Midnight Express

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

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.

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."

There were other dangers. Whenever he went through the corridor, Ryman remembers, "people would stand on those bridges, trying to hit the train by dropping things--tires, chunks of brick." Once a cement block went through the windshield of a locomotive: "Jimmy Callan was the fireman on that, and he was drinking his cup of coffee. It spilled in his lap--it was like that McDonald's thing. He was burned so badly that he couldn't finish the route."

Minneapolis Police Officer Don Jach, who works with the C.C.P./SAFE unit in the Fifth Precinct, confirms that squads are intimately familiar with the trench. During his days on patrol, he notes, "if you knew that a shooting suspect had escaped nearby, you could just park squad cars on the bridges and look for movement. Three or four years ago we did a stakeout at the Bloomington-Lake bridge, looking for drug users; they would show up like clockwork. It was a big place for prostitution, too. I would never recommend taking a walk there when the sun is going down--it's a boxed canyon with steep walls that don't allow you to scramble to safety."

But, argues the Greenway Coalition's Springer, all that will change once the trail is completed. "The [corridor] has been a place that's been off-limits and inaccessible, and that's why it been a magnet for crime. When it opens to the public, when people are able to easily access it, it will really take on a different character." Springer cites data from the American Greenways Program, a D.C.-based advocacy group, showing that crime along railroad lines typically decreases after trails are built. And Jon Wertjes, the city project engineer who is overseeing the construction, says planners have designed light and landscaping to eliminate nooks, crannies, and shadows. Regular police patrols--by car and bike--are planned, and the trail will be equipped with emergency phones and cameras connected to Fifth Precinct headquarters.

Even so, says local anticrime activist Wizard Marks, some longtime users of the corridor may not be ready to give up their territory. "I could be full of beans, and it may be that Tim Springer will have hordes of bicycles riders down there. But there are people living under the bridges at various points and they're not just poor innocents; they're pretty rough trade. The greenway is being put through the middle of a neighborhood that has been so disadvantaged for so long--there are a lot of unsavory characters in that depression who are not shy about using anything, whether it's theirs or not."

In the long run, planners say, they're not just counting on the cycling hordes to create activity in the corridor: Eventually, they project, trains will once again streak along 29th Street. The land was purchased in 1993 "expressly for light rail," says Gary Erickson, director of the Hennepin County Regional Railroad Authority (HCRRA); county officials began considering other uses when it became clear that a metrowide rail system was unlikely anytime soon.

Nationally, the "rails to trails" movement began in the early 1980s, when the U.S. Congress allowed public agencies first dibs on soon-to-be-abandoned railroad lines. According to the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, a national advocacy group, more than 10,000 miles of public trails now exist in former rail beds; Minnesota is number two in the nation with 1,214 miles of trails, just 50 miles behind Wisconsin. Most of those trails run between rural communities abandoned by the railroads, but popular among bike tourists.

In the urban greenway, Ryman's era hasn't been completely forsaken. Here, as along the recently completed Cedar Lake and Kenilworth trails on Minneapolis's western edge, the bikeway and walking path share space with a working freight track. One day, hopes Erickson, that portion of the corridor will carry two tracks of light rail. "It's just part of the big picture for the region."  

Not everyone agrees, though, that that picture is anything but a daydream. "Everybody's got this rail obsession," says Lyle Wray, executive director of the Citizens League and a longtime light-rail critic. "It must be Casey Jones imprinting or something. It does depend on how much money [the county] can milk out of the federal government, but I don't see it."

Ryman is similarly skeptical. "There are millions of dollars spent on light-rail studies. I was bowling with the guys; we decided that after all the years on the Old Milwaukee, all we needed was someone to type up the numbers. But--and this is just my feeling--it seems too late. Everyone goes everywhere by cars now. I do it, too."

And so, Ryman says, the sound of trains racing through the depression--"can't you just hear that clickety-clack?"--will probably remain just a distant echo. "It is good that this land isn't going unused," he muses. "And I like bike trails. But it does make me sad."

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