With its telltale screech and distant grumble, it is suddenly there. An endless stream of cars, perfect long boxes, passing with their hum and click, with their rum and rumble, cutting their outlines on brick buildings which offer back fading signs selling oysters, wines and liquors, cigars, saloons, hotels and machining supplies: There it is, etched against the sky, a train.
Growing up here I never noticed the trains, unless you count the horror stories whispered among children of other children caught on the tracks without enough time to escape. Upon returning to Spokane over four years ago, I became very aware of the trains' frequent passage through town. With a growing fascination also grew a love of these transient giants. Waiting for a traffic light, a train would pass through the air above me and I would lose myself.
Maybe it's the romanticism of days past, those heavy cars slowly carrying loads across the country, long lines of tracks connecting the east to the west, connecting us to the men that laid them at great cost. Or maybe it is their size, huge and bulky reaching out to the horizon. Perhaps it is their sound, almost like the sea, lulling and reassuring. But, I think it's the way they look from the perspective below: silhouetted against the sky, coasting by clouds and sun, and me, gazing up like a child.
However, the train in downtown Spokane was not always in the sky.
Before 1914, the train ran at street level. Railroad Avenue wasn't the little alley it is now, but a wide avenue running from Division to Oak Street. It engulfed the alleys that now flank the trestle and, at times, as many as ten tracks ran down it. Traffic passing through town knew that stops for the passing Northern Pacific were imminent. Finally, traffic backup became a problem and during the years of 1914 and 1915, the train was raised to the level it is at now.
Part of my love of trains is my love of the areas surrounding the tracks. Always industrial, sometimes seedy, these areas are full of character, of smells, and of surprises. Railroad Avenue is no exception. This area once was filled with restaurants and saloons, hotels and many warehouses. In some ways the current neighborhood by the tracks between Cedar and Lincoln is trying to reclaim what it once was. Walking through these alleys, I notice new places cropping up and the ones that are leaving. I admire old signs and cracking paint. I take note of beer cans and needles. And I stop, longingly, below the tracks at the beautiful blue door of the Barrister winery, deeply inhale the aroma of fermenting grapes and wait for a train to pass. And when it does, I turn my eyes toward the sky, gazing to the heavens, at the cars rolling past, like a graceful machine arcing across the sky.
Publication date: 11/11/04