Our fathers' magic carpet made of steel

June 4th, 2014, 4am

It was 8°C. The wind was calm.

Left; right; breathe in; breathe out.

The words, My father’s magic carpet made of steel sung by Arlo Guthrie in the City of New Orleans echo in my head as I ride my bike up the trail.

I ride the 14 miles of recreational trail from Duluth to Carlton and back through a landscape which, except for some rock cuts and fills, might be a renewed wilderness. Wild flowers fill the side of the trail beyond that lies a hardwood forest. Hawks and other raptors wheel in gyres over head catching the updrafts supplied by winds off Lake Superior riding up over the rocky hills. My spirit soars with them as I pump strength and stamina into my body with every mile.

Left; right; breathe in; breathe out.

Once the Northern Pacific Railroad with its yin-yang ensign painted on every bridge, crossing gate and locomotive, eased trains loaded with hard Dakota wheat down the steep right-of-way into the Port of Duluth. In 1888 the St Paul & Duluth railroad built this second, shorter, gentler grade into Duluth from Carlton down the escarpment above Lake Superior.

The original right-of-way of 1870 followed the St. Louis River which required many wooden trestles and fills. These trestles and fills provided a straight way over the ravines eroded into hundreds of feet of clay. The glacial Lake Duluth, formed near the end of the last ice age, deposited this deep red clay. Ten thousand years of rain carved the ravines. The railroad builders bridged them.

Sparks from the wood burning steam locomotives set fire to the wooden trestles and spring rains loosened the clay causing trains and right-of-way to slip into the river.

The American Civil War demonstrated the advantages of railroads. So for 60 years we binged on building railroads. The first world war suggested to the military that railroads could not move armies and material fast enough from the east coast of the United States to the west to counter the fictitious invading enemy conjured in a war game. They needed to drive vehicles with rubber wheels. In 1919 the then Major Dwight Eisenhower accompanied an army unit from Washington DC to California. The trip took 62 days with many accidents and repairs. The road actually vanished after Omaha. This exercise proved US roads inadequate to move an adequate army fast enough to stop a war-gamed invasion.

During Eisenhower’s presidency Ike began building the Interstate Highway system. As the highway mileage grew and improved, trucks and automobiles proved more convenient and economical than railroads for moving most freight and passengers so railroad mileage shrunk. Railroads decommissioned many lines and rights-of-way.

They lifted the rail which, I suspect, industry recycled into the rebar for highway construction concrete. The railroad ties reappeared everywhere as retaining walls and landscaping timber. A Rails-to-Trails movement recycled railroad rights-of-way into recreational trails like the one I’m riding. I’m biking on a remnant of my father and grandfather’s magic carpet made of steel.

”And the sons of Pullmen porters and the sons of engineers Ride their father’s magic carpet made of steel Mothers with their babes asleep rockin’ to that gentle beat And the rhythm of the rails is all they feel”

Left; right; breathe in; breathe out

I can feel the rhythm of the rails as I ride.

Shu said thanks.

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Ken Jackson

An avid outdoors man. Retired and retiring, living on the shore of Lake Superior

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