Midnight Express

As boxcars give way to bicycles, a railroad veteran remembers sweat, speed, and mayhem along the 29th Street corridor

It was a daily routine: The three bosom buddies--brakeman, engineer, fireman--would move swiftly over the well-kept, tree-shaded track by Lake Calhoun. They headed east, up a slight grade, sweating as shovel after shovel of coal flew into the firebox. Fast-moving wheels gleamed in the sunlight as they approached Hennepin Avenue. And then, suddenly, it extended before them--straight ahead, about 25 feet deep and 100 wide, its dozens of concrete bridges arching overhead like gargantuan croquet wickets. They'd reached the 29th Street corridor, which they called, simply, "the depression."

George Ryman drove this route often, back before he retired from the Milwaukee Road. He was an engineer, pulling fifteen-hour days in a four-by-five-foot train engine, sometimes seven days a week, for four decades, between 1946 and 1986. The line ran from Seattle-Tacoma to Chicago, and the cargo mostly went west to east: cattle from Montana to South St. Paul; coal from the Dakotas to power plants in Wisconsin; lumber from the forests to the cities. And grain, always grain.

Everyone on the Milwaukee, says retired engineer George Ryman, knew the thrill of racing along 29th Street
Sean Smuda
Everyone on the Milwaukee, says retired engineer George Ryman, knew the thrill of racing along 29th Street

A spry, avuncular 73-year-old, Ryman remembers the trains with timetable precision. He can tell you who worked what shift, which train left the Hiawatha-26th Street yards at what time. He can demonstrate the majorette-style lantern signals, like the windmill motion that means "get away from me," and explain in detail how "sun kinks"--distortions of the track caused by the summer heat--could cause a train to derail.

But as Ryman trots along the depression this midsummer morning, the mighty freight train is giving way to the lowly bicycle as construction begins on a project called the Midtown Greenway. Crews broke ground August 2 on the first phase of the endeavor, funded by nearly three million dollars in federal, county, and city monies; work is slated to continue, in two additional phases, through 2003, creating a 5.6-mile-long biking and walking path from Minneapolis's chain of lakes to the Mississippi. And so Ryman has come down here, equipped with notes from his bowling buddies (retired railroad men all), to show a visitor some of the thrills and dangers bikeway users may have to look forward to. "I'll tell you," he says, pointing at the dusty ground for emphasis, "a lot of things happened down here. A lot."

Ryman comes from what he calls "a known train family." His father was an engineer so deft, he was chosen, in the 1930s, to drive an FDR presidential train from St. Paul to Aberdeen. Both his brothers worked as conductors. The railroad itself was a kind of extended family, its camaraderie cemented by back-breaking labor. Engineers would throw candy and Christmas presents from the trains, conscientiously wave to kids squishing pennies and to the woman who came to her window whenever a train went by, day or night, for four decades straight.

Every veteran of the Milwaukee, Ryman says, remembers the 29th Street corridor. "It was fairly incredible, running 40 miles per hour, to travel through the depression with the bridges just a block apart. The passenger trains, you know, they'd travel through here at 50, and the fellas tell me that it was a thrill."

Ryman's enthusiasm finds a 1990s parallel in the voice of Tim Springer, director of the Midtown Greenway Coalition, a citizens' group that has been working for the trail since 1992 (and in whose early meetings this writer participated as a neighborhood representative). "To bike through [the corridor] almost feels like a computer game," Springer says. "The way the bridges frame your view is unique, very linear, very directional." Noting the space's tunnel-like shape, Springer gets the inevitable Freudian reference out of the way with an easy laugh: "I have to say, the way the corridor surrounds you and offers you a pathway is almost nurturing, especially the places that have lush green embankments instead of concrete retaining walls."

Ryman remembers that lush foliage--"those weeds," he calls them--as the stuff brakemen would use to plug holes in grain cars. But his affection lies with the concrete, a cutting-edge material when it was used to build the trench early in the century. The route was one of the first created with the automobile in mind: Its below-grade design allowed cars and trains to go their separate ways without having to stop. The depression was especially prized by "hotshot trains," cross-country racers that received priority on the lines and were staffed by the best engineers as they carried animals from North Dakota stockyards, carp on ice from Montana lakes, or, from the end of the line at Seattle, Asian silk for the fashion-minded East Coast.

Nearly a hundred years later, greenway planners are setting the stage for Spandex to replace silk as the priority fabric in the corridor. Cyclists, they say, will whiz along what is officially termed a "commuter bikeway" built for cross-town transportation first, leisure second. Unlike recreational trails, which typically close at dusk, the greenway will be open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

And it's at night, says Ryman, that trail users are most likely to encounter the depression's dark side--the drinking, partying, and the assorted accidents that happen when people are numb or wound up. Ryman remembers "breaking out into a sweat" when kids would play chicken in front of his engine. And he recalls the one time he hit someone, near the Fifth Avenue crossing: "I was leaving town on a freight to Montevideo. I said, 'Is that something on the tracks?' The brakeman looked out and said, 'Oh, it's a man!' We blew the whistle, saw him put up his head, which was lying on the rail. We hit that head with the engine. It was sad, but we didn't see him until we were 50 feet away. We couldn't do a thing except radio in and ask the police to check on him."

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