Meeting Number 1512
November 19, 1992
TRAIN TRACKS TO HEAVEN
Railroad Metaphors for Religious Teaching
by Elton E. Shell
Assembly Room, A. K. Smiley Public
"Train Tracks to Heaven," is a brief account of the use of railway metaphors
in religious teaching, especially as found in old songs and hymns. Early on, the railroad
metaphor became an instrument for Christian hermeneutics. The hymn' "Life's Railway
to Heaven," is an example.
Although. figures of speech involving railroad nomenclature are seldom heard today,
they abounded in the printed and spoken word during the 100 years railroads were at their
zenith. This essay brings together some of the more interesting ones remembered or
discovered anew by the author.
The Christian beliefs and dogma represented by the metaphors in this paper are not
necessarily those of the author nor are they intended as an oblique way of preaching or
promoting nineteenth century Christianity. The paper is history.
Elton I. Shell is Professor Emeritus, San Bernardino Valley College. His professional
work included a brief time in the Presbyterian ministry followed by a 32-year library and
teaching career beginning with San Francisco Theological Seminary. His library degrees are
from the University of Denver and Rutgers University.
Train Tracks to Heaven:
Railway Metaphors in Religious Teaching
Railroads must have been invented so preachers could create new and quite
different metaphors to get sinners attention and back on track' It is doubtful if anything
could have been invented to serve as a source for metaphors and other figures of speech as
well as stead locomotives, railroad cars, trains, workers and passengers. Since the
beginnings of Christianity, theologians, preachers and Biblical scholars often worked with
great zeal to explain the main tenets of Christianity, calling upon timeworn parables,
metaphors, analogies, similies and allegories to dramatize and clarify theological and
Works of art and writings such as John Bunyan's great allegory, Pilgrim's
Progress, written in 1678, served preachers well, but in 1830 when one of the first
trairsof cars moved by steam on six miles of track of The South-Carolina Canal and
Rail-Road, railroad metaphors were soon to flourish. That first informal jaunt was quickly
followed by formal operation of the line in January of 1831 with 200 persons aboard for
the initial run.
What an incredible thing for those people to experience! And every day
brought new experiences and new grist for the metaphoric mill. For example, on June 17,
1831, as the steam engine was being turned on the Charleston and Hamburg line of The
South-Carolina Canal and Rail-Road:
. . . the Negro fireman, annoyed at the sound made by the escape of steam
from the safety valve, tried an experiment. He sat down right hard on the valve lever. For
a few moments he was happy at the ensuing quiet; then the boiler blew up with a roar and
was tossed some distance from the rest of the engine . . . 1
By 1833 this railroad was the longest continuous railroad in the world,
reaching 136 miles to Hamburg. 2
Railroads were soon to provide experiences of all kinds--good, bad,
indifferent, thrilling, life threatening, maiming, killing, exhilarating, fatiguing,
mesmerizing--and by 1916 they had touched the lives of all but an isolated few when the
complex of railroad networks of 250,000 miles3 reached out across the country, linking
industry and agriculture with their markets and providing transportation for Americans and
the newly arriving immigrants, from and to any direction, up and down and across America.
Early on, the clergy were given passes at no cost or at a reduced rate in
order to assist them in reaching far-flung congregations, yoked churches or other
destinations as required by their duties and responsibilities. Their experiences while
enjoying this superior mode of travel were so varied and comprehensive that one can be
almost certain that the phrase, "I could write a book about my trip by
railroad," was oft repeated by men of the cloth and those indefatigable sisters and
nuns who relied on the iron horse during the latter half of the 19th and well into the
Those bright minds serving in the vineyard of the Lord could not have
ridden in or observed trains coming and going, without realizing that here was a fertile
source for powerful metaphors and other figures of speech. Train wrecks, accidents
separation of lovers, dramas of unrequited love played out on station platforms, youth
leaving home for the first time, young men and boys leaving for Civil War
battlefields--such times of high drama did not escape the creative minds of poets,
writers, lyricists or preachers. "Casey Jones," and the "Wreck of Old
97," are two folk songs that are still heard today. Both religious and secular
metaphors were in frequent use until the decline of railroad passenger service and the
abandonment of thousands of miles of track in the 1950's and 1960's.
Early on the railroad metaphor became an instrument for Christian
hermeneutics. A child or an illiterate parishioner could understand basic Christian
beliefs when presented in terms of railroading.
It may be that my longstanding interest in railroads end religion came
about quite naturally because the two relate to each other so well. A train was always
very special to me. I grew up alongside Southern Pacific's 51-mile branch line, Elmira to
Rumsey, one mile south of Rumsey where the tracks ran through part of our farm. This gave
me the opportunity to experience the daily coming and going of a mixed train, usually the
most exciting event of my otherwise lackluster, boring days of childhood. The friendly
trainman who sat at an open baggage compartment door always waved as he tossed out our
Sacramento Union newspaper. With the exception of a train ride to Oakland when I was
too young to remember, I don't recall riding on this train. There was no money during the
depression for such rides--no matter that the cost plummeted to one-cent a mile for a
brief time at the height of the depression.
As a youngster I did manage to visit the train several times as it stood
in the Rumsey station before starting its return to Elmira. Once I sat in one of the coach
seats as if I were a real passenger. I seem to recall it was upholstered with a nice red,
plush fabric--the kind with a nap you could enjoy rubbing your hands over. The conductor
proved to be friendly and indulged my curosity and fantasy of pretending to be on a train
trip to somewhere faraway. Another time I stood beside the locomotive and inhaled the
smells of steam and smoke and thrilled at the sounds eminating from the innards of the
beast seemingly alive before me. The elements of earth, Hater, air and fire were all doing
their thing--but there was mystery too--something that made me feel rather small and
powerless in comparison, especially as the whistle sounded, levers were pulled, air and
steam hissed, the throttle moved forward and the train slowly moved away, leaving a lump
in my throat and a heart beating just a little faster. As Edna St. Vincent Millay said,
"There isn't a train I wouldn't take, no matter where it's going."
When I was at home I could hear the train returning from Rumsey when it
whistled for the highway crossing down the hill from our house. This gave me time to run
out to the bank where the train went into a cut. Due to the slight upgrade which slowed
the train, I could keep up with it for almost a hundred yards before it outdistanced me
and disappeared around a gentle curve on its way to Cashmere and Sauterne, names no longer
to be found on California maps.
Close encounters of another kind with trains happened to me when as a
college student I lived alongside the Santa Fe tracks on East Park Ave. in Redlands. The
nine p.m. freight, bound for Mentone, would slowly and noisily pass within a few feet of
my little house. The exhausts from her stack, heavy and cadenced, would bring productions
in the Greek Theater to a temporary halt. When the rails were wet the staccato stack sound
would be interspersed with a measure or two in presto.
Against a background of church and Sunday school, together with a love for
trains, I could appreciate the gospel hymn, "Life's Railway to Heaven." I
enjoyed this metaphor although I didn't understand the chorus, "Blessed Saviour, Thou
wilt guide us Till we reach that blissful shore . . . " 4 I
hadn't thought of trains arriving at shores. We had not yet covered mixed metaphors in
Bess Porter Adams's English class.
Railroad metaphors, analogies and similies abounded in the printed and
spoken word as well as in songs and hymns. Everyday speech included countless cliches
relating to railroads. For example,' he 's on the right track or wrong track; ''I was
railroaded into doing it; "he's got a fill head of steam;' 'he's lost steam;"
it's the locomotive that drives it along;' 'blow the whistle on 'em;' lets derail
him;''that track will take him nowhere;''she's the little engine that could'; 'my dream
train;''the underground railway;' 'someone greased his rails;' 'he's a robber baron;'
'pour on the coal;' 'asleep at the switch; 'lost my train of thought;' 'welcome aboard-'
There are so many of these expressions out there I am inclined to think railroads are the
mother of all metaphors. Even in this computer age, the Los Angeles Times on August 2,
1992, carried an item about the computer services industry in which a Merrill Lynch broker
refers to "outsourcing" by saying, "It's a locomotive picking up
Why have such figures of speech survived? The answer lies in a review of
what has been written about trains and steam locomotives. For example, Charlton Og burn
describes a steam train journey: "Riding behind that black, fire-eating, smoke-plumed
colossus, rousing the countryside in its passage . . . " 5
Later he writes:
The first sound is the rush of steam escaping from the cylinders. Then you
hear the blower lifting the smoke. Next comes the beat of the air-pumps--that's her
breathing. Then the engineer drops the reverse lever; he's ready to blow off. 'Bo-oarrd!
the conductor calls. The whistle sounds. ~hen: Shoh1 . . . Shooh! . . . It was wonderful.
An engineer who began his career in steam said:
. . . The steam locomotive was the most human machine ever designed. She
had a soul, and there was a bond between her and the engineer. In the cab on a moonlit
night, seeing the light flashing on the rods, the flames dancing in the firebox, looking
back at the smoke trailing over the train, the steam gauge steady at 200 pounds, and
hearing that old girl talking in the language only she and you understood--there was
nothing like it in the world. 7
The experience of being next to a steam locomotive has the potential to
elicit a variety of thoughts and unspoken figures of speech which can still be observed at
railfan steam excursions. If you watch the faithful who gather you will see the entire
gamut of emotions on their faces, in their tears, in their laughing, in their crying and
in their jostling of each other to get the best photo, audio or video. If you were from
another planet witnessing such, you would think the locomotive to be a deity -with devout
followers giving praise and adulation after a baptism of steam and soot and prayers
ascending to the heavens in the smoke.
Sexual connotations may also be a part of the railroad experience in that
the locomotive represents both the male and female principle. The phallic rods move in and
out of the steam chest--the Yin and Yang if you will. The coupling takes place, the fire
burns hot and the "breathing" is heavy. Until camcorders replaced cameras, one
could observe a predominately male railfan crowd with cameras dangling in front--lenses
extended' creating an illusion that the experience had excited them in more ways than one.
Only a railfan can understand that during photo runbys when a giant steam locomotive
charges down the track toward a photo opportunity line there is such excitement in the air
that at the moment the locomotive passes the experience could oe likened to that of an
Last summer the lLos Angeles Times ran an article about AMTRAK
and mentioined Alfred Hitchcock's metaphoric use of a train heading into a tunnel to
suggest the sex act. This was in the 1959 MGM film, "North by Northwest." Caryu
Grant pulls Eva Marie Saint up into a pullman berth at which time the camera cuts away to
the train going into a tunnel where it sops and backs out -- then the scene shifts back to
the berth where it is clear the sex act has been consummated.
This detail was provided by an instructor who
teaches film history at San Bernardino Valley College. The video of the film viewed by me
ends with the tunnel scene and love-making in an upper berth without showing the train
stopping in the tunnel and backing out. It may have been in the film or some videos.
I would guess that almost everything that goes into the makeup of a train
and railroading has been used in literature and song to illustrate religious concepts,
doctrines, beliefs, and to convert sinners.
Although I was unable to track it down, I recall a tear-jerker story in a
book of sermon illustrations. The story goes something like this. A bridgekeeper's little
boy got his pants leg caught in the switch at the bridge's railroad crossing just as the
fast passenger and mail train approached with the green light. If the keeper opened the
switch to free his boy the train would be thrown into the river and hundreds of
poassengers and the crew would be killed; but his son would be crushed to death if he did
not act. Faced with the two choices, he sacrificed his son, bringing to mind of course,
Joh 3:16, "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son, that
whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life."
About 1880 a book titled, Curiosities of the Bible was published
in New York. In addition to two pages devoted to railroad tracks and locomotives with
corresponding lessons for the reader, there appears "The Gospel Railroad" with
various railroad parts listed, representing Jesus, the Holy Spirit, The Bible, etc., with
Bible references listed in an opposite column to support or explain the concept listed. 8
The folk songs, "Casey Jones" and "The Wreck of Old
97" although secular in nature carried religious sentiments. Both wrecks resulted
from too much speed to make up lost time but such accidents always served as a wake-up
call to renew one's faith in God and the hereafter. Casey Jones took his farewell train
"to the promised land," April 30, 1900. He rammed some cars that had not cleared
the main line.
Joseph A. Broady pushed his engine to her limits on September 27, 1903 and
she jumped the tracks on a curve and went through a bridge and down 75 feet. The song says
"he was scalded to death by the steam."
"Life's Railway to Heaven," copyrighted in 1917, says:
Life is like a mountain railroad, With an engineer that's brave; We must
make the run successful, From the cradle to the grave; Watch the curves, the fills, the
tunnels; Never falter, never quail; Keep your hand upon the throttle, And your eye upon
You will roll up grades of trial; You will cross the bridge of strife; See
that Christ is your conductor On this lightning train of life; Always mindful of
obstruction, Do your duty, never fail; Keep your hand upon the throttle, And your eye upon
You will often find obstructions; Look for storms of wind and rain; On a
fill, or curve, or trestle, They will almost ditch your train; Put your trust alone in
Jesus; Never falter, never fail; Keep your hand upon the throttle, And your eye upon the
As you roll across the trestle, Spanning Jordan's swelling tide; You behold the Union
Depot Into which your train will glide; There you'll meet the Superintendant, God the
Father, God the Son' dith the hearty joyous plaudit, "Weary pilgrim, welcome
Blessed Saviour, Thou wilt guide us Till we reach that blissful shore;
`~hen the angels wait to join us In Thy praise for evermore.
Several Negro spirituals used the train as a vehicle to express their feelings and hopes
for better times. In "Every Time I feel the Spirit," one verse reads,
"There ain't but one train on this track, Runs to heaven, and runs right back. 10
In "De Gospel Train," the words are:
Get on board, little chillun,
get on board, little chillun,
Get on Board, little chillun,
dere's room for many a more.
De gospel train's a comin',
I hear it just at hand,
I hear de car wheels movie',
An' rumblin' thro' the land.
Chorus repeats then:
De fare is cheap, and all can go,
De rich an' poor are there;
No second class aboard dis train,
No difference in de fare.
Chorus repeats. 11
The steam locomotive has many parts, large and small. All parts must be in
place and working well. The engineer is never careless aDoul the condition of his engine
and he is often seen examining, oiling and polishing. Mankind is also made up of wonderful
machinery, bone, muscles brain, artery, etc. which must not be neglected for peril of it
breaking down on the road of life.
A book titled, That Railroad Man, published in 1900 and authored
by A. P. Graves, sets forth a lesson to be learned from almost everything about a
locomotive or a train. He wrote that the steam locomotive is capable of immense power and
so too is man if neglect does not erode his capabilities of mind and body. He said,
"It is marvelous to see the powers which man possesses and appropriates along the
track of human life. The gigantic powers of man in motion are like the mighty powers of
the engine in motion.
But he points out that an uncaring, unloving, mean-spirited person with a
cold and cruel heart may be compared to a steam locomotive With all its machinery in its
place, but without steam, unable to draw a train of cars. The steam chest holds the
strength of the engine and the heart holds the moral power of man.
. . . The steam inside is the source of living action. . . . Fire must be
kindled water put into the boiler, and steam generated before the varied parts can
properly move and render the machine serviceable. 13
Graves continues later by writing:
When the inner power of the engine is unrestrained and misdirected it is
dangerous and often does great injury. So does man. . . . The inner powers of the moral
nature, all on fire with unbridled passion, are let loose. Like the unrestrained engine
with hissing steam dashing on to destruciton, their self-destruction is almost certain. 13a
A fireman can't get steam unless he shovels coal. He doesn't climb into
his cab because of the anticipated joy of shoveling coal but a fireman can't get steam
unless he shovels coal. So we too, must work through the church. We can't stay home or
otherwise ignore the work of the church. Steam is a must for life's most important train.
dell-wishing won't make steam. Shoveling coal will.
Graves writes about ticket agents. One went to a ticket agent for a ticket
to a destination.
So it is with our life. . . . How important that each one should have a
ticket to the eternal world. . . passport to the heavenly land. 14
"The price to be paid," wrote Graves, "is surrender to God
and acceptance f the ticket as a free gift, Christ having lovingly paid for it that you
might have a ride free to the land of delight and glory. 15
Just as railway ticket agents had to deal with some customers who did not
want to abide by the rules of the road, questioning arrangements and requirements, or who
expected special treatment, so too some Christians may try to obtain a ticket that would
provide a journey through this world and an entrance to heaven, on their own
terms--doubting the word of God, questioning the promises of God, thereby holding up the
line and making it difficult for those who would gladly accept the ticket Christ had
Railway ticket agents were also like preachers. Both helped people obtain
tickets for passage--the one to stations along their line and the other to stations along
the journey of life with a heavenly passport when cney would accept a ticket on the
Celestial Railroad. The words and music to "The Celestial Railroad are also found in
the Dook by Dr. Graves:
The road to heaven by Christ was made,
With heavenly truths the rails were laid;
From earth to heaven the line extends,
To life eternal where it ends.
Chorus: I'm going home' I'm going home,
I'm going home to die no more!
To die no more, to die no more,
I'm going home to die no more'
Repentance is the station then,
Where passengers are taken in;
No fee is there for them to pay,
For Jesus is himself the way.--Cho.
The Bible is the engineer,
It points the way to heaven so clear;
Through tunnels dark and drear here,
It doth the way to glory steer.--Cho.
God's love the fire, his truth the steam,
Which drives the engine and the train;
All you, who would to glory ride,
Must come to Christ, in him abide.--Cho.
Come then, poor sinner, now's the time,
At any station on the line, If you'll repent and turn from sin,
The train will stop and take you in.--Cho.
That heavenly home is bright and fair,
No pain nor death can enter there;
Its glittering towers the sun outshine,
That heavenly mansion shall be mine.--Cho.16
The railway track is useful for instruction in several ways. First of all,
like human character, it must have a good foundation; no soft, marshy spots, but stones
and gravel; weak points must be strengthened. So too, human character must be built on a
solid foundation with an absence of bad habits and other obstacles. One preacher likened
the beliefs of the church as the "road bed," and any erosion of them as digging
up the ballast, loosening rails and sabotaging the railroad to heaven.
The ties are put down next on the good foundation. In our lives when the
foundation of character is laid, our little and numerous acts, worms, and purposes, have
much to do with our successful living, for they are the ties in the railway that will lead
us on to a good life and career.
Rails remind us of still other important attributes. Rails must not be
easily moved. They must De straight; they must be fastened to the ties well--if they
loosen the train may be thrown from the track and Dring destruction to many. This is
analogous to life and when life's rails are well laid they will form a track thal will
near us up the road of blessing. No crookedness can be tolerated in the characters of men.
Rails in constant use are polished hard and bright and flash in the sun like silver
ribbons. Unused, they soon begin to rust. Tracks of right ~o~lau~c and character keep
smooth and bright only as they are constantly used. Tracks do not infringe on our freedom
to do as we please. If we jump the tracks we will land in a ditch or worse. It is the
track that gives the locomotive all the freedom it has; when it jumps the track all its
freedom of motion is gone.
Curves in any trace are also illustrative of life. Everyone faces curves
some time or another. We must be prepared to go around curves safely. Dr. Graves points
out that unbelief in the doctrines of Christianity has been often proven to DO like a
curve in a railway track. Remember what happened in 1903 on that curve near Danville,
Virginia, when "old 97" was gain' down the grade makin' 90 miles an hour and
jumped the track on a curves There are curves or turning points in every life. As you go
out of childhood into youth, you pass a curve on lite's railway. As you go from youth into
manhood you pass another. Look out for danger at these turning-poi~l~s or curves in life.
One's destination was often mentioned by preachers. They would point out
that we must see to it that we get on the right train and that we go in the right
direction. You wouldn't ask tor a ticket and then say it doesn't matter in which direction
or to where. In life, we are traveling on a journey upon a road that will take us to a
destination. If you take a ticket that leads to perdition you will not arrive in heaven
anymore than that if you take a ticket to New York you will arrive in Chicago. One cannot
afford to be careless about which train One takes for his eternal destiny.
The Spector of a train to hell was not difficult to imagine. Memories of
the first ride behind the 1831 DeWitt Clinton, inaugurating passenger service between
Albany and Schenectady had not faded completely. On that occasion the engineer yanked the
throttle too suddenly.
Many of the passengers Nere thrown to the floor and those on top of the
closed cars and in the open ones, at the rear of the train, were deluged with showers Of
blazing cinders that flew from DeWitt's stack. Passengers in the open cars had been
provided with umbrellas, which soon burned to the ribs and were thrown away, and as their
clothing caught fire the passengers became cozy neighbors as they beat out fires on each
The song, "The Hell-Bound [rain," has these words:
A Texas cowboy on a barroom floor
Had drank so much he could hole no more.
He fell asleep with a troubled brain
To dream he rode on the Hell-bound train.
The engine with murderous blood was damp
And the headlight was a big brimstone lamp.
The imps for fuel were shoveling bones
And the furnace rang with a thousand groans.
The boiler was tilled full of lager beer
And the Devil himself was the engineer.
The passengers they were a mixed-up crew,
Church member, atheist, Gentile, and Jew.
There were rich men in broadcloth and poor in rags,
Handsome girls and wrinkled hags.
With red men, yellow men, black, and white,
All chained together, a fearful sight.
The train rushed on at an awful pace,
The sulphurous fumes scorched their hands and face.
Faster and faster the engine flew,
And wilder and wilder the country grew.
Brighter and brighter the lightening flashed,
And louder and louder the thunder crashed.
Hotter and hotter the air became
Till the clothes were burned from each shrinking frame.
Then out of the distance there rose a yell:
"Ha, ha," said the Devil, "the next stop is Hell."
Then oh, how the passengers shrieked with pain
And begged the Devil to stop the train.
But he capered about and danced with glee
And he laughed and mocked at their misery.
"My friends, you have paid for your seats on this road,
The train goes through with a complete load.
"You've bullied one weak, you've cheated the poor,
The starving brother turned from your door.
"You've laid up gold till your purses bust
And given free play to your beastly lusts.
"The laborer always expects his hire,
So I'll land you safe in a lake of fire.
"Your flesh will scorch in the flames that roar,
My imps torment you forevermore."
Then the cowboy awoke with an anguished cry,
His clothes were wet and his hair stood high.
He prayed as he'd never prayed before
To be saver from Hell's front door.
His prayers and pleadings were not in vainly
For he nerves rove on the Hell-bound train.
For Dr. Graves, the body is the passenger war and the soul is the
passenger. You cannot travel about this earth unless you carry your soul with you in a
journey toward a marked destination. Graves drives his point home when he says:
. . . men of all classes, persist in breeding beastliness to their bodies
and damnation to their souls. They seem to have a preference tor the cattle car upon the
freighttrain, rather than to ride in the quiet and cleanliness of the passenger car. 19
The railway dining car suggests to us that just as we ean find good,
nutritious food in the car, so too there is food and drink there that can be harmful. In
life, we must seek wholesome food for the mind and we must eschew all other.
The railway switch provides connections for each track and train.
Our life's connections need a switch as well as the railway. Love is often
turned from hate. Joy must be turned from sorrow; evil intentions must be turned to right
purposes, and, in a word, the whole course of a man must at times be turned into another
The locomotive whistle possesses the power of alarm, guidance and control
of the train. So does man's conscience. It sounds out warnings and can provide guidance
and control. Like the whistle is for the train, so the conscience is for our conduct along
the railway of life. "The whistle of conscience calls Out and says, Stop," or
"Loosen the brakes, we go forward. 21 Those in charge of a
train must not disregard the whistle's unmistakable call and you must not either.
Train brakes are essential--to slow, to stop, to slacken the train. It is
the same with human character and nature. We need brakes. There is temptation, there are
dangers and perils of life. Men, and especially the youth, must have influences that will
restrain them in their course.
The headlight of an engine is illustrative of that Jesus Christ is the
light of the world. the locomotive's headlight serves a train and her crew well. And God
has provided us light through Christ to aid us on our journey and light up the track to
the heavenly land.
In "De Midnight Special" sung in prisons all over the
South,you have two miserable black prisoners who were contemplating their plight. I see in
this song a hope represented by the "midnight special" that could take them to
freedom, if only God, the locomotive, would shine his light on them. Miss Rosie is the
Christ figure, for it is she who comes--"She want to free her man," as Christ
came to free all those who are prisoners to sins such as mentioned in the song--not doing
right, gambling, fighting, etc.
The words tell the story:
Well--you wake up in de mornin'
You hear de work bell ring
And they march you to de table
You see the same ole' thing
Ain't no food upon de table
Knife, a fork, an' a pan
But you better not complain boy
You'll get in trouble with de man.
Let de midnight special
Shine your light on me
Let de midnight special
Shine your light on me
Let de midnight special
Shine your light on me
Let de midnight special
Shine you're ever lovin' light on me.
Yonder come Miss Rosie
How in de world did you know?
By the way she wears her apron
And the clothes she wore
Umbrella on her shoulder
Piece of paper in her hand
She come to see the gov'ror
She want to free her man.--Cho.
Oh if you're ever in Houston
Oh you better do right
You better not gamble
And you'd better not fight, Oh--
Oh the sheriff is ready
And the boys will bring you down
The next thing you know fog boy
You're prison bound.--Cho. 22
Another song titled, "This Train," makes it quite clear that the
train bound for glory has no space for certain types.
This train don't carry no gamblers, This train--
This train don't carry no gamblers, This train--
This train don't carry no gamblers, no crap shooters, no midnight ramblers, This train
don't carry no gamblers, This train--
Verse two is essentially the same except now it's jokers,no high-toned
women, no cigar smokers. Verse three changes in that it does carry "my mother, well,
my mother, my father, my sister and my brother . . . This train, she's bound for glory,
well, This train she's bound for glory . . . if you want to get to heaven well you've got
to be holy . . .23
In addition to the locomotive headlight and all it conjures up, there is
the railway lantern. It represents the light of an individual who may influence and
benefit those about him. A lantern figured in the "Underground Railway,"
the label given to the effort to secretly move runaway slaves to "safe houses"
or "stations" along a line to safety in the north or Canada. Many slaves knew a
lantern hung in a certain location was a beacon of freedom and any who could escape their
bondage knew that where a lantern glimmered, he would find food and clothing and help in
hurrying on toward the next such clandestine aid station on the "Underground
The most competing description and identification of a steam locomotive as
God is to be found in a book titled' The Locomotive-God", a 1927
autobiography of self-analysis by William Ellery Leonard. In 1878, as a young child he was
taken to a railway station to meet his father. Young William had never seen a train. He
was with his mother, her helper, Tina, and another family with a little girl named, Mary.
Promising not to go near the tracks, William and his mother's helper went on ahead but
little William slipped his hand from that of the helper and started to explore the railway
platform by himself. He writes:
How big and brave I aml I had been looking round a little nervously toward
my mother three or four times as our steps had increased the distance from her; but my
curiosity and courage have conquered. . . . all around me I see so much that astounds . .
. . But more and more it is the track itself that fascinates--those lines that stretch so
straight, yet getting narrower and narrower, so very much farther from me than I am from
Mary and all the folks . . .
From out of the woods, a far whistle, a puff of far smoke. The Train' On the Path. Beside
the interminable row of poles and wires. It moves. Toward us. . . . The Train. Nearer. I
can see it sway. The great black, puffling head-part. The length of moving sheds behind
it. The chug-a-chug-chug, louder and louder. The almost musical rattle, with humming
overtones, of the rails, louder and louder. I lean over to get the view more nearly
head-on. The sky is back of it, farther and farther back of it. The Thing lengthens out,
swaying this way and that. And it seems to surge up and down. A Train? What is a train?
Curiosity before the unknown now suddenly becomes apprehension . . . dread . . . . We are
human from the start. We do not need to see a man die to know death. Death is born with
our birth; the self that craves life shrinks by the very law of life as instinctively from
the constriction and blockage of that craving. A little child . . . what should it know of
death? All there is to know, O sage of Winander. The Premonition is upon me. I realize
with horror what a Train is. It is a gigantic Caterpillar . . . gigantic beyond anything I
have ever seen in our garden or Mary's. I am fascinated, rooted to the barren planks,
while the Caterpillar roars and wriggles and arches along. . . . then the jerking angles
of the driving-rod and the long boiler-belly make it for one tumultuous instant a
tremendous Grasshopper . . . till it towers and lowers and grins in one awful
metamorphosis, more grotesque than the most bizarre dreams of Greek mythology, as
Something indescribably greater than Caterpillar or Grasshopper. . . . as it roars with
thunder and smoke . . . scattering dust and a strewn newspaper, the black circle of the
boiler-front swells to the size of the round sky out of which the Thing now seems to have
leaped upon me. . . . this Aboriginal Monster. My eyeballs, transfixed in one stare, ache
in their sockets. The head-light glass in a square black box above the Black Circle flames
-with the reflected light of the afternoon sun . . . the Black Circle flashes a fiercely
shaking Face of infinite menace, more hideous and hostile than Gorgonshield or the squat
demon in a Chinese temple, with gaping Jaws, flanked by bulging jowls, to swallow me down,
to eat me alive--and the Thing is God. . . . God roaring from heaven to slay me for having
disobeyed my mother and gone so close to the track. Guilt . . . remorse. . . small hands
clapped to eyes. My heart leaps to my throat . . .
The locomotive sweeps by, and my physical paralysis ends in a sudden leap away. The steam
discharges from under the piston-box into the child's anus, with hot pain through his
kilt-skirt. 'God kills me here too,' he thinks with a scream out loud, and presses his
hand to the pain. . . . His little straw hat with scarlet band whirls off in that blast
and roar, . . . The monstrous boiler on the monstrous wheels rolls by, topped by the
clangor and swaying of the bell. If I am dead, I think, how strange that I can still move
so fast. It is God--God thunders out of the sky . . . I have heard him . . . this is God,
I think in my panic. . . for I still think. I am shrieking. The cars keep passing me. I am
so small that I see under them, past their tangle of iron rods, to the freight-depot on
the other (the left) side of the track. The wheels pound and bump, one after the other,
where rail joins rail. . . . The last car has passed. A slight relief. I stare toward its
retreating rear end. My side aches . . . that frightens me too . . . I put my hand on the
ache . . .25
The sand locomotives carry was not overlooked for one writer said
"It's about this way in traveling along life's slippery track, if your load is rather
heavy and you're always sliding back. Then if a common locomotive you completely
understand, you'll provide yourself in starting with a good supply of sand. 26
I also found a prayer which reads in part, "Deliver us from broken
rails, blind switches, false signals, and mistaken orders." 27
A twelve-line inscription on a cemetery headstone in Richmond, Virginia,
erected to the memory of an engineer, closes with the lines:
He lands his train at God's roundhouse
The morn of resurrection.
His time all full, no wages docked,
His name on God's payroll,
And transportation through to Heaven
A free pass for his soul.' 28
The prayer I mentioned above closes with these words:
As we make our last run, headed homeward, if it be Thy will, order our
train in on time. Let the light of Thy promises burn bright to light the dark tunnel of
death. As we run through the grand central station of the skies, may we have the approving
smile of the General Manager and Supe
rintendent, sign with joy the pay roll, and receive our wages and have an
eternal retirement in glory with God am the angels. We praise Thee forever. Amen.
Dr. Graves refers to the Grand Central Station of the skies as a
"union station." He writes, "Train after train arrives, bringing wearied
dusty passengers who are glad, indeed, that they have reached their destination. It is a
relief to their tired bodies." 30
Christian hermeneutics through railway metaphor and figures of speech--
what is left out? Apparently, not very much. I doubt if air transportation will ever match
what railroads contributed to our language, literature, art and song.
With a few exceptions, steam locomotives were gone after the 1950's. Many
were scrapped, a few were saved by railfan or historical groups and some were put on
display in city or county parks where they were frequently vandalized. Looking at these
old engines on display, often with many body parts missing, is similar to remembering a
lifeless human body--sort of like going to a mausoleum. The fire is gone, steam no longer
courses through her veins and she drinks no more. She is left to rust and decay serving as
a prime target for vandals.
Some lines of railroad verse come to mind--lines written after the
restoration or resurrection of locomotive S.P. 4449 when she was about to arrive before a
. . . A headlight,
Just a speck, builds, grows,
And a bell resounds. "Stay back,"
But already kids clutch their parents,
Who watch like hawks. "There"'
Up from the flat coming on
Like a rolling wall, it thunders,
No dead steel in a park.
No cold model in a jail.
This steam locomotive breathes:
Smoke billows up like a king
Steam seeps, scorches, sings
From every side, it is here. 31
But dead locomotives could also be used for hermeneutic purposes.
According to statistics, Christian churches and memberships are on the decline just as
steam locomotives were after World War II., and even before. Now, when I see a church
building no longer in use, the fire of the preacher and the congregation dead, when I see
that empty building, sometimes permanently located on a hill, I am reminded of an old
locomotive on display -- something to look at from the past -- but no longer relevant or
with a great future.
Back in 1970 a railroad song caught my attention. This was the sad time
when American railroads were killing their passenger service and Amtrak had not yet become
a reality. From a peak in 1920, when 20,000 daily trains connected every town of any size,
passenger service had declined to 500 trains a day in 1970 -- and 100 of them were
targeted for abandonment. 32 The song was "The City of New
Orleans," about an Illinois Central train of 15 cars and 15 restless riders in a
After the first two stanzas, the refrain repeats beginning with the words,
Good mornin' America how are 'ya?" but there is a difference the last time
This comes after the last stanza which reads:
Night time on the City of New Orleans
Changin' cars in Memphis, Tennessee
Halfway home we'll be there by mornin'
Through the Mississippi darkness
Rollin' down to the sea
But all the towns and people seem to fade into a bad dream
And the steel rails still ain't heard the news
The conductor sings his songs again
Passengers will please refrain
This train's got to disappear in railroad news.
Then it's not "Good mornin' America how are 'ya?" It's:
Goodnight America how are 'ye?
Said don't you know me
I'm you're native son
I'm the train they call the City Of New Orleans
I'll be gone 500 miles when the day is done. 33
It occurred to me at the time the song was so popular that just as our
beloved trains Here disappearing in railroad news, so too were the churches and all they
stood for. Exodus 13:21-22 came to mind. Substituting "locomotive-God" for
"Lord," the verses read:
And the Locomotive-God went before them by day in a pillar f a cloud, to
lead them the day; and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light; to go by day and
night: He took not away the pillar Of the cloud by day, nor the pillar of fire by night,
from before the people. 34
The power of railroad metaphors and related symbolic language in the life
and work of the church was extraordinary and the frequency of use, rather incredible.
1. Holbrook, Stewart H. THE STORY OF AMERICAN RAILROADS, N.Y.,
Bonanza Books, c1947, pp. 23-24.
2. THE FIRST QUARTER-CENTURY OF STEAM LOCOMOTIVES IN NORTH AMERICA,
Washington, D.C., Smithsonian Institution, 1956. p. 27.
3. THE RANDOM HOUSE ENCYCLOPEDIA, c1983. p. 1278
4. TABERNACLE HYMNS, Chicago, Tabernacle Publishing Co., c1921.
5. Ogburn, Charlton. RAILROADS: THE GREAT AMERICAN ADVENTURE,
Washington, D.C., c1977. p. 85.
6. Ibid., p. 130.
7. L . cit.
8. CURIOSITIES OF THE BIBLE, N.Y., E.B. Treat, ca 1880. P. 249.
9. TABERNACLE HYMNS, op. cit., p. 148.
10. SONGS FOR EVERY PURPOSE .AND OCCASION, Chicago, Hall &
McCreary, c1938. p. 170.
11. NOW AND LONG AGO, Sacramento, California State Series, 1958.
12. Graves, A. P. THAT RAILROAD MAN, Philadelphia, The Griffith
and Rowland Press, 1900. p. 104.
13. Ibid., p. 105.
13a Ibid., pp. 106-107.
14. Ibid.: pp. 51-52.
15. Ibid., p. 52.
16. Ibid., p. 208.
17. Phillips, Lance. YONDER. COMES THE TRAIN, N.Y., A.S. Barnes,
c1965. p. 54.
18. Ohrlin, Glenn. THE HELL-BOUND TRAIN, University of Illinois
Press, c1973. p. 36.
19. Graves, A. P., OD. cit., p. 113.
20. Ibid., p. 124.
21. Ibid., p. 131.
22. "The Midnight Special'" American folk song,
performed by Creedence Clearwater Revival and recorded by Fantasy Records, 1980,
23. "This Train," words and music by Paul Stookey and
Peter Yarrow, Pepamar Music Corp., c1962.
24. Johnston, Johanna. RUNAWAY TO HEAVEN, New York, c1963. In
this story of Harriet Beecher Stowe you can read how she first heard about the lantern
being used on "The Underground Railway." pp. 122-125.
25. Leonard, William Ellery. THE LOCOMOTIVE-GOD, N.Y., The
Century Co., c1927. pp. 10-15.
26. "Sand," as published in Clifton's, "Food for
Thot," a leaflet printed August 13, 1953.
27. Loc. cit.
28. Phillips, Lance. OD. cit., p. 370.
29. Clifton's, "Food for Thot," on. cit.
30. Graves, A. P., OD. cit., p. 197.
31. "Selected railroad verse," TRAINS, Feb. 1979,
32. "Amtrak's Financial Track Record Growing Brighter,"
L.A. Times, August 12, 1992, p. 1.
33. "City of New Orleans," Words and Music by Steve
Goodman, Turnpike Tom Music, c1970.
34. Exodus 13:21-22, substituting "locomotive-God" for
"Lord" in verse 21.