Get Rail!

The Jackson Street Roundhouse, an oddly inconspicuous railway museum in the hills just north of downtown St. Paul, seems quiet for a Saturday afternoon. I’m here to poke around amid the relics of railroad’s golden age and am slightly surprised that my two kids have chosen to tag along. Martin, 12, skips ahead without a jacket, while Nora, 14, steers me toward the proper entrance. They’ve been here before; I haven’t. But they’re bouncy, energetic, eager to explore.

Inside, a half dozen or more engines, cabooses, and passenger cars dominate the old roundhouse, and I quickly find myself following my two young guides through the musty-smelling spaces. Once-lavishly appointed club rooms and sleeping compartments struggle to maintain their dignity, but still manage to impress with their mahogany and stained glass, velvet and brass. The cabooses smell of old paper and are cleverly designed for a sort of utilitarian comfort.

The huge, oddly malevolent diesel engine beckons, and we give in to the urge to fiddle with the switches and levers and imagine the horsepower under the hood. Beneath our slightly suppressed amusement-park glee, I can’t help but detect a hint of reverence from the kids. It’s a bit like we’re snooping in a cemetery.

Outside, they’re offering rides in the rail yard, and we greet a couple of middle-aged guys decked out in what we assume to be engineer and switchman garb. We climb aboard the caboose and the three of us scale a set of stairs up into the cupola for the short ride east. Martin is bouncing on the leather seat he wants to share with me, while Nora looks thoughtfully out the window on the other side of the car. Martin gives his thumbs-up to the passenger arrangement as I settle in, and I realize I’m agreeing with him. Two leather seats on platforms across an aisle eight feet above the floor—who, besides a 12-year-old boy, would think of such a thing?

On the trip back to the roundhouse, we move up to the locomotive, where we are regaled with tales of railroading and cylinder sizes by a guy who is not at all eager to end his shift and head home to dinner.

Back inside, while the kids try to figure out how to make an antique switching machine perform to their expectations, it occurs to me how much this train business feels like some youth reclamation project. Museums are sometimes like that, of course, but I can’t help but flash back to a photo I’d seen last year of Jesse Ventura and his minions happily climbing aboard a prototype of the new LRT car. It looked a little like they had sneaked onto an amusement park ride and were waiting for the guy to hit the switch.

I don’t really want to believe that we’re spending a half-billion dollars to satisfy some primordial youth lust, some adolescent craving for the cool, the new, the quick. But I’m pretty certain the Hiawatha Line can deliver that much. And at this point, I suppose, that’s better than nothing.

Craig Cox is the executive editor of Utne magazine, and the editor of The Minneapolis Observer. Research assistance by Nora and Martin Cox.

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