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Waiting for the Train

by Deirdre Duffy

The moment we crossed the threshold, I knew something was wrong: it was a crystalline June day, and yet the terminal was full of dour-faced people. At the Amtrak counter, the clerk took our tickets and swiped my credit card, handing everything back without meeting my eyes.  “Due to the derailment,” he said, “you’ll be taking a motor coach to Eugene to meet your train.”

Derailment? I tried to ask a question, but before I could shape the words, he’d moved on to the person behind us. Surveying the hostile looks around the room, my children and I chose a bench in the center of the terminal, next to a hay wagon.  “We’re going to Disneyland,” my daughter said to a couple watching us settle in. Tight lipped, they ignored her. 

To pass the time, I studied the sandwich boards standing in the wagon’s bed. Covered with text and pictures depicting the Seattle station’s past, they described how—due to generous grants from private benefactors and the federal government—the building was being restored to its former glory.  “Look up,” one of the boards instructed.  “Notice the extravagant use of stone in the original façade.” 

I looked up, at a dropped ceiling made of yellowing acoustic tiles crisscrossed by thin metal bars. A few rows over, several ceiling tiles were missing. On the other side of the hole, the ceiling receded into darkness.  I couldn’t see any stone.

I looked back at the photos: one depicted smartly dressed people, flanked by towering columns and strolling through a wide concourse. Another featured small groups clustered along an imposing balcony, looking down at a grand chandelier. I scanned the room again: with its low, plain ceiling, harsh lighting, and glossy, sheet-rocked walls, it was the epitome of Greyhound bus décor. It was hard to fathom why anyone would think such insipid modernity an improvement over the original design. But clearly, somebody had.

King Street Train Station, Seattle.
  King Street Station in downtown Seattle, Wash.
Original photo courtesy Flickr Commons.

Completed in 1906, the King Street Station was designed by the architectural firm of Reed and Stem of St. Paul, Minnesota, the same firm that designed Grand Central Station in New York City.  Commissioned by James J. Hill, railway magnate and owner of the Great Northern Railroad, it was built at a time when rail travel nationwide was at its peak. At the turn of the century, the massive scale of the nation’s largest rail stations was intended to present city visitors with an impression of largess, and as originally built, King Street Station might have done so.  But it might also have confused them: with its Railroad Italianate details—a looming clock tower, marble and plaster ornamentation, and its cavernous, echoing concourse—it reflected the building traditions of Europe, not the contours of an American outpost.  Who were Seattle’s people?  What was their history?  What sort of place was this land by the Salish Sea?  The station, as originally built, answered none of these questions.

I studied the kiosk photos again.  In one, a gathering of women faced the camera.  Prototypical Gibson girls, hair coiffed and bodies restrained by corsets, they rebuffed my curiosity with a serious gaze. I leaned closer, seeking a story of some kind, but the image was mute on the particulars of their lives. It depicted a spacious room, sunny and inviting. The chairs looked relatively comfortable, and the décor was clean and uncluttered.  Where was the mess that inevitably accompanies the dislocations of travel? I searched their faces, but at a distance of nearly one hundred years, could discern nothing.

Around us, benches were filling up. Clots of people began to congeal around the room’s edges. The station had an aura of defeat about it, a feeling of pervasive sadness that the hopeful tone of the sandwich boards accentuated. I traced my finger across the images, trying to connect the concourse and the Gibson girls to the building we were in.  It was difficult.  From the street, the character of the building was still discernable. But from inside, its essence seemed to have vanished.  There was nothing grand or inviting about the space: it seemed tired, as if something fundamental had drained away.  This strange lack of energy was incongruent with my usual experience of Seattle.  After all, this is a young city. Founded in November 1851, when the Denny party landed in what is now West Seattle and named it New York Alki—Alki being the Indian word for “by and by”—it took only 55 years to transform a landscape of seasonal villages and ancient trees lining an inland sea into an urban outpost, complete with a cosmopolitan train station.  Fifty-five years.  And from that point until now, only another hundred had passed.  How could so much be lost in so little time?  Where did all that life go?

The boarding call began.  Slowly, the crowd funneled through two small doors and out onto the loading area beyond; as we moved toward the exit, I studied the sunlight struggling to make its way in through the dirty windows lining the wall above us. I imagined it filtering between the branches of a thousand-year-old forest, finding its way to the ground, caressing the faces of people living along the Northwest waterways. What was it like, I wondered, to live in Seattle during those first 55 years, to hear the sound of trees—in a forest whose canopy constituted an ecosystem unto itself—falling by the thousands?  Had the people wandering through King Street Station in its heyday witnessed the carnage of city building firsthand?  If so, what did they think of it? Frozen in photographs, like flies in amber, they didn’t appear distressed.  But images can be misleading.  I don’t believe we are ever indifferent to the ecological destruction of city building: life identifies with life, no matter what we say.  No.  Ignoring horror is a bargain we strike with ourselves when we believe we have no other choice.  And the trouble with that is, once we learn to ignore horror—at any level of scale—it is a difficult habit to unlearn.

Gibson girl.
Camille Clifford, an original "Gibson girl," circa 1905.
Original photo by W & D Downing.

We boarded the motor coach and headed south under a clear blue sky. Outside the city, the landscape evolved into a monotony of boxy houses and large malls, punctuated occasionally by a field inhabited by a horse or barn.  There was no sense of cohesion to the scenery: just miles of random structures, set on asphalt, Mount Rainier as their backdrop.

The motor coach was a study in sensory deprivation.  Its tall tinted windows allowed for a panoramic view and turned the entire visual field a sickly greenish gray.  And its colorful, plush seats were made of a sheared material deceptively lacking in substance: neither soft or hard, nubby nor smooth, it invited your caress and immediately disappointed it.  In the decades since I’d ridden a long-distance bus, the wheezing, diesel-belching creatures of my memory had disappeared.  But another aspect of my memories seemed prescient: as a child, when I took my first bus trip alone to spend the weekend with a great aunt in Omaha, I counted the towns along the way, ticking them off on my fingers to mark the distance.  Terrified of missing my stop and hurtling out into the sand hills of western Nebraska, a place that sounded—to my child’s ears—frighteningly desolate and alien, I was determined to track my progress visually. For the most part, my strategy was successful, as signs, streetlights, and paved roads appeared and disappeared with regularity. But near the end of my journey the edges of the countryside became muddy and confused.  In some ways the landscape remained familiar, with cornfields, cattle, and open sky.  And yet, oddities emerged: streetlights in place of darkness, long windowless buildings with flat roofs.  It wasn’t a town.  It wasn’t the country. What was it? I waited, with half-held breath, for ten, then twenty more minutes, marking the time with a pounding heart. As we crossed the Missouri River, the driver announced Omaha, and I resumed normal breathing.  But the indecipherability of the landscape remained in my mind, troubling and insoluble. 

Now, thirty-some years later, the view out the motor coach window confirmed that what was once strange and alien has become a commonplace feature of our landscape: our buildings are irrationally placed, and are spreading relentlessly over farmland and forest, eliminating any sense of boundaries. We often think of this as a planning issue, but perhaps we are looking through the wrong lens. Is it possible what we are doing with our landscape reflects a miscue in our relational development? After all, if you cannot tell the difference between where you are and where you are trying to go, won’t the places you create reflect this?


Mount Ranier with Tacoma, Wash., in the foreground.
Original photo by Lyn Topinka, courtesy USGS.


A few hours into our journey, we stopped for lunch in a large parking lot ringed by fast food restaurants. Sitting outside Burger King, I watched my children play, relishing the feeling of sun on my skin after the fiendish bus windows that let in sunlight but none of its warmth or charm. We ate as the freeway rushed behind us, surrounded by a patch of extraordinarily green grass and hanging baskets of pink and chartreuse petunias.  There were no birds. Our driver started honking, prompting me to look for a recycling bin for my salad bowl: no luck. I went inside to look for one, as the honking grew more insistent.  The kids grew anxious.  Just leave it, mom.  Just this once.  I carried the bowl back to the bus.
The motor coach continued south, the landscape flattening out into farmland, dotted now and then with a decrepit barn. Periodically, clusters of houses appeared in the middle of fields.  Linked largely by color scheme, lacking the shade of trees and the generosity of sidewalks, they huddled together, exposed and vulnerable. One in particular stood out.  Larger than the others, and set alone on top of a rolling hill, it commanded a view of the freeway and the surrounding land.  Someone was building a wrap-around deck on the second story and had skirted it with plywood, cut to resemble castle battlements and painted in a grey fieldstone pattern.  The effect was oddly congruent with the location of the house, and full of irony, for what protection could there be from such a huge, unbuffered sky?  Or from cars and buses streaming by the thousands across your backyard? Why not plywood?  Why not imaginary fieldstone?

Southern Pacific Depot in Eugene, Ore.
Amtrak train in the Pacific Northwest.
Original photo courtesy Amtrak.

By mid-afternoon, we arrived in Eugene.  The motor coach disgorged us onto a slab of broken pavement between a rusty singlewide trailer and an old train station, and as more buses arrived, the graveled space between the two buildings quickly filled with people.

The old station was inaccessible, surrounded with a cyclone fence. Next to it, in front of the trailer, was a ramp, and a weathered plywood sign with the Amtrak logo on it. A few people went inside; the rest wandered toward the tracks, dragging their luggage. The air was still and hot, and after the last bus departed, quiet.  For a while people continued to stand, looking up and down the tracks.  When no train appeared, they began piling bags into pyramids, improvising seats and settling in for a longer wait.

The afternoon passed. We were traveling light, and didn’t have any bags to sit on, so we drifted through the crowd, making our way slowly toward the old station, with its graceful roof and elegant windows. It was a lovely building, even in a state of disrepair.  We walked around it, following the odd angles of the cyclone fencing.  Some of the windows were broken, and debris was scattered along the edges of the fence. On its far side, facing the tracks, a sign announced its pending renovation and directed us to the trailer if we needed assistance.  I studied the sign with a growing sense of irritation: like the King Street Station, someone clearly felt this building was worth renovating.  But why was it allowed to fall apart in the first place?  When was our wealth so unlimited that, having expended the resources—human and otherwise—to build it, we could afford such neglect?  What accounts for such myopia?


The Southern Pacific Depot in Eugene, Ore.
Original photo courtesy Waymarking.com.


The Eugene train station is a survivor.   Of the more than 80,000 single-sided shedless train stations built in the United States between 1890 and 1914, it is one of less than 12,000 still standing today.  Completed in 1908, at the height of the era of big railroad in North America, the Eugene station was at one time a very busy place, functioning as a hub for communication, commerce, and transportation throughout the Willamette Valley.  In ecological terms, it might be considered an “edge marker,” denoting a place where species co-exist in proximity to a rich resource base.  Similar to a watering-hole or a intermediate zone between a forest and meadow, the Eugene train station marked the place where members of two competing human sectors—agrarian and industrial—came into contact, while pursuing goals that were at times complementary and at times in conflict.

The train mediated this contact. The technology of its era, the train was frequently considered a panacea for complex human problems exacerbated by industrialization, a magic silver bullet that would ensure prosperity for the collective human community as we moved off farms and into cities. The history of its emergence matches that of all technological developments: it began with an idea, kindled in the imagination of a few—who may or may not have had utopian, democratic, fascist, or other leanings—grew to interest groups negotiating behind closed doors, was formalized in policy, then swelled by word of mouth to a pitch of excitement that, through the actions of hundreds and thousands of people who came to believe in the idea, led to the creation of the infrastructure that supported and maintained it.

Who thinks ahead when such a process gets underway? And how far ahead do they think?  People fought for the right to have trains run through their settlements.  Lives were lost.  Immigrants and emancipated slaves were played off each other—in varying combinations—in order to ensure the completion of the rail lines.  Once in place, the rails, stations, and telegraphs—presented as a shared resource—accelerated a process that has continued for more than a century:  depleting local communities in service to distant ones. And this depletion did not stop with trees, minerals, and crops, but drained people away as well, leaving behind hollow towns.

Technological shifts end the way they begin:  a few depart, quietly, to make their fortunes elsewhere, then gradually, the trickle becomes a river, until it is obvious to everyone that the technology—whatever it is—has passed its peak. The gold rush ends.  The speculators move on.  And after the froth settles, what’s left are the artifacts: the crumbling, patched-over façade of a marble concourse, or the broken visage of a small shedless rail station, built in a simple Queen Anne style.   Unobserved and unmourned, the buildings decay.

I looked at the train station again: it was a pleasant, humble building and I enjoyed imagining what it might be like to explore it in a renewed state. But why are we restoring it? To provide an outlet for unwarranted nostalgia? Or to find a new, higher use? Are we preparing to enshrine the past, or are we reaching for something different?

Amtrak train in small town.
Amtrak rolls through a small town.
Original photo by Andy Tucker, courtesy National Corridors Initiative, Inc.

After hours in the sun, we longed for shade. Weaving through the crowd, between strollers, blankets, and luggage, we made our way along the rails, until we reached a lone tree at the far end of the trailer. From beneath its canopy, we had an open view across a field adjacent to the tracks. Sitting in the shade, I studied the field, taking in its tan and rust-colored grasses.   Their rounded hummocks were a welcome change from the shimmering heat of the asphalt; even on such a windless day they were continually in motion, the grass heads and wildflowers bobbing as insects moved among the stalks and petals.

I looked back along the platform, at people sitting on suitcases and leaning against the trailer. The train station had no security barriers, metal detectors, or Department of Homeland Security personnel.   What sort of policymaking was this? Were we part of some sort of freedom-fries, don’t-act-until-you-have-to, decision-making matrix? Having chosen this mode of travel, it seemed we were free to come and go, free to worry (or not) about the implications of patronizing a vulnerable, decaying transportation system. We were a decidedly mixed group: pierced young people with battered duffle bags, women traveling with children, a smattering of older folks, some twenty-something guys with goatees and a cart full of musical instruments. And we appeared to be relatively unobserved.  At one time, a train station like the one in Eugene might have had half a dozen employees, each visibly engaged with travelers.  But not today: most likely there was an employee or two inside the trailer, sitting at a computer screen. For them, whatever was happening outside was not relevant: their work was on the screen. We were just some people, waiting for a train.

In the field, the grasses and wildflowers oscillated with life. In the late afternoon sunlight, it was a study in patience.  Plants, growing.  But one person’s field is another’s vacant lot, and once the station is completed, other changes will come. What will they look like? Will they be thoughtful responses to our latest technological transition, as computers relentlessly replace us? Will they be designed to mend the disconnection we’ve suffered since the industrial revolution? Or will they further reinforce the mass insanity of the 20th century, the fiction that food comes from grocery stores, that there is such a thing as “better living through chemistry,” that community exists within the bowels of a computer?  For more than a hundred years, we’ve lived in an economic hall of smoke and mirrors; perhaps it’s fitting that our buildings force long-evaded questions about our way of life.  At this historical moment, what is the purpose of a train station?  Is it a museum? A stop on an amusement park ride?  Or a community asset, defined by local needs?  As we act our way into the answers to such questions, we might remember this: the Eugene station is a bellwether.  Its fate is our fate.

The grasses continued their subtle motion, and we continued to wait. In the shade, I imagined the early settlers of Eugene, waiting along these same tracks, for news, or relatives, or goods from the outside world.  I pictured them gathering to listen, patiently, to big talk from politicians on whistle-stop tours, their words dispensed from the platform of a caboose. Ultimately, the political trains stopped coming.  Did the activities they encouraged benefit the local economy or its residents, consistently or sustainably? Were they ever intended to?   How can we tell?  And does knowing matter?

Steam train.

A steam train like this one may have been greeted by cheers in Eugene a century ago.
Original photo courtesy Historical Quest.


When the train arrived, the crowd applauded.  As it rolled into the station, I tried to turn the clock back, to imagine a cheering crowd lining these tracks a century ago, greeting the first engine, its black carapace decorated with colored bunting. I could fix the image but not the feeling, and I wondered: Was there ever a time when we actually believed the myth of technological cure-all, or were we always pretending? I don’t think we believe it now, no matter how much it’s trumpeted as gospel: technology cannot save us from ourselves.  The world is heating up, and there is nowhere we can run.  As happened with the train, our belief in the transcendent nature of the car, and the computer, will fade, and when it does, we will be left with the things themselves.

Can we see them in their plainness?  Can we find a way to value them that respects their limits, and the limits of nature?  Nature’s limits are our limits: we are not cars, or trains, or computers. Our history is littered with discarded technologies, things we gave our benediction to and freighted with our dreams, then cast aside: hot air balloons, wind-powered sailing ships, the radio.   We have such hopes; we are so easily disappointed.  What does it say about us, this tendency to throw away the things we have created? Is there no alternative to forward motion, no potential in the creations of the past?

Standing on the platform, the train beside us, I was overwhelmed with its mass and gravity.  It’s said that in the early days of rail, the engineers locked their engines in the shed at night. Perhaps they feared that the great beasts, their hearts of iron ore, would run loose and fail to do our bidding.   If only they had: we might have learned to think more carefully about the tools we unleash upon ourselves.   But the day is coming when we will have to find a better way to live, and when it does, we may find that trains, and their stations, have not outlived their usefulness after all.  They may hold more than memories.

The line grew short:  we were the last to step onto the aluminum stairs and climb aboard.  Within minutes, the train pulled away from the station.  We settled into our seats and looked out at farmland stretching to the horizon.  The train gained speed.  The tidy rows of plants began to blur, and as we passed a group of farmhands working in an irrigation ditch, they stopped and waved.   Though I doubted they could see us, we waved in return.  Funny, I thought: no one ever does that to a bus.  Someday, we might consider a detail like that important when designing a transportation system.  And that, I think, would be progress.


Deirdre Duffy is a sustainable development consultant practicing in the Cascadia Bioregion (Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia).

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