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Archive for Sunday, September 23, 2001

Rail fans enjoy nostalgic journey

Restored cars take passengers round-trip

September 23, 2001

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— For Charles Pitcher, restoring and running old trains is about the children.

"Children of today's generation have never ridden a train," the retired railroad man said Saturday from his restored R.P.O., or railway post office car.

It's also a little about showing off, said Ernie Griffin, general manager of Midland Railway.

Pitcher, Griffin and other "railfans" from across the state gathered this weekend in Baldwin for Midland Railway's annual Railfans Weekend. Aficionados and folks just looking for a relaxing train ride boarded classic rail cars restored to their original paint schemes and appearances. They took 12-mile round-trips to the turn-of-the-century town site of Norwood, where the last regular passenger train stop was in 1938, and returned to Baldwin's historic 1906 Santa Fe Railway Depot.

There's a certain sense of romance associated with trains, Griffin said. They'd pass through small towns, dropping off people from big cities, then head off to destinations unknown.

Midland Railway Historical Assn. members "try to recreate how it was to ride trains back in the great railroad era of the late 1800s and early 1900s," Griffin said.

Pitcher found his ex-Kansas City Southern R.P.O. withering away in a railroad yard in Pittsburg. He and friend Allen Maty bought it and have restored it bit by bit through the years.

Rows of canvas postal bags, wooden wall compartments and overhead bins line the inside of the 30-foot car. Black-and-white photos on the wall tell the story of the men who used to sort and deliver mail from the car.

"Until 1968, most mail in this country was carried by rail," Griffin said. "There really hasn't been much improvement since. It took three days to get a letter across the country then. It takes three days to get a letter across the country now."

A group of retired railway postal clerks from the Railway Mail Assn. of Kansas City rode the mail car Saturday morning, demonstrating to other passengers how they used to work back before the rail-mail era ended in the Midwest in 1970.

The association used to have nearly 500 members, said member G.W. Corben, but it's down to 117.

"They're going fast," Corben said. "I'm the baby of the bunch, and I'm 64."

But Midland Railway revives the spirit of the old rail era every weekend from late May through October.

At 3:30 p.m. Saturday, the last passengers shuffle aboard. The train rolls away slowly while the conductor collects passengers' tickets. Children giggle from the upper deck of the caboose, and the train whistle wails into the distance.

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