One of the best ways to pass a pleasant afternoon used to be to watch the freight trains go by and count the cars, sometimes two hundred or more of them linked together, needing five or six locomotives spaced every thirty cars or so to pull all that tonnage, wondering where they were from and where they were all going. They had company logos on them from many states, even Mexico, Canada and some Central American countries. You figured they travelled a long way to get here on different trains from all over the place and gathered in some big train yard in Brooklyn, then got disconnected and reassembled into different trains by some railroad mastermind and hauled across town on the rails that go from the Canarsie Markets to the waterfront along 1st Avenue in Sunset Park to be unloaded onto freighters and sailed to markets all over the world.

Those freight cars carried produce, fish, milk and meat in refrigerator and freezer cars, Coca Cola (in glass bottles, mostly, and heavy tin cans, both of which you had to open with a church key, what we called a combination bottle and can opener), manufactured goods, clothing, lumber, grain, furniture, steel, live animals, cars, coal, scrap metal, canned goods, ball bearings, bananas, cosmetics, televisions, hardware (not the computer kind), shoes, huge shiny machines secured by wide steel bands to flat cars, all sorts of things, most of them grown or manufactured in America, some in factories right here in New York City. The railroad was patrolled by beefy men in heavy black boots and canvas coats who carried shotguns filled with rock salt to keep curious boys off the busy and dangerous tracks, but that didn’t stop us. That’s where the trains were! When you got older the trains were clearly visible and faintly audible in the distance from the high school windows, the perfect antidote to algebra. 

Well, the trains are gone from Brooklyn but the tracks are still there, rusting away under a carpet of weeds, wondering where all the little boys have gone. It’s a poorer world now for their passing. Some of the underpasses now serve as makeshift homes for the homeless. I often think the railroad would be a great place for a highway through Brooklyn, a place many of us would drive on whether or not it was on that day’s itinerary, just for the memories. For years I shuddered at the thought, but Brooklyn needs another highway, and now that I’ve gotten it through my head that the trains are never coming back, well, a highway would be the next best thing. The road is already cut, the bridges and underpasses just need a little work and it connects a bunch of hard to connect parts of Brooklyn. 

I’ve even got a name for it: The Freight Train Highway. There’s something about freight trains, there just is. Subways don’t have that kind of mojo. They were stately and clackety and pushing down the tracks with a mighty purpose and energy and a poised strength that said America. The men who ran them seemed a breed apart from other men; confident in their skills, gentle in their powerful frames and quick to laugh, but taking no guff from any man, and their eyes always smiled when their mouths did. They really did wear red neckerchiefs and blue and white striped hats. Proud and brave but never arrogant, hard working yet laid back, all at once friendly but reserved. They kept those trains running right on time and kept the country and the whole world supplied. Too bad a lot people around today never got to see all this.

Especially the little boys.

Leave a Comment

Scroll to Top