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TOUCHDOWNS AND TRAINS

TOUCHDOWNS AND TRAINS
Jack M. Turner
Photos by John C. Turner

The arrival of autumn each year signals the start of one of my favorite activities as I attend football games, primarily high school games.  This passion can be traced back to my grandfather who was a legendary high school coach in Ten nessee and that interest followed me through high school when I was a member of the Coral Gables High School football team long ago and continues to this day.  In 2015 I decided to combine this interest with my love of rail travel as I rode Amtrak from coast to coast and attended two high school games and a college game in Los Angeles.  Early in 2016 plans were made for a second annual rail/football trip with my son John joining me.

We drove a rental vehicle from our North Florida home to Gulfport, MS passing over various rail lines along the way.  After checking in our hotel in Gulfport we spotted a Kansas City Southern freight train approaching town on the KCS main line that parallels US Highway 49.  This seemed like a good omen as the next day would commence our two night journey to Texas via Chicago. 
   
Tuesday September 27, 2016 found us making the short drive to New Orleans and John noted that he had never had a chance to ride the iconic St. Charles Avenue streetcar line.  As there was enough time for a one-way ride, I dropped him off near the western end of the line and chased his streetcar back to Canal Street.  The final mile of the journey was interesting as I was able to follow the streetcar closely as one lane of the downtown street is shared by streetcars and automobiles.  Once his ride was complete we returned our rental and were driven to the train station by a rental car agency employee.

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Streetcar # 904 seen from a passing automobile on St. Charles Avenue

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A streetcar travels in the median of Carrollton Avenue

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The interior of streetcar # 904

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The streetcar approaches along St. Charles Avenue

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Beautiful homes line St. Charles Avenue in the Garden District as seen from the streetcar

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John enjoys his ride on the St. Charles Avenue streetcar

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The author follows his son’s streetcar into downtown on Carondelet Street

Train # 58. The City of New Orleans eased out of New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal promptly at 1:45pm and made its way through the industrial suburbs of the Crescent City.  We noted a nice high school football/baseball stadium at Jesuit High and nearby the New Orleans Zephyrs minor league baseball stadium on the right side.  As my wife and I had done on our summer trip (see “Riding on the City of New Orleans” link below), John and I had booked individual roomettes to allow ample leg room and avoid one of us having to sleep in the cramped upper berth.  With roomettes 5 and 6 being across the hall from one another we were able to view the sights on both sides of the train easily.

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P42 engine # 206 on the head end of train # 58 at New Orleans

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Viewliner II baggage car 61010 on the City of New Orleans

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Sleeper 32019, our overnight home to Chicago

Twenty minutes out we passed the New Orleans International Airport and soon stopped beyond the end of one of the runways.  This afforded a good view of departing jets as we waited 15 minutes for the passage of the southbound City of New Orleans.  The rails followed the western edge of Lake Pontchartrain and we crept across a trestle that had burned early in the year.  This part of the trip is fascinating as the former Illinois Central line parallels Interstate 55 along the lake with numerous cypress trees lining the way.  After about 20 minutes the City crossed Pass Manchac where distinctive shanties line the shore and serve boat traffic.  Moments later we rolled through Ponchatoula where an old IC baggage car and a steam engine were visible on the right side.  The journey’s first stop, Hammond, came at 3:12pm and we noted the campus of SE Louisiana University on the left.

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Waiting on a siding near the end of the New Orleans International Airport runway

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Looking eastward at Lake Pontchartrain and I-55

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Crossing Pass Manchac with I-55 on our west side

Station stops in McComb, Brookhaven, and Hazelhurst, MS highlighted the next hour followed by passage through piney woods, farms, and agricultural fields.  We pulled into Jackson, the capitol city of Mississippi at 5:20pm and passed the 23 minute stop by walking the platform and inspecting the first floor waiting room and ticket window area of the attractive depot.  As soon as the train departed from Jackson, John and I made our way to the cross country café car for our evening meal.  Dinner on the City of New Orleans was, to say the least, an underwhelming experience as the three entrees were pre-plated, microwaved meals.  As a non-seafood eater, I immediately ruled out one entrée while the other two were tomato based items which were not ideal for me.  My selection proved barely adequate along with a salad and a fairly meager dessert.  The menu has slightly improved as of November 2016 though the microwaved preparation method and poor dessert choices are likely to still limit the enjoyment of dinner.

The City of New Orleans branches off from the traditional route of Illinois Central’s streamliners on the north side of Jackson.  Instead of rolling through Canton and Grenada as did IC’s City, Panama Limited, Creole, Chickasaw, and Louisiane, Amtrak # 58 now serves Yazoo City and Greenwood on a more westerly line.  The old route hosted Amtrak for several years but eventually was spun off to a short line railroad when Amtrak moved to the Yazoo branch. 

The line north of Jackson passes through similar scenery as that seen south of Jackson.  Surprisingly, freight traffic was fairly robust as we passed four freight trains over the next two hours, most requiring our train to cool its heels in sidings.  Passengers were allowed to stretch their legs during the crew change stop at Greenwood though we used care to avoid walking more than one car length from our sleeper since the stop was brief.  It was striking how much earlier the sun set compared to June when my wife and I walked the same platform.  Clear skies were a change from the summer trip when massive storms lighted the sky with flashes of lightning.

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Nighttime on the Greenwood, MS platform

The approach to Memphis took our train through poorly lighted industrial areas but it was possible to follow our route using one of the GPS apps on my I-phone.  The highlights of this portion of the trip were watching the Memphis skyline ahead and noting the crossing of the east-west tracks linking the mid-south to Arkansas and other points across the Mississippi River.  Roomette 5 was on the left hand (west) side of the train and the late night view of the mighty Mississippi and The Pyramid arena made me glad I was located on that side of the train.  John was able to enjoy the view by crossing the hallway and peering out my window. 

After the notable views were left behind it was time to nod off and sleep came very easily as train 58 continued through northern Tennessee, western Kentucky, and southern Illinois.  I slept through our passage over the towering Ohio River bridge near Cairo, IL and woke as we passed through Gilman.  We found the continental breakfast to be somewhat better than what Christine and I experienced during our summer trip as a large cinnamon roll and plump strawberries were better than the small roll and packaged melon served in June.  While we dined, a few passengers detrained during station stops in Kankakee and Homewood.  Soon the Chicago skyline came into view and the train navigated the St. Charles Air Line route and proceeded onto the BNSF western line.  A 10 minute back up move took us into Chicago Union Station where we arrived 15 minutes early at 8:45am.  Our trip on the City of New Orleans had been leisurely and comfortable even if it lacked the breathtaking scenery or hearty dining car cuisine of many Amtrak trains.  When one reflects on this journey, it is hard not to marvel at the fact that one afternoon you are in New Orleans and early the next day you are planted in Chicago.

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The Chicago skyline as train # 58 passes above the Amtrak shops

The five hour layover in Chicago always presents a question of what to do to kill the time.  Through the years we have enjoyed a variety of Windy City activities such as taking an architectural boat tour on the Chicago River, visiting the Museum of Science and Industry, touring the Art Institute of Chicago, exploring the Navy Pier, riding to the top of Sears (now Willis) Tower, taking a double deck bus tour of the city, and riding commuter trains to various suburbs.  This time we followed John’s suggestion and took a tour of Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs.  With the Cubs about to begin the playoffs at the time of our visit, the stadium was in the midst of being spruced up as pennant fever was in full pitch.  We learned a great deal of Cubs and stadium history while getting to visit the bleachers, the press box, visiting team clubhouse, and the Cubs dugout.  Little did we know that three weeks later the Cubs would win the World Series and that we would watch the players stand in the very same spots we had been during our visit.  Travel between Union Station and Wrigley Field required a short walk to the stop where we caught an elevated train (commonly called The El) to a stop one block from Wrigley.  The return allowed time for lunch at a popular restaurant one block from Union Station.

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Preparing for our Wrigley Field tour

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The author and photographer sit in the Chicago Cubs dugout a few days before the start of the playoffs

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The view from the Wrigley Field pressbox

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Exterior of Chicago Union Station

We had a few minutes to enjoy the new Amtrak Metropolitan Lounge then were transported to our sleeping car by a friendly red cap.  The Texas Eagle departed on time at 1:45pm and I had roomette 2 while John had roomette 5 a couple doors down the hall.  Car 32055 was comfortable though oddly placed with one coach between it and the dining car and two more coaches trailing.  One of these was deadheading to St. Louis while the destination of the other was unclear.  Our sleeper and the coach forward of it would be picked up by the Sunset Limited at San Antonio and handled to Los Angeles.

Just south of Union Station we crossed the Chicago River at 21st Street then branched off to the right on the former Gulf, Mobile & Ohio route.  The commuter train stops at Summit, Lemont, Romeoville, and Lockport passed and an hour of our journey was gone as we rolled into Joliet.  While the classic old GM&O/Rock Island station sits vacant on the right, Amtrak currently uses a bus stop style facility on the left side of the tracks overlooking the Joliet Slammers minor league baseball stadium.

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The Joliet minor league baseball stadium seen during our stop in Joliet

Departing Joliet the tracks were noticeably smoother thanks to newly installed concrete ties.  The smooth ride allowed for a nice nap as train # 21 rolled through central Illinois and I awoke in time to view the stop at Bloomington/Normal, IL where Illinois State University was visible on the right side of the train.  An hour south of Lincoln we met Amtrak train # 304 en route from St. Louis to Chicago behind engines # 59 and 55.  Soon we headed to the dining car for steak dinners that were far better than the meals served aboard the City of New Orleans.  During dinner we took a siding near Shipman to await the passage of another northbound Amtrak train.  Stopping in the small town reminded me of the night I was aboard a train that was stuck in that town for a couple of hours 27 years ago due to a disabled freight train ahead.  The rest of that story will have to be left for another time.

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A Texas Eagle poster on the bulkhead of one of our train’s cars

Following the stop at Alton, IL and passage through Granite City, the St. Louis skyline appeared to our west with the lighted Gateway Arch dominating the view.  We crossed the Mississippi River at 7:30pm and pulled into the Amtrak station seven minutes later.  The 20 minute stop provided just enough time to walk inside the station before strolling the end of the platform nearest our sleeping car.  Soon the train pulled forward a few car lengths then stopped and dropped the rear coach which would return north the next morning.

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A great western sunset in Illinois

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The Gateway Arch in St. Louis backlit by the setting sun

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The Mississippi River and Gateway Arch at St. Louis

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Rear of the Texas Eagle, including two deadhead coaches, seen from the station catwalk

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Front of the Texas Eagle seen from the catwalk

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Waiting room at the St. Louis station

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The colorfully lighted catwalk connecting the platforms to the St. Louis station

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Ground view of train # 21 at St. Louis

We both slept soundly for over nine hours, totally missing our stops in Arkansas.  A disabled freight train ahead delayed us for about 40 minutes between Marshall and Longview and required our Texas Eagle to back down from a siding before proceeding west.  We viewed this while enjoying pancakes with sausage and grits in the dining car.  Stops at Longview and Minneola were sandwiched around passage through Gladewater as train 21 headed due west toward Dallas.  One of the objectives of our trip was to see as many football stadiums as possible and John spotted two beauties as our train passed through suburban Mesquite whose high school stadiums serve as home of the Mesquite High School Skeeters as well as Mesquite Poteet High and other local high school teams.  These stadiums accommodate 11,900 and 20,000 fans respectively.

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John enjoys breakfast in the cross country café on the Texas Eagle

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A small lake east of Dallas

Lunch time came as the Texas Eagle glided into Dallas and we enjoyed views of DART light rail and Trinity Railway Express (TRE) trains across the platform at Dallas Union Station while we dined on cheeseburgers and chips.  Departing Dallas at 12:26pm we spotted the site of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination on the right as train # 21 headed onto the former Rock Island line used by TRE commuter trains.  The TRE routing traveled just north of much of the urban sprawl viewed along the former Texas Eagle route through the Metroplex.  About a half hour west of Dallas the TRE yards and shops appeared on the right side and rail diesel cars and bi-level commuter coaches were tied down until rush hour. 

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Approaching Dallas and Reunion Tower

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A Trinity Railway Express (TRE) train at Dallas Union Station

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Dallas Union Station

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John F. Kennedy Memorial in Dallas as seen from the train

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A DART light rail train parallels the Texas Eagle briefly departing Dallas

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A TRE rail diesel car at the yards near Irving, TX

Soon the skyline of Fort Worth came into view and the Texas Eagle approached the attractive intermodal station from the northeast.  This entry saves time by negating the need for a backup move across a congested rail line beside Tower 55 as was the practice for many years.  The Heartland Flyer, laying over between runs to Oklahoma City, was positioned on its layover track on our left as we pulled into the Ft. Worth station ahead of schedule at 1:21pm.  The Ft. Worth station is an attractive modern facility located on the edge of downtown which also serves as the city bus terminal.  An Enterprise rental car office located in the station makes it easy for Amtrak travelers to get a quick start to their sightseeing.

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The Heartland Flyer lays over in Fort Worth

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Rear of the Texas Eagle at Fort Worth

Our lodging selection for this night was the Hilton Garden Inn, Ft. Worth-Medical Center and we found this to be the perfect choice for our needs.  The hotel was modern, attractive, quiet, and comfortable and was less than a 10 minute drive from the Ft. Worth train station.  The hotel offered free covered parking in its parking garage and was adjacent to several popular eateries and other shops.  An added bonus that we discovered after parking our van was that a busy rail line ran behind the hotel allowing us to view a few passing freight trains during our stay. 

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Hilton Garden Inn, Ft. Worth Medical Center

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A freight seen from the window at the Hilton Garden Inn

With train riding complete, the remainder of our trip would be devoted to football and we got a quick start that evening as we attended the Arlington Martin at Fort Worth Paschal High School football game.  Farrington Field proved to be a terrific place to watch a game as its sightlines were good with the view of the city skyline an added bonus.  The 18,500 seat stadium opened in 1939 and today serves as home to several local high school football teams.  Its role as home to multiple teams results in some Thursday night games such as the one we attended.  Though the 67-17 win by Martin was not competitive, we enjoyed the atmosphere, the offensive explosion, and excellent halftime shows by the two bands.

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The elaborate entrance of Farrington Field

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The Fort Worth skyline is visible from the home side of Farrington Field

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Arlington Martin vs. Ft. Worth Paschal High School football game

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John and his friend Adam Brown with the Paschal Panthers mascot

In keeping with the football theme of our journey, John and I also visited Texas Christian University and took a peek inside the TCU football stadium.  We were surprised to find the TCU campus located adjacent to a beautiful upper class neighborhood rather than in the midst of the usual clutter that usually accompanies college campuses.  Fort Worth offers many other attractions aside from football.  Chief among these is the Stockyards National Historic District, the Sundance Square shopping and dining district, several museums, and the Fort Worth Zoo.  The Texas Rangers major league baseball team plays in nearby Arlington and a short drive to the east stands Dallas, home of the famed Cowboys NFL team and numerous other sights worth a visit.

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The TCU football stadium

After a restful night at the Hilton Garden Inn we left Fort Worth and made a stop to examine the Southern Methodist University football stadium then continued to suburban Allen, TX to look at impressive Eagle Stadium, home of the Allen High School football team.  This 18,500 seat stadium opened in 2012 at a cost of $62 million and includes a connected activity center and massive parking lots.  From there we continued north to Tulsa, OK where we took a look at the Tulsa University football stadium before heading over to Jenks High School to attend the game between the Jenks Trojans and Broken Arrow High.  Hunter Dwelley Stadium proved to be an excellent venue to watch high school football.  We joined approximately 8,000 other fans for this heated rivalry between two traditional Oklahoma powers.  In the end nationally ranked Jenks prevailed 62-24 by wearing down their rivals with an unrelenting offense and solid defense.  Jenks High School has an impressive campus and the memory of attending this football game will remain with us for years to come.

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Inside the SMU football stadium

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Allen Eagle Stadium

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Inside Eagle Stadium at Allen, TX

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Jenks High School Stadium seen from the athletics administration building

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The Jenks High School Trojans statue

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The Broken Arrow quarterback passes against Jenks

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Jenks drives for a score against Broken Arrow

Saturday morning dawned sunny and pleasant and we got an early start westward to Stillwater for the Texas at Oklahoma State football game.  Seeing the Longhorns had always been on my bucket list as they were one of only two traditional national college football powers I had never seen in person.  It was quickly evident that the Horns are not what they used to be and the Oklahoma State Cowboys rolled to an exciting 49-31 victory.  Following the game we headed eastward to Fort Smith, Arkansas for the night then proceeded through Hot Springs National Park and Vicksburg, MS en route to Jackson for the night.  Along the way we crossed over the route of the Texas Eagle at Malvern and the City of New Orleans line at Jackson.  The following day we drove home to north Florida with a quick look at the University of Southern Mississippi football stadium in Hattiesburg, a city along the route of Amtrak’s Crescent.

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The Oklahoma State Cowboys enter the field

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The Texas Longhorns on offense

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Preserved bath houses are a hallmark of Hot Springs National Park

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The main street in Hot Springs is lined by old bath houses that have been preserved and, in some cases, still are in use.

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The Southern Mississippi football stadium

This was a very successful trip as our Amtrak trains arrived at our destinations ahead of schedule and we attended three enjoyable football games and visited several other stadiums far from our home territory.  After a similar, though longer, trip in 2015 to attend football games in southern California, we are left to consider where to go next for the third annual football rail trip.


LINKS:

Hilton Garden Inn, Fort Worth Medical Center  http://hiltongardeninn3.hilton.com/en/hotels/texas/hilton-garden-inn-fort-worth-medical-center-FTWMDGI/index.html

Wrigley Field Tours (Chicago Cubs)  http://chicago.cubs.mlb.com/chc/ballpark/tours/index.jsp?content=daily

Jenks High School Trojans Football  http://www.jenkstrojanfootball.com/

Riding the City of New Orleans (TrainWeb, June 2016) http://trainweb.org/vrt/JackTurnerCityOfNewOrleans2016/

Chicago’s New Amtrak Metropolitan Lounge  http://trainweb.org/vrt/JackTurnerMetropolitanLounge2016/