West Baden Springs Park, with its magnificently tiled, art deco, mosque/temple-style building. That is to the north of the railroad depot, and to the south is the French Lick Resort and Spa, a huge complex which probably rivaled the Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia. IT has been restored to its previous opulence and is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The fine bone china, elaborate silverware and exquisitely carved tables and woodwork thoroughly enhance the dining experience. Compared with the hustle and bustle of Concord, California, now that Martha is a widow, I don’t know why she wouldn’t want to return to her childhood roots in French Lick.
Lionelville must have received its inspiration from southern Indiana’s Route 37. It is a winding, hilly, and very scenic two-lane road. It seemed as though just about every other home resembled one of the houses in the Lionelville collection. I took a number of photos for the sole purpose of entering them in the Lionelville “Look-Alike” photo contest. On a negative note, Indiana, like Kansas, is in the Tornado Belt. The day before we visited French Lick, the nearby town of Morenga had been visited by a killer tornado. Several lives and approximately 80% of the town had been thoroughly destroyed.
I-64, at least in Illinois, Indiana, and Kentucky, is a good road to try to avoid!! It reminded me of the roads we once traversed in Kenya while on a photo safari. For those of you who go back in time before automatic clothes washers, the nicest thing that can be said about this stretch of Interstate is that it resembled a washboard, and that is giving it the benefit of the doubt.
Brandenburg and Louisville, Kentucky, were next on the itinerary. A former next-door neighbor from New Jersey resides in Brandenburg, KY, the Eastern Time Zone’s westernmost community. She is a recent widow and asked me to check out her late husband’s toy trains. They will be in the Desert Division’s Turkey Meet – an amazing array of Lionel Post War and American Flyer Pre-War O gauge, mostly 3/16 size, plus some Marx and really nice Lionel accessories. While visiting with her, we made several trips into Louisville. One trip was to the Louisville Slugger Baseball Bat Factory. Another was to Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby Museum. The Kentucky Derby is one of those events I’ve always had the desire to attend, but thought it was impossible to get tickets. Not so! Our visit here was during the height of the Smarty Jones furor. Stan’s Fish Sandwich Restaurant is the people’s choice in Louisville. You’ll need to ask directions, as it is a local favorite and not known to the tourist traffic, but well worth the effort to find. One final sojourn into Louisville took us to the brand new Louisville Bats AAA baseball team park. As we were approaching the ticket booth, we were intercepted by a total stranger who gave us three box-seat tickets in back of third base. As with most minor league parks, the food served here was varied, plentiful, tasty, and very reasonable priced.
On our way to Scranton, PA, it was necessary to negotiate the state of Ohio from the extreme southwest (Cincinnati) and exiting in the northeast (Youngstown). As usual, Ohio was once again “UNDER CONSTRUCTION.” The jaunt across Pennsylvania on I-80 was very uneventful. We arrived at the Scranton/Wilkes Barre Red Baron’s baseball game a bit late, but still in time to obtain their give-away promotion of insulated water bottles. The Lackawanna County (PA) Stadium, in which this Philadelphia Phillies AAA farm team plays, is the largest minor league facility I’ve ever been in!
In Oneonta, New York, I added to my list of visited Halls of Fame. This was the National Soccer Hall of Fame, outlining the history and development of soccer in the United States. Their centerpiece exhibit naturally featured the American Women’s Gold Cup and Olympic Champion team. Not surprisingly, one of the featured artifacts in this exhibit was Brandy Chastain’s Nike sports bra, made famous when she ripped off her jersey after scoring the winning goal in the World Cup finals against China. Definitely, a most unusual bit of sports “equipment.”
Train wise our next stop was near Cooperstown, NY, known for its National Baseball Hall of Fame. Just south of Cooperstown is a combination excursion and commuter train ride. Because Cooperstown, a very small town, has limited parking and there are many baseball fans, this train, “The Cooperstown and Charlotte Valley,” will move people to and from Cooperstown on really busy days. It is a scenic and smooth 15-minute ride pulled by one of several diesel locomotives. The passenger cars are “bare bones,” apparently suffering from a lack of funds to make them really first class.
Cooperstown, New York is to a baseball fan what Mecca is to a Moslem or York to a TCA member. It is that “shrine” which must be visited at least once in a lifetime. I had not been here since the summer of 1976, when Robin Roberts, the greatest of all Philadelphia Phillies pitchers, was enshrined as a member of this most famous of Halls of Fame. Not much has changed in the Hall. We DID get to enjoy the town quite a bit. Our motel, called the Lake View, overlooked beautiful Lake Oswego. Nearby were the James Fennimore Cooper Museum and the Cardiff Giant, thought by many to be the “missing link.” In reality it was a cement hoax perpetrated by P. T. Barnum. About two blocks from the baseball Hall of Fame and adjacent to a public park was the Lake Front Motel and Restaurant.
I subscribe to a travel publication called Country Discoveries. Earlier this year they ran some articles about the Erie Canal, a thing I thought had long since passed from the scene. In Troy, New York, a portion of this 19th century engineering marvel has been restored for anyone interested in this era of our country’s history, a visit to Erie Canal Village should be at the top of your list. The personnel reenact various aspects of the daily life of those times and afford the opportunity to ride around the village on a narrow gauge train, followed by a leisurely (2 mph) cruise on a mule-drawn packet boat. Around its grounds runs a 2-2-2 steam locomotive and about 6 open air passenger cars. It operates from a very nicely restored, but original, New York Central depot. The trip, well narrated, takes about 20 minutes. To complete the Erie Canal experience, one must take a voyage on the canal in a packet boat pulled by a team of mules.
Continuing northeast toward Lake Placid, you will arrive at Thendara, NY. Here works the Adirondack Scenic Railroad. I was able to talk my way into the cab of the SD-38, while Christie rode in one of the exquisitely restored New York Central Pullman cars. It was a three-hour trip and the engineer, a man named Tom, never stopped talking to me during the whole trip. Quite an experience!
At Old Forge, in addition to the Adirondack Scenic Railway, we encountered a Harley-Davidson motorcycle round up, plus one of the most delightful restaurants on this trip. It was called “Old Mill,” and if you left it hungry, you had no one to blame but yourself. After dinner we adjourned to the restaurant’s bar and lounge where, unfortunately Smarty Jones came up a head short at the Belmont Stakes. The two-lane road entering Old Forge from the south is apparently very dangerous, as there were two major accidents on it just in the short time we were in the vicinity. Be careful!
Long Lake, near Lake George and Lake Placid, was a place my parents vacationed year after year. I had never been there, but owing to the peace, tranquility, and quaintness of the area, I can now appreciate their desire to return here year after year. Hoss’s General Store complex dominates the small downtown area. We particularly enjoyed some “bear claws” from the bakery. If you’ve ever had a desire to ride in a floatplane, such excursions are readily available at Long Lake.
Everyone knows Lake Placid is the site of the Winter Olympics in 1932 and 1980 (Miracle – USA hockey team victory). I was particularly interested in testing the summer training facilities of the luge and bobsled runs. Much to my chagrin, they had yet to open for public use. The Lake Placid Resort Lodge and Holiday Inn offered a golfing opportunity. That was a real stretch! The only thing “pristine” about their Pristine Course was its name. I actually lost two golf balls in the fairway which was filled with blooming dandelions! A highlight of the stay here was the food and ambience at their Boat House Restaurant, located right on the lake.
While looking for the luge and bobsled rides, we accidentally discovered yet another excursion railway which was not listed in the May issue of Trains Magazine. We got lucky, for as we were inquiring about it, it pulled into the Lake Placid Depot (which also serves as an area museum). All I can say is “WOW.” The locomotives were two F units, one an F-7 and one an F-9. Their paint scheme was spectacular. There was no doubt that we’d be on the next trip out, which just happened to be in less than an hour. That time was spent exploring the train and photographing just about every square inch of it. Unfortunately, talk as I might, I couldn’t talk my way into the cab of the head-on F-7. That was really an unexpected trip and quite a bonus! As I’ve said, sometimes you just get lucky.
Another bit of transportation variation; this time a ferryboat ride across Lake Champlain. Once in Vermont, Route 7 north offers several unique points of interest.
The first of these is the Vermont Teddy Bear Factory. The tour is free, but when you are finished, chances are you or someone in your party is going to want to “give birth” to a personalized teddy bear. Continuing north toward Burlington is one the great museums of Americana, rivaled in my opinion only by Williamsburg, Virginia. It is called Shelburne, and you will need the better part of a whole day to get even a fraction of the flavor of the entire complex. The railroading exhibit is quite comprehensive, but perhaps the most attention-grabbing exhibit is the Ticonderoga, the last of Lake Champlain’s luxury paddle-wheel steamboats. How it wound up in this museum is a most interesting tale. Finally, just before arriving in Burlington, you’ll need to stop and tour Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream Factory. Like the Teddy Bear Factory, there are “samples” at the end, only these are much more wallet-friendly. Starting in late June and continuing through Labor Day, the Vermont Flyer makes several trips a day between Burlington and Rutland. The F-9 with its streamline passenger cars makes a stop, both ways, at the Shelburne Museum. There are many lakeside restaurants in Burlington, plus the old Vermont Central Railroad Depot is now a restored upscale shopping mall, in many respects very similar to Station Square in Pittsburgh, PA. My favorite culinary hangout is called Perry’s Fish House, on Route 7 in South Burlington. One of its unique features is that you may sample Fralinger’s (from Atlantic City, NJ) salt-water taffy to your heart’s content. However, leave room for the real food, as it is both mouth-watering and plentiful! The excursion trains in and around Vermont had not yet begun their summer runs, as it was only early June.
A visit with my dad took us to Ocean Grove at the Jersey shore. Captain Jack’s was yet another very fine seafood restaurant. Should you ever find need for a place to stay, I would recommend the quaint and quiet Quaker Inn, just a stone’s throw from the beaches on the Atlantic Ocean. On another day, we went to Lake Hopatcong, New Jersey’s largest natural lake. The town of Landing, NJ, had both “downs” and “ups.” The down sides were that Bertran’s Island’s Amusement Park, so much a part of my youth, was gone, replaced by cookie-cutter condos. Although still served by NJ Transit (formerly the Lackawanna) Commuter Line to New York City, the railroad station is gone, having been replaced by a covered waiting platform. On the upside in this very small lakeside community is a restaurant whose single person servings are among the largest I have ever seen. You certainly will not go wrong or hungry by stopping at Cambiotti’s Tomato Pie.
It is possible, despite all precautions, to occasionally encounter a restaurant that does not live up to expectations. So I simply follow my mother’s advice, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything” and ignore them altogether. However, every so often, there is one that’s SO BAD that it seems unfair to allow anyone to accidentally get stuck. The Reservoir, just south of Boonton, NJ, is one such place. There was absolutely nothing wrong with the food, when we FINALLY got it! We were told they do NOT take reservations, yet persons who arrived well after us were ushered right in to the dining area. We later found out that if you phone ahead and ask for your name to be put on a waiting list, they will do so. Somehow, this is not considered a reservation. The half-hour wait of which we were advised upon arriving and putting our name on the waiting list turned into an hour and a half. My father is visibly handicapped, yet when we were finally called for dinner, instead of taking us to an open table near the dining room entrance, we were seated in the furthest corner of the establishment, next to a table with three screaming out-of-control children, whose parents were totally oblivious to their actions. Another 15 minutes passed before a waitress noticed that we didn’t have water or menus. It was another 20 minutes before she returned to take our order. My dad ordered only an appetizer while Christie and I ordered a meal each. Time passed and passed and passed. We began to notice persons who entered well after us being served and leaving. We had now been here for early 2½ hours and had a glass of water and some bread. Bread and water! Prisoners in Civil War era movies fared better! You might ask why we stayed. First of all, my dad’s physical condition. Second was one of the advertised entrees and a reason I chose this restaurant in the first place – soft shelled crabs. Alas, the waitress informed us as we were ordering, that was a previous day’s special which had not been removed form the signboard! We were told the major hold up was my dad’s order – the appetizer! I asked to see the manager, but he didn’t come. When the food finally arrived, there was no apology for its lateness. It was more or less slung at us in a contemptuous way, and I once again asked for the manager. About 5 minutes later a 30-something man appeared, claiming to be the owner. He was full of invalid excuses, very arrogant, and belligerent. He asked where I had come from. Then in no uncertain terms, he got right into my face (like a baseball manager and umpire arguing) and suggested that I return there! If you wish to put up with such abuse, I would highly recommend this “joint.” Otherwise, there are other eating establishments in this area whose food is just as good and the service wonderful. To recommend just one, head south to the Mountain Lakes railroad depot and visit The Station. It is literally a 1st class dining experience.
The next train didn’t happen until passing through central New Jersey. It was near Flemington, NJ, and no, it was not Northlandz, the huge model railroad exhibit. This was in Ringoes, NJ, a very small burg just north of US Route 202. There is a delightful excursion railroad called the “Black River and Western,” which makes several trips daily between the Ringoes depot and the one at Station Square in Flemington, NJ. If Flemington sounds familiar to you, it should. On many TV game shows, prizes from Flemington Furs have been offered and it was in Flemington that the famous Lindberg baby kidnapping trial was held some 70 years ago.
Sunday in New Jersey to me means a trip to the Lambertville Flea Market. This flea market has always been a great source of toy trains for us, and this time was no different. Lionel, K-Line, and American Flyer were there in abundance and some pieces have made their way back to Arizona. Just south of Lambertville is New Jersey’s capital city of Trenton, most famous for a Revolutionary War battle won by the Colonial troops on Christmas Day. Near the site of the British troops’ barracks today is the Eastern League AA baseball stadium, Waterfront Park, home of the Trenton Thunder, an affiliate of the New York Yankees. Naturally, we attended a game. Sitting near and around us were all manner of major league scouts, with their clipboards, stop watches, and radar guns. I figured some sort of trade of minor league prospects was probably in the works. A week later, while listening to Sports Center on ESPN, I found out the reason all of those scouts were there! Brett Halsey had pitched 8 innings of two-hit, shut out ball for the Thunder, which prompted his promotion to the NY Yankees where he pitched against and defeated the LA Dodgers.
While in New Jersey we had the opportunity to visit with family and friends. A round of golf at the River View Country Club in Deptford afforded me the opportunity to observe air traffic from the Philadelphia International Airport, which was directly west across the Delaware River. Southwest Airlines has recently started service into Philadelphia in a big way. There were roughly three Southwest planes coming and going for every one of the other airlines servicing Philadelphia. Even though I played well enough to score better than my friends, I must admit that one errant shot wound up in the Delaware River and by now is probably somewhere in the mid-Atlantic Ocean, following the current. I suppose that could be termed, “The Longest Drive.”
Amazingly there were no more real trains for nearly a week. We did, however, pay a visit to long-time friend and Desert Division member Rich Bimmer. Rich operates Antique Trains in Turnersville, NJ, and has been a great supporter of the Division with donations for our Turkey Meet and other activities. Today was no different, as Rich handed me an MTH Log Loader (looks like an old AF) for our use in an upcoming raffle or as a prize at the Turkey Meet.
Camden, NJ, directly across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, has been a blight upon the reputation of southern New Jersey. Until very recently the only notable things about Camden were its high school basketball team’s prowess, the number of city politicians going to jail for corruption, and the Campbell Soup Co. Factory. In recent years the waterfront has been revitalized with a world-class aquarium, an Arts Center, the most decorated battleship ever in the US Navy (the USS New Jersey), commercial shipping and receiving facilities, and a minor league baseball stadium, home of the Camden River Sharks of the independent Atlantic League. The game we attended was played against the Pennsylvania Road Warriors, so named because they play all of their games on the road. Their home field in Lancaster County (PA) will not be completed until next year. After the game we decided to sample a nearby restaurant which had been one of our favorites prior to moving to Arizona from the Delaware Valley. “The Pub” was just as we had remembered: good service, well-prepared food, and generous portions.
My second trip to Philadelphia’s new Citizen’s Bank Ballpark was much different from my first visit there on opening day, April 12, of this season. First of all, the sun was shining, and, most important, this time the Phillies won!
It was now time to head west toward Pittsburgh and TCA’s 50th National Convention. The first major stop was between York and Harrisburg, PA, at the Hillside Café. This is a restaurant we frequently visit during the York train show, although on this day it was not nearly so crowded as it is in April and October. The nearby PA Turnpike directed us to the Fort Littleton Exit, as it is near the East Broad Top Railroad and the Rockhill Trolley Museum. Although there is only one restaurant in the area, the Family Restaurant is fortunately quite good.
Now, back to the real trains. The last surviving narrow gauge railroad east of the Mississippi River is in Rockhill Furnace, PA. The East Broadtop Line runs a steam loco and a long string of restored wooden Pullman cars along a picturesque river valley.
Across the street from the train ride is the Rockhill Trolley Museum. Following a 20-minute ride in an open-air trolley came a visit to the gift shop. What a bonanza!
Toy train catalogs were for sale and at prices you simply could not believe! I had to pinch myself to see if I were not dreaming. Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.
Obviously next came the TCA Convention, where trains were the norm. A Marx Train Museum in nearby Wheeling, WV, was a real eye opener and the Pennsylvania Trolley Museum was equally wonderful.
Tuesday, June 22 was the date for the TCA Golf Tournament. Grand View Country Club lives up to its name and then some! Situated atop a mountain southeast of Pittsburgh, it overlooks the Monongahela River Valley. Every hole has its own unique and incredible vista, but few can outdo the first tee.
CXS and Norfolk Southern are easily visible on both sides of the river, as is all the railroad switching activity within the confines of the US Steel facility. Across the valley is the world-famous Kennywood Park and, of course, up and down the Monongahela River are countless towboats pushing and pulling barges filled with the raw materials needed for the industries of the area. With all the incredible scenery, the tournament itself seemed almost anti-climactic. Two significant things did happen on this day – well, actually three. 1) For the first time, the tournament was NOT won by a member of the Desert Division. 2) The tournament was won by a person from North Carolina. 3) That person was a woman named Lucretia Brown.
The lowest scratch score, without using the Callaway Handicap System, was turned in by Bob Lemberger.
The previous year’s winner, me, finished fourth. Each of the 17 participants received a prize, regardless of his or her place of finish, as the main purpose of this tournament is not competition, but camaraderie.
Later during the week we rode the Pittsburgh DKW’s (WW II military landing craft called Ducks; Lionel post war #6807). I received my Duck Captain badge by navigating the craft for a brief time on the Monongahela, Allegheny, and Ohio Rivers.
Dinner trains and harbor cruises with a meal are things we enjoy, no matter what city. Pittsburgh being at the confluence of three rivers obviously afforded us that opportunity. What set this dinner cruise apart from many others was the high quality of the food aboard the Pittsburgh riverboat Majestic.
Adding to the ambience was something that I must presume was purely coincidental, for it seemed as if every time we went under one of Pittsburgh’s many bridges, a train from the CSX or the Norfolk Southern was crossing it directly above us. Station Square in downtown Pittsburgh provided an endless array of CSX freights, plus a spectacular restaurant in an old PL&E passenger terminal.
It was called the Grand Concourse and is a real “don’t miss” stop.
Early on the final morning of the Convention, we actually began our trek westward toward Phoenix. Foremost on the agenda was getting to Cincinnati in time for that afternoon’s major league baseball game. A major surprise on the way occurred at one of the State of Ohio Welcome Centers, and it is something that would be nice for every state to do. Ohio DOT has prepared a comprehensive spiral bound booklet containing the names of every restaurant and tourist attraction available at every exit of Ohio’s vast Interstate Freeway system. In my opinion, this is an invaluable resource guide for anyone traveling in the state of Ohio. We arrived at the Great American Ball Park roughly an hour before game time. As my seats were in Row S, between third base and the left field foul pole, I didn’t feel I would need a baseball glove for protection. We arrived at our seats shortly after the National Anthem and were very surprised to find that Row S in Cincinnati’s version of the alphabet plopped us down a scant six rows from the field. I had no sooner remarked to Christie that we were in foul ball territory than Barry Larkin, the Reds long-time shortstop, smashed a vicious line drive right at us.
I was preparing to duck when some younger, macho, not-so-bright young men tried to catch this ball bare-handed. For their efforts, there very easily could have been some broken fingers and undoubtedly bruised hands. The ball landed softly right at my fingertips – I didn’t have to stand up nor fend off any little kids. The couple sitting next to us were overjoyed to be so near someone who had actually “caught a baseball” during a game that they took, and later sent to me, my picture holding the ball. Between Spring Training and the professional games I’ve attended in my lifetime, this was not the first ball I ever caught but it was undoubtedly one of the easiest!
The departure route in Cincinnati took us past the famous Union Station. North of Cincinnati is the USAF Museum at the Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. It had been more than 30 years since I last visited this site. Virtually every aircraft from the Wright Brothers through the experimental era, through spy planes and spacecraft are in four incredibly large hangars. Outside, and not under cover, is the one and only REAL prototype of the Lionel 3665 Minuteman Missile Launching Box Car. Yes, as far-fetched as it may seem, the USAF actually contemplated such an esoteric military weapon. The big added bonus in this extremely comprehensive Museum is that parking and admission are free. We spent the better part of a day and a half here, and didn’t see it all! That evening we were directed to the Oregon Historic Section of Dayton for yet another culinary adventure. Jay’s Seafood House, on the National Register of Historic Places, is located in a restored garment factory. The interior furnishings, woodwork, and decorations are a throwback to the late 19th Century. IT is not an easy place to find, but it is well worth the extra effort.
Again moving west and south, we returned to Brandenburg, KY, with the express purpose of picking up the previously mentioned collection of postwar Lionel and prewar American Flyer 3/16 trains for the Desert Division’s 29th Annual Turkey Meet Auction on November 28. For dinner our former New Jersey neighbor took us to the Doe Run Inn, which is also on the National Register of Historic Places, having been built by the brother of Daniel Boone. As has been our experience, whenever a restaurant is on the National Register, it is synonymous with high quality, service, and food. The Doe Run Inn was no exception.
I’ve long heard about Branson, Missouri, and all its attractions and musical shows. The most talked about “rave-reviewed” show is violinist Shoji Tabuki. A major “no-no” for any classically trained musician is to visibly tap his or her foot to maintain tempo. Shoji claims to be classically trained, yet his foot tapping is extremely distracting. Based upon my years of experience, I would rate this show mediocre at best. All three shows we attended were major disappointments, alas! However, in Branson, all is not lost. A very pleasant surprise was learning that a popular local restaurant was owned and operated by the National League’s 1969 Rookie of the year, Phillies pitcher, Jack Hamilton. During a visit here, Christie prevailed upon him to autograph a baseball for me. One of the attractions at the park is a DKW (Duck) ride and another, in my estimation, is the highlight of the area, the Branson Scenic Railroad, pulled by yet another F-7. For the two-hour trip, we rode in a former Burlington Zephyr Vista Dome Car, one of 3 such cars on this train. Another “Don’t miss!”
A totally unexpected and extremely delightful stop combined lunch at the Hammett House and a visit to the adjacent Will Rogers Museum in Claremont, Oklahoma.
Moving west on I-40, Amarillo, Texas was next. The Hoffbrau Steakhouse was a local delight. Nearby was somewhat of a disappointment – access to the Cadillac Ranch has been closed! Having been there before, I simply moved on closer to home.
We had but two more days on this cross-country marathon. One of the premier venues for opera performances in the country takes place in the summertime in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The Santa Fe Opera is nestled in a mountain valley slightly northwest of Santa Fe. It is housed in a beautiful, covered, contemporary, outdoor facility. This year I got lucky and ordered my tickets last November. Guisseppi Verdi’s Simon Bocanegra was the opening night production. “Opening night” is a real happening at this annual opera festival. Even I dressed up a little bit, but nowhere near the level of the haute couture and finery of Santa Fe’s cultured elite.
Now on the real road home, we once again entered northern New Mexico, and, as when we left some five weeks earlier, we paralleled endless strings of BSNF and UP consists. There is an old saying that “what goes around comes around.” In Albuquerque we made a return visit to Rudy’s Country Store and BBQ. Our next stop would be at my sister and brother-in-law’s home in Payson, Arizona. Nearly from the time we exited I-40 at Holbrook, in the southwest sky appeared as an ominous grayish white cloud that could mean only one thing. In Arizona, where we are in our ninth year of a drought, it would have to be yet another major forest fire.
Unfortunately, I was correct. About 15 miles south of Payson raged a totally out-of-control lightning-caused fire. As we passed it, the fire had consumed some 40,000 acres. By the time it had been extinguished, three weeks later, it had grown to nearly 150,000 acres. It made us feel right at home to learn that nothing had changed in the desert, except that nasty forest fire near Payson. We have many fond memories from the trip East, some of which you have just read about and shared.
For your culinary information, here are a few restaurants you should (or should not) investigate:
1. Rudy’s Country Store and BBQ, Albuquerque, NM
2. Amarillo Grill, Wichita, KS
3. Triple E Barbeque, Mt. Vernon, IL
4. French Lick Spring Bistro, French Lick, IN
5. Stan’s Fish Sandwich, Louisville, KY
6. Lake Front Restaurant, Cooperstown, NY
7. Old Mill, Old Forge, NY
8. Boat House, Lake Placid, NY
9. Perry’s Fish House, S. Burlington, VT
10. Ferretti’s, Clifton Park, NY
11. The Station, Mountain Lakes, NJ
12. Cambiotti’s Tomato Pie, Landing, NJ
13. Reservoir Tavern, Boonton, NJ – AVOID, WORST SERVICE EVER, on any trip!!
14. Captain Jack’s, Ocean Grove, NJ
15. Ritz Seafood, Voorhees, NJ
16. The Full Moon, Lambertville, NJ
17. Hillside Café, Yocumtown, PA
18. The Grand Concourse, Pittsburgh, PA
19. Jay’s Seafood House, Dayton, OH
20. Doe Run Inn, Brandenburg, KY
21. Hammett House, Claremore, OK
22. Hoffbrau Steaks, Amarillo, TX
23. El Nido, Tesuque, NM
24.Tonto Verde Country Club, Tonto Verde, AZ
Saturday, June 12, as it turned out, was the last time I would see my Dad alive. At the age of 88, he passed from this world on August 12, 2004. He had been a fireman in Morris Township, NJ; and in the 1940’s and into the 1950’s, he served as the Chief.
This is important because it means Dad more or less, “knew everyone.” At Christmas of 1943, I suspect because of “knowing everyone,” I got my first Lionel train set, a three car Flying Yankee. According to what I’ve read about the sale of Lionel Trains during WWII, such sales were supposed to be forbidden. I suspect my Dad “knew” someone who had some leftover stock for sale. I also don’t believe for a second that such sales didn’t take place across the country. In any event, it was this train that got me “hooked.” After the war came a 2020 set and in 1950, two sets: a 2026 Freight and the 2023 UP Passenger set with the gray noses. I still have all of these sets. As I look back on their prices, and having a pretty good idea of Dad’s salary, I really don’t know how he afforded such things, as my sister would get an equal dollar amount each Christmas. Years later, while in college, I would find out that the government classified us as “poor.” Funny thing about being “poor” – Dad always provided. We were the first with a TV, all the trains I wanted, food, clothes, shelter, and transportation, not to mention music lessons and a summer place at Lake Hopatcong. Yet, we were poor! Compared to J. Paul Getty, I guess we were!
Dad built me a large U-shaped layout in a spare bedroom. I was forever breaking my trains by running them too fast. The drop to the floor was “devastating.” We didn’t live too far from Hillside, so about once a month we’d head off for the Lionel factory and play with trains as we waited for the repairs to be completed. Dad never seemed to tire of that drive from Morristown to Hillside. I suspect he enjoyed the trains as much as I.
Amazingly, when I went off to college, all my toys (including Pyro vehicles) went the way of the dodo bird – all, that is, except for the Lionel and Marx trains and Plasticville pieces. For whatever reason, Dad kept them. A phone call in 1993 probably explained why. Christie and I had just returned from the TCA Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota. Greeting us in Fountain Hills was an enormous fire to the north. As it grew in size to some 225,000 acres and approached the northern boundaries of the town, Dan Rather decided to do a “live” CBS Evening News from our town. Later that evening I received a concerned phone call from Dad. He wasn’t concerned about our home or our personal safety, but wanted to know, “How are you going to save your trains?” I guess that sort of sums up why I always got Lionel Trains at Christmas and why they didn’t get tossed when I went away to college. My collecting “gene” came from my Mom, but Dad seemed bent on preserving it. Our last trip together was at Sperry Springs on Lake Hopatcong on June 11. I last saw him at the NJ State Fireman’s Home in Boonton the next morning. Two months later, to the day, he passed away from a “broken heart.” He and my late mom had been married for 65 years.