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5:27 PM Wed, Dec. 12th

Williams: Clickety-clack on the railroad track

I had a fairly rare experience recently driving to Phoenix by way of Skull Valley. I actually had to stop at a crossing to watch a Burlington Northern Santa Fe train pass by. It carried new vehicles and wasn’t a long one, but the rumble of its bulk and the clang of the crossing bells brought back personal memories of trains and small, dying towns from long ago.

Just driving through Skull Valley is nostalgic enough since the sparse number of aging buildings there remind me of the southeastern Ohio coal towns where my parents were born and spent their childhoods. Those coal towns, Carbondale and Jacksonville in Athens County to be specific, saw their heyday in the 1930s and ‘40s when the mines were producing coal and reliable jobs. Today, silence replaces the incessant lumbering of trucks carrying coal and the chatter of busy voices on the streets.

My grandfather owned and operated a small grocery store in Carbondale during those boom years. Old men sat around a pot-belly stove in the rear of the store solving global problems much as they probably did in the original Skull Valley, Arizona, General Store until closing just a few years ago.

The Carbondale store belongs to history, too; it burned down decades earlier and is now remembered only by greybeards of my age and the scar on the ground where it sat.

I saw my last steam locomotive in the center of Carbondale in the mid-1950s as it sat puffing impressive billows into the air.

My other set of grandparents lived in Jacksonville, Ohio. I remember many a winter’s night nestling deeply into the feather bed in the front bedroom listening to the muffled but thunderous reverberation of diesel locomotives churning past on the Norfolk Southern tracks that bordered their property. Cold winter nights often started that way and ended with Grandpa arriving home early in the morning from an overnight shift in the mines and heating up hot toddies on the coal stove for everyone.

I think now would be a good time to address one of the most enduring questions involving the railway industry — just what causes the clickety-clack of a train passing by? Based on my intrepid research, I’ve learned that rails typically come in 39-foot lengths. There is a gap of one-half inch to 1 inch between the ends of the rails to allow for expansion during extreme weather. The train hitting the rail gaps is the clickety-clack we all hear.

It’s my considered opinion that if trains hadn’t been invented, we’d have no need for the words “clickety-clack.” I can’t think of anything else that clacks with the same clickety. Now, I understand, clickety-clack might be a sound of the past since welded rails are replacing the jointed rails that made this unique sound. Welded rails eliminate the gap and the railcar sounds we’ve grown up with. So many things are now “of the past.” But that’s another column. And a much longer one.

Apparently, the railroad industry gave us other interesting references, among them, “gandy dancers.” These were “section hands” who laid and maintained railroad tracks prior to machines doing the work. The workers used a specialized 5-foot bar to help in aligning the rails called a “gandy,” and the workers sang in unison with their movements to ensure exact equipment placement on both sides of the track. I’d never heard of gandy dancers until friend Steve brought them to my attention recently.

I wonder what memories Skull Valley will awake on my next trip south?

To comment on this column, email wilaugust46@gmail.com.