Old train a vintage ride down memory lane

Ted Smith, Lawrence, and his daughters Sydney, 5, and Samantha, 3, ride the Midland Railway during the Railroadiana Labor Day Railfest in Baldwin City, Saturday, Sept. 3. Rides continue through Monday.

Former railroad mail clerks Eldon Denney, Springfield, Mo., left, and Herb Crawford, Osawatomie, reminisce about working in the mail car during a ride Saturday at the Railroadiana Labor Day Railfest at Midland Railway in Baldwin City, Saturday, Sept. 3. Rides continue through Monday.

For some, riding on a vintage train car was a fun Saturday activity. For two men, it was coming home.

“This was my life,” said Eldon Denney, 81.

He looked around the 60-year-old train car he spent years riding in, sorting mail on the go as a mail clerk for the Railway Mail Service.

His old mail car, and other classic train cars, are back on the rails this weekend, thanks to volunteers at the Midland Railway Historical Association of Baldwin City.

“We were the Marines of the mail service,” said Herb Crawford, a clerk on a different route.

The Railway Mail Service was established in 1864 to make mail faster and more efficient, allowing large amounts of mail to be sorted on the road rather than waiting to be sorted in the bigger cities.

The job was mentally demanding and physically taxing. The men had to know sections of the country intimately and were responsible for the towns in the states their trains covered. Hawthorn, who rode the line from Kansas City to Colorado, said he knew many of the towns in the 11 states.

“I didn’t know them all, but a lot of them,” Crawford, 88, said. “You learn tricks. Anything that has cow to it, you gave it to the Pan Handle. Like Bovine, Hereford — that goes to the Pan Handle.”

The men worked roughly 12-hour shifts, and new workers soon developed leg muscles from balancing on the wobbling train.

The work could be dangerous, too. Crawford was involved in two fatal train crashes, and all of the clerks were issued guns, to stave off bandits. Robberies were rare, though.

“It was a little peashooter, a .38 special,” Crawford said. “Still, I wouldn’t want someone to shoot me with it.”

The Railway Mail Service was an innovation when it was created, and it was eventually overtaken by another: the jet airplane. The service survived in areas of the Northeast until 1971, but Crawford and Denney had their last rides in the mid-1960s.

The two were placed in post offices in Topeka and Springfield, Mo., respectively. Working in the post office just wasn’t the same. The excitement and the sense of freedom were gone.

“It was the best thing for my career, but I missed it,” said Crawford, who would go on to become an engineering manager for the Kansas City division of the U.S. Postal Service.

It didn’t hit Crawford until a few weeks later what giving up the rails really meant.

“I got up one morning and was sitting on my bed. My wife came in, and I told her, ‘I won’t be able to ever go out there again,'” Crawford said. “Then I cried like a baby.”

Denney also missed the rails. He said that on the rails, if you did a good job and got your work done quickly, you might just get a few moments to stretch out on the sorting table and enjoy the countryside passing you by.

The public is invited to take a train ride today. Tickets are $5, with rides departing from Santa Fe Depot, 1515 W. High St., in Baldwin City at 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. The trips at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. are each one hour, and the 3 p.m. trip lasts two hours.