Bill Todd -- An Uneasy Utopia
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 Chapter 24

A New Eastern Circle

The C&O of Indiana, with connections to Huntington, came into Cincinnati from the west. This was a quasi-independent extension of the original C&O, which came from Virginia and entered the city by crossing the Ohio River from Kentucky. The obvious thing was to connect the two and run the new eastern circle right through Cincinnati. It was with that in mind that we took a taxi to a hilltop park from which my binoculars could be used to good effect.

The park, while pretty, had so many trees that it was difficult to find a place from which we could see the whole sweep of the railways from the Ohio River up the Mill Creek Valley to the north. Finally, we found a little rock outcrop from which we could see the whole valley. There were tracks everywhere, and the smoke of many engines, some moving in and out of the city, and others switching.

According to my maps, the C&O of Indiana emerged out of the hills that lined the west side of the valley. We eventually found the cut, even without the binoculars. It entered on a long curving trestle, crossed a set of B&O tracks on one bridge, and the Mill Creek on another. The C&O of Indiana tracks then descended on yet another curved trestle into the middle of a large yard and became indistinguishable from other trackage. John Henry commented,

"That's not good. It looks as if the Indiana line gets tangled with a lot of other lines before it connects with the rest of the C&O."

I explained to Sidonie,

"The crossings are at grade level. Our trains would have to take turns at the crossing points with the trains of other railways. With our sort of schedule, that's out of the question."

The situation was somewhat confused by the fact that the new Union Terminal, a massive undertaking, was about half complete. I already knew that the C&O had just completed a new Ohio River bridge and a long viaduct to take its passenger trains direct to the new station. We could trace clearly the viaduct as it left the river and curved over the crowded streets and other railways, finally descending to grade level at the middle of the new station concourse.

Since the concourse ran perpendicular to, and above, the dozen or more tracks, passengers would be able to walk along it, and then descend to the platform of their choice.

It was a pity that the C&O freight tracks, by contrast, came down off the viaduct before it reached the new station. There, they, like the tracks from Indiana, became lost in a welter of yards.

Indeed, the yards between the Kentucky and Indiana lines of the C&O extended for more than a mile with every kind of switching and freight movement taking place within that space. It looked, at a glance, as if it might take a good hour to maneuver one of our A trains through that mess.

Sidonie had us point out all the lines for her, and I wondered if she were the sort of person who could will herself to be interested in something that she would otherwise have hardly noticed. Just as we were about to leave, she pointed to the western hills and exclaimed,

"There's a train now, on the Indiana line!"

There was indeed what must have been a C&O passenger train descending from the high ground on the other side of the valley. Quiet and tiny in the distance, it crossed over tracks on the other side of Mill Creek, and then over the creek itself. Then, having caught it in the binoculars, I watched as it moved swiftly along a steel viaduct over a dozen or more tracks from the north. When the train finally descended to the valley floor, it was aimed directly at the north side of the new concourse without having had to cross any other tracks at the same level. The engine did actually pass under the concourse and stop, which was a little puzzling in view of the fact that the new station was not yet open.

Moving away from the park, I felt like a honeymooner of a peculiar sort. Sidonie, well rested after her night alone, nevertheless had a dreamy and approachable look. Indeed, whenever I gave her a little touch, she smiled and drew near. On the other hand, I knew that I wasn't ready to deal with her alone.

We hadn't gone far before coming to one of Cincinnati's ubiquitous trolley lines. This one ended in a little circle at the edge of the park, and we waited on a bench overlooking the Ohio River.

The sounds coming up from the city were only muffled, and the sounds of the birds and insects were not insistent enough to break in on our fantasies as we sat, all in a row with Sidonie in the middle. Dressed in a simple skirt and blouse with rather worn flat shoes, I gathered that she was trying on the idea of everyday commonplace marriage. Perhaps she was also letting me know that I shouldn't expect her to be glamorous and elegant all of the time.

After a twisting, and sometimes dramatic, trolley ride down the steep hillsides, we alighted in the rather quaint old Cincinnati downtown. Passing a fountain with a figure that sprinkled water from its fingers, we walked carefully around a number of citizens conversing on the street corners, leaning against trolley poles, and sprawling on benches. One, evidently invigorated by the fresh spring air, called out to another,

"Hey, Sam, wanna go see the Reds today?"

He wasn't a young man, but the look of pure joy on his face made him look almost like a boy.

The men who wore suits and ties did seem to have a more definite sense of direction and purpose, but even they were content to chat in a leisurely way with the newstand vendors as they bought their papers. Sidonie said that the atmosphere reminded her of Haiti, adding,

"Nothing ever gets done there either."

I replied,

"I think I like it. It's pleasant and probably quite civilized."

It quickly appeared that both my young compatriots found Cincinnati stodgy. John Henry observed,

"Sid likes lights and action. You'll have to take her to Huntington."

That, of course, was a joke, partly on himself. I nevertheless took the point and replied,

"I'll certainly try to be less civilized and more active."

With that, I put my arm around Sidonie's waist, an act which caused a number of the white bystanders to look up. They may have disapproved, and even been shocked, but, more than anything, they simply looked surprised.

The second trolley we boarded went down close to the river, and, indeed, seemed about to go into it. There had been talk of a flood, a rather moderate one by Cincinnati standards. Still, the river was rising slowly, and, in one place, it had slopped on to the street, virtually level with the track. Off to the left, where there were a series of junk yards a little below street level, we could see the current running strongly around and over the many obstacles. Even as we watched, an empty steel drum being whisked along collided with a pole, bounced off, and then whacked against a wrecked car, breaking a headlight as it passed.

I asked a woman in a nearby seat if this sort of thing was normal for Cincinnati. She replied,

"It's a little late in the year for floods, but we have lots of them. There are many people who have to move out of their homes every year and then pump out their basements when they come back."

Sidonie asked her,

"Doesn't the water ruin their homes?"

"Well, they just have to move everything out of the first floor, and then scrub down the walls and floor afterwards. For some women, it's just a part of spring cleaning."

A little further on, men were moving frantically to retreive goods of all kinds from the lower floors of the warehouses and shops. They didn't yet seem threatened, but I realized that, when they were, it would be too late.

When we got off the trolley, we walked quickly up a street to the right, gaining, perhaps, a foot in elevation. While Sidonie and John Henry seemed to think this a satisfactory margin of safety, I wasn't so sure. At any rate, an element of intensity was added to our ongoing inspection of the C&O.

We had come out, largely by accident, at the point where the old C&O main line from the Ohio River bridge diverged and came down from the new line over the viaduct. It then had a head-on junction, not with the C&O of Indiana, but with the Big Four Railway, a part of the New York Central. There were also, at ground level, a number of spurs, owned by the C&O, which led all over the riverfront area. Some of these were probably already under water, and, judging by the activity, it looked as if they were all expected to be.

Most unfortunate, this line, some twenty feet above us but descending to ground level a quarter mile away, was still the C&O's main freight line between Cincinnati, West Virginia, and the Atlantic Coast. Apart from having to share trackage with the Big Four, the line might be entirely closed as much as a month out of each year due to the sort of flooding that was now only too visible.

While we stood there, a freight engine came pounding up the steep grade to the Ohio River bridge. To the experienced ear, the engine was very slowly losing momentum. However, while John Henry and I stood watching to see whether it would make the summit at the middle of the bridge, Sidonie looked upward with an unusual expression.

I was sure that she had never been taken locomotive watching before. Most likely, she had never been so close to such a big engine working so hard. There were not only the percussive sounds of the blast pipe shooting great volumes of smoke and steam up the funnel to blot out the sun, but also the sounds and the sight of giant clockwork, in the shape of the rods and eccentric crank. That combination of violence with perfectly smooth and continuous circular motion is something that no one, no matter how hostile to machinery, can ignore. I was sure that it was having its effect, even on Sidonie, but I already knew her too well to expect enthusiasm. In the event, she grabbed John Henry and myself, each by an arm, and shouted above the noise of the engine,

"Do you two like the sexual symbolism of the pistons, or is it the whirling motions that excite you?"

I was aware of Freud and his phallic symbolism, which was already famous, but felt that I didn't really want a penis actuated by high pressure steam which I could drive into a woman with great force. I replied,

"It's a matter of power and motion operating under strict control. If that engine rose or swayed a few inches at the wrong time, it'd be down on top of us."

Sidonie gave a rude reply. She then turned to John Henry to ask,

"What about you?"

"When I see a steam locomotive, I often think of horses and mules in Mississippi. Can you imagine the team it would take to drag that train up the grade? It'd have to extend half-way across the state of Kentucky."

The engine was now just past us, and the drivers slipped momentarily on the rails with an effect that shook the viaduct, and even the ground under our feet. Sidonie said nothing, but she seemed to watch the engine out of sight with increased respect.

The train that clanked along after the engine looked as if it were an assemblage of all the rolling stock that happened to be left at ground level. There were occasional cabooses spotted between box cars, and even some old passenger cars used by maintenance-of-way crews. The point wasn't to get anywhere, but just to get up out of the way of the water. Finally, when the last car came up, I thought it was time for us to get out of the way of the water ourselves.

Since we were in the flat area where the Mill Creek Valley joins the Ohio valley, one had to choose one's direction carefully, and then walk briskly in order to gain any elevation at all. Walking on the track of the C&O freight line as it led us west and north, past the point where it became the Big Four, we found ourselves in a curving cut some ten feet deep. I happened to know that the Big Four had entered Cincinnati from the west by purchasing an old canal, draining it, and laying its tracks on what had been the flat bottom of the canal. Since there was water flowing gently along the ditches on both sides of us, it looked as if the old canal was about to be filled again.

Neither of my companions were terribly happy about proceeding further in the same direction, particularly after I explained about the canal. Sidonie said with some alarm,

"If it's a canal, it'll keep going for miles at the same level and fill up with a rush!"

That was, of course, true. But, just when we were about to turn back, we saw an iron ladder against the canal wall. We jumped over the little stream on the right side of the tracks to stand next to it, where we waited for Sidonie to go up first. She protested,

"Whoever follows me is going to see a lot."

John Henry smiled and climbed quickly up. I hesitated, as did Sidonie. After a couple of seconds, she started up with the words,

"I'd rather be exposed than drowned."

I watched closely as I climbed. Sidonie's legs were long, slim, and smooth. Judging by the speed with which she went up, she actually was embarrassed.

At the top, there were more tracks, belonging to the B&O, and we had to wait to cross until a switcher had passed with a dozen cars, probably also trying to get them away from the flood. Sidonie shouted to me over the noise,

"This is a little like being in a jungle with wild animals roaring and snarling at you."

Her description of the railway yards in Cincinnati, as crowded and chaotic as any anywhere in the world, was, I thought, fair enough.

Just then, I noticed smoke above the new viaduct. A few seconds later, a locomotive pulling a passenger train rolled along it, perfectly safe above the water and free from all the chaos of the ground level trackage. The cars were picked out in the blue and yellow livery of the C&O, and I wondered if the new station, unfinished as it was, would be used in view of the flood which might already have covered the tracks of the old Central Union Depot downtown. It was exactly then that inspiration struck me. I said to John Henry,

"We can run our through freights right over this viaduct and then out to Indiana without crossing the line of a single other railway."

"You mean, run them right through the passenger station?"

"Sure. There's nothing to keep us from doing that. Each railway will have its own separate station tracks, and we'll keep people away, except when we're running passenger trains."

Of course, the commotion, smoke, and noise of a series of our A trains blasting through would bother passengers waiting for trains on other platforms. That was unfortunate, but hardly worth bothering about. After all, no one would be killed.

Sidonie might not have fully realized the significance of my discovery. But John Henry did. It meant that the eastern circle could go through Cincinnati.

Bill Todd -- An Uneasy Utopia
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