Railroading, like the movies, has memorable quotes

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Tuesday, January 16, 2018

W. Graham Claytor, with Southern Railway excursion 2-8-0 No. 630. Jim Boyd photo
My weakness for old movies in general, and Turner Classic Movies in particular, has me often turning to the American Film Institute’s website to check its “100 Greatest Movie Quotes of All Time.”

You could start a lot of arguments over what should be on that list, or where a given quote should rank, but it’s always fun to look it over. Try to imagine our collective cultural lexicon without “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate,” or “Here’s looking at you, kid.” (For the uninitiated, the first is from Cool Hand Luke, the second Casablanca.)

The AFI’s No. 1 quote isn’t what I’d pick, but it certainly is well known: “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” If you didn’t know Clark Gable said that in Gone With the Wind, you haven’t seen enough movies.

My personal top pick, from my favorite movie Chinatown, doesn’t rank very high: No. 74. But it’s a handy line for those moments when you know you’re in over your head: “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”

A recent late-night re-acquaintance with Jaws (“You’re gonna need a bigger boat,” No. 35) got me to thinking, what are some great quotes from railroading?

Casey Jones.
So I came up with this list of my own favorites, which I’ve been tucking away in corners of my brain for more years than I care to count. I’ll admit they generally lack the style and punch of a great movie line. No professional screenwriters here. But some of them are memorable and pop up from time to time in conversation among like-minded railfans.

One ground rule I followed here: all of these quotes are utterances, meaning they were actually spoken or communicated in the moment (in two cases, via Morse code), rather than taken from a written source. If I’d gone with the latter, then David P. Morgan likely would have hijacked the whole list, with maybe a little bit of help from Lucius Beebe.

Here’s my list, in no particular order:

“I consider this among the most important acts of my life, second only to my signing of the Declaration of Independence — if even it is second to that.” — Charles Carrollton of Carrollton, Md., at the laying of the first stone of the Baltimore & Ohio, July 4, 1828

A. E. Perlman.
“. . . Our present steam power is relatively new, is designed for our kind of operation, and therefore there is little difference in operating costs. Indeed, as recently as the summer of 1948 we ran some tests of our ‘S’ engines against both 6,000-horsepower and 4,500-horsepower diesels and you couldn’t put this piece of paper between the comparative costs.” — Nickel Plate Road President Lynne L. White, to the New York Society of Security Analysts, January 23, 1953 (Not long after White’s speech, NKP began buying Geeps in quantity.)

“The moment this company forgets that its duty is to be at the head of the list of carrying companies of the United States and has ceased to have the ambition to become the first in the world, that moment do I wish to pass from its management, if not before.” — Pennsylvania Railroad President George B. Roberts, speaking to the annual meeting of the PRR, March 8, 1892

“You jump, Sim! I’ll stay!” — Casey Jones’ instruction to his fireman, Sim Webb, moments before his crash on the Illinois Central at Vaughan, Miss., April 30, 1900

“It’s a good thing to let another generation know what a steam locomotive is.” — Southern Railway Vice President-Law W. Graham Claytor Jr., during the August 1966 inaugural trips of SR 2-8-2 No. 4501

 “Done.” — Telegraph message from Promontory Summit, Utah, heralding the driving of the last spike in the transcontinental railroad, May 10, 1869

James J. Hill.
“Most men who have really lived have had, in some share, their great adventure. This railway is mine.” — Great Northern Chairman James J. Hill, upon his retirement in 1912

“Stand fast, Craigellachie!” — Canadian Pacific Railway President George Stephen, referring to his ancestral Scottish home in an 1884 telegraph from England to Montreal, after securing financing to finish the CPR

“Our birthright is the flanged wheel upon the steel rail, that wondrous formula for conversion of the least labor, fuel, and hardware into the most and swiftest ton miles. I ask you, what is at once so visually and economically satisfying as a 100-car freight train rolling along at 50 miles per hour?” — Trains Editor David P. Morgan, in an address at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, July 18, 1975

“You can’t swallow an elephant, but you can chop him up.” — Alfred E. Perlman, on running New York Central, in a June 1957 interview for Trains

So there you have it, my suggestions for 10 railroading quotes worth remembering. I’m sure I’ve missed some good ones, and you undoubtedly have favorites of your own. Let’s add to the list. I’d love to hear from you in Comments.



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