It was one of those "Twilight Zone" or "Time Warp" moments (60 minutes actually) that longtime Polson residents remember from the 1960s, when it sounded as if an old-fashioned locomotive had broken loose and was rolling through the area.
But the last passenger train had arrived in Polson in 1953.
Our front room windows were open on the warm, sultry summer evening, but blasting through was an hour-long assortment of old steam engine whistles, chugs, puffs, and flanges squealing on corners and the clickety-clack of steel wheels on rails.
Actually, it was a recording of steam engines that had been compiled on tape over the years by the late Maynard Nixon of Polson. Many were excerpts from records, some were recorded on the spot by Maynard’s brother, the late Ron Nixon, longtime telegrapher and photographer for the Northern Pacific Railroad.
And here’s where the generation gap is obvious – what memories brought back – especially such deep-throated, chord-like, mournful sounds of the Santa Claus Special recorded on the Northern Pacific tracks in Seattle in 1957.
Some engineers could really make those steam whistles talk. One from a Bon Homme & Hattiesburg Railroad engine in Mississippi had an almost human drawling tone. Other sounds included the smooth Timkin IV engine as it ran on the NP line over Stampede Pass on its last run; a Union Pacific engineer skillfully tooting his whistle and throttling down, while wheels skidded on icy rails; and a panting effect from a Mexican locomotive that sounded as if it had too much chili in its boiler.
Then there were the sounds of air pumps as they operated on a Santa Fe train; a Colorado & Southern narrow gauge train; and a mockingbird keeping perfect time with the chugs of a Norfolk & Western steamer in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.
The Nixon brothers’ father, the late Bill Nixon, was station agent for the Northern Pacific in Polson for many years. He explained some of the railroad lingo: One long blast of the horn meant the train was arriving at the station; two longs, leaving the station; two longs, a short and a long, coming to a crossing; two longs and a short, greeting another train; four shorts, calling for signals or instructions.
Two signals were rarely, if ever, heard any more, according to Bill Nixon. Those were four longs, which called in the flag man of an eastbound train; and five longs, which called in the flag man of a westbound train. Radio calls eliminated the need for those two signals.
Australian trains, according to the Nixon recordings, had no particular set of signals, so Aussie engineers used the horn sparingly. However, Mexican trains used standard American signals as a basic pattern and then enlarged on it. The taped recordings gave indications that the Mexican engineers really liked to play with the whistle.
The old steam locomotives were long lived. Maynard Nixon had a set of train orders for Engine 1707 issued at Whitehall on June 10, 1923, ordering the engine to work from 4:30 to 8 p.m. between Logan and Whitehall. On April 2, 1948, orders instructed the same Engine 1707 to work a shift from 8:45 a.m. to 8:01 p.m. between Dixon and Charlo.
Except for a few tourist runs, the steamers are long gone, replaced by diesel engines with their blaring electronic horns, signs of progress. But I feel sorry for folks who have been unable to hear that eerie, moaning, mournful melody wafting on the evening breeze from a distant steam locomotive whistle.
Many a youth, myself included, dropped off to sleep with that sound in his ear, and the adventurous thought planted in his dreams about where that train might be going and what it would be like to be there.
Paul Fugleberg is a former editor and co-publisher of the Flathead Courier of Polson and the Ronan Pioneer, his freelance articles and photos have appeared in numerous national and regional magazines and newspapers, and he has written several books. He may be reached at email@example.com.