These fantrip buttons tell stories

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Thursday, March 14, 2019

Eight buttons . . . countless memories of trips aboard a host of special trains. Kevin P. Keefe
Southern 2-8-2 4501 takes a curve on an August 30, 1975, trip to Jellico, Tenn. John B. Corns
Ex-Reading 4-8-4 2101 heads the Chessie Steam Special on the old Pere Marquette, July 9, 1977. Kevin P. Keefe
One of Amtrak's French Turboliners stands at Niles, Mich., during a March 29, 1975, crew-familiarization trip. Mike Schafer
The collection stares down at me from a bulletin board in my little home office. I probably glance at it every day, a bunch of metal lapel buttons, stuck into the cork, representing more than 50 years of riding railfan excursions. Most are from steam trips, but not all. 

I’m sure there are lots of Classic Trains readers with their own collections of trip buttons, probably much better than mine. For whatever reason, I often missed the chance to get more. I probably forgot amid the excitement of climbing aboard the train, seeing old friends, and sticking my head out the vestibule door.

The “big one that got away” was October 29, 1966, when I rode the Railroad Club of Chicago’s trip to South Bend behind Dick Jensen’s Grand Trunk Western 4-6-2 No. 5629. I was 15 and it was my first steam trip. I distinctly remember going to the concession car and being amazed at all the stuff for sale. But instead of doing the smart thing — getting an “I Rode Behind 5629” button — I bought a handful of old train orders from a vendor. Dumb decision.

(An aside: I also could have bought a “Menk the Fink” button, a jab at Burlington boss Lou Menk and his decision that year to end CB&Q steam trips. Lots of people on board were wearing them.)

So mine is a small collection. But the buttons I do have trigger a lot of rich memories, including:

• Knoxville, Tenn., August 1975. Southern 2-8-2 No. 4501 was the big star of the ’75 convention, and on one of the days the spiffy green-and-gold Mikado hauled a round trip up the coal branch to Jellico. My buddy the photographer John B. Corns was with me, and together we had a ball catching cinders out the Dutch door and trying to cool off in the beastly summer heat. We spent some time hanging out with Trains Editor David P. Morgan and at one point got off the train for a photo runby. Decades later, I learned that our photo line included a certain 14-year-old named Jim Wrinn. 

• Michigan, July 1977. The big buzz that year was the Chessie Steam Special, a huge project that involved Ross Rowland’s Reading 4-8-4 No. 2101, of American Freedom Train fame. To celebrate the 150th anniversary of the B&O, Chessie System and Rowland cooked up a systemwide series of excursions that included several days in my home state of Michigan, on old Pere Marquette Railway rails. I rode every mile of those Michigan trips and was aboard on July 23 when the big 4-8-4 threw a connecting rod somewhere between Grand Rapids and Plymouth. Diesels were called in to finish the trip. I know some purists disagree, but I thought that steam train looked fantastic in Chessie yellow, vermillion, and blue. The Seventies personified. 

• Amtrak’s Michigan line, 1975: After having initial success in the Chicago–St. Louis corridor with the French-built Turboliners, Amtrak brought the sinewy, low-slung trainsets to Michigan with demonstration trips during which staff handed out buttons from the St. Louis launch the year before. I really enjoyed riding those trains — dozens of times — especially the huge picture windows and the smooth ride. I also loved the novelty of smelling jet exhaust hanging in the air, courtesy of the trains’ two 1,140 h.p. Turbomeca engines. Alas, the original Turboliners lasted only until 1981, officially retired because they were gas guzzlers, unofficially because they were too fragile for Upper Midwestern winters. 

• Washington, D.C., Labor Day weekend, 1979: The NRHS put on a big show that year. They called their convention “Capital Limited.” There was Southern steam and two Western Maryland two F7 diesels, but my favorite trip involved Amtrak’s GG1 4935, restored four months previously with funds raised by the Friends of the GG1 group to its Pennsylvania Railroad livery of Brunswick green with gold striping. The 4935’s showcase was an approximately 300-mile triangle trip that headed northwest to Harrisburg on the old Port Road freight line, then east to Philadelphia via Lancaster, and back to Washington after a stop at the Wilmington electric locomotive shop. The highlight for me was a photo runby at Lancaster, with hundreds of us standing on the platform as the 4935 whizzed by at a stately pace. I remember stepping back a bit to watch Dave Morgan and his wife Margaret salute the mighty G. 

So those are some of my favorites, memorialized in those buttons. I could have had so many more: Southern Pacific 4449, Frisco 1522, Nickel Plate 765, Union Pacific 844 and 3985, Reading 2102, Grand Trunk Western 6325 — too many to list, really. I should have spent less time buying hot dogs in the concession car and more time building the button collection. 

Meanwhile, I’m sure many of you have some gems. I’d love to hear about them in the Comments section below, or better yet, see them. If you have a photo of a trip button, post it on this week’s Mileposts link on the Classic Trains’ Facebook page.

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