This is Living Stories, featuring voices from the collections of the Baylor University Institute for Oral History. I'm Kim Patterson.
Passenger rail travel in America enjoyed its heyday in the early 1900s, carrying at its peak in 1920 an estimated 1.2 billion
passengers that year. Trains made travel possible and relatively comfortable even in inclement weather, something no other method
of transportation could offer at the time. In 1911, Texas became the state with the most railroad mileage, a position it has not relinquished.
Mary Sendón of Waco recalls a train ride she took around 1908:
"When I was about seven, my father and my Grandmother Kemendo took me with them to Houston on a train. And that, to me, was the most wonderful experience I ever had in my life. My grandmother had relatives there. And I had never been anywhere on a train. I didn't know what a train was like even. And I remember my grandmother got train-sick. She was riding backwards; that's what did it. Well, there was a doctor on the train, and he said, ‘Well, just let her lie down on this—' It wasn't a divided seat; it was kind of a bench. And they let her lie down to rest, you know. So there was a man and a woman sitting just close by. Turned out to be a Jewish couple, the Herzes, H-e-r-z. They had a cigar store in Waco. And they asked me to come and sit with them, so I went and sat with them. And I always remember the first time I ever had a Nabisco—you know, they used to sell little Nabisco wafers in little tin boxes? Just real thin wafers. I remember that the boy that came—they called the butcher boy that would come through selling things on the train. They bought me a box of those, and that was the first time I had ever tasted them. But they were friends of my dad's because they had business close to his shop."
East Texas native Avery Downing, former Waco ISD superintendent, recalls a train adventure from the 1920s:
"I remember going to the Dallas fair on a special assembled there in Marshall–Longview. I had a little experience there one time. I had spent all my money except a quarter. And I saw that I had a few minutes left before I got on the train to go back, so I decided I'd buy me a couple of pounds of grapes. I ran back down to this little old stand that had the grapes, bought them. When I got back, the train was moving out, and I had to catch that thing on the run. I remember that. And I wonder till this good day—I considered myself a shy and timid fellow—I wonder what I would have done if I'd missed that train: no money and no acquaintances. I don't know." (interviewer laughs)
During its golden years, passenger trains seemed to be permanently ingrained in American culture, but they fell victim to the proliferation of cars, Interstate highways, and airlines as America prospered. By 1970 only the Santa Fe and Southern Pacific were still operating passenger rail service in Texas, and the following year remaining trains were turned over to Amtrak.
Living Stories is heard every Tuesday on 103 point 3 FM, Waco's NPR. For program transcripts or more information about the Institute for Oral History, visit us at baylor.edu/livingstories.
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