Concerning the Old Woman and the Wobbly

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Wednesday, September 1, 2010

I am having lunch with John Willis Fuller at a greasy spoon in Alexandria, Va., when the conversation veers into railroad nicknames. He starts with one out of West Virginia that he knows a bit about: the defunct Fairmont, Morgantown & Pittsburgh, known as The Sheepskin Route, and mentions the Tavares & Gulf in his native central Florida, called the Tug & Grunt. That gets a grunt from me, and afterward, I begin exploring the subject.

Most nicknames, I conclude, are pointless. They may be cute, but do they really associate themselves with the property? The truly memorable ones you link to short lines in the South that meandered through the grass and trees until nature took its course. Think of the forlorn Georgia & Florida (God Forgot) and from my neck of East Texas, the woeful Paris & Mt. Pleasant (Pa & Ma, not to be confused with the Maryland & Pennsylvania, the Ma & Pa). Chicago Great Western, the granger road swallowed by Chicago & North Western in one gulp circa 1972 and never heard of again, was the Great Weedy. See? These monikers stick.

So many nicknames really don’t capture the essence of the railroad. Examples: Reading (Dreading), Atlantic Coast Line (Another Crushed Load), Amtrak (AmCrash or AmTrash) and Baltimore & Ohio (Backward & Obsolete). One website has 11 nicknames for Norfolk Southern, but all are mean-spirited and none reflects the railroad’s essence. Maybe that’s why nicknames about southern short lines work so well: The railroads are (mostly were) downtrodden and going out of business slowly, so humorous references to slow speeds and haphazard service bring a knowing smile to your face. With that as prologue, here is my take on the 10 best, starting at 10 and working to numero uno. Let me know yours. But remember, there has to be a kernel of truth that the nickname wraps itself around, or it’s just a play on words. No fair citing railroads nobody never heard of. And there should be an element of humor. Here we go.

10. Union Pacific. Uncle Pete (and its alter ego, Unlimited Parking)

9. Burlington Northern Santa Fe. Big New Santa Fe

8. Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac. Rich Folks & Preachers

7. Erie Lackawanna. Erie Lack-o-Money

6. Mt. Tamalpais & Muir Woods. Crookedest Railroad in the World

5. Western Pacific. Wobbly

4. Delaware, Lackawanna & Western. Desperately Lacking Wampum

3. Penn Central. Parked Cars

2. New York, Ontario & Western. Old Woman

1. Washington & Old Dominion. Virginia Creeper

To these, I add a few others I came across in Archie Robertson’s classic homage to backward railroads, Slow Train to Yesterday: Leavenworth, Kansas & Western (Leave Kansas & Walk), Fort Smith & Western (Footsore & Weary), Carolina & Northwestern (Can’t & Never Will), and Houston East & West Texas (Hell Either Way You Take It). Folks, are we having fun? — Fred W. Frailey

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