Archie Robertson's long-ago world

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Sunday, September 19, 2010

Before Lucius Beebe wrote Mixed Train Daily, years before David P. Morgan came to Trains magazine, and a generation before Don Phillips became the Potomac Pundit, there was Archie Robertson. Say who? Raised in Louisville, Ky., Robertson was a newspaper reporter, magazine writer, public relations man, and U.S. government employee. And all through his busy life, his travels took him to remote locales aboard obscure little railroads. In 1945, he chronicled all this in an enchanting 188-page hardcover book, Slow Train to Yesterday: A Last Glance At The Local.
Those of you who find Beebe’s prose a bit too florid or pontifical will discover that Robertson’s writing goes down very well indeed. He’s like a favorite uncle who comes to visit, always bringing new stories to tell, and he tells them in a tone of amusement and affection toward the subjects. In this case, it is the out-of-the-way short lines of that era.
It’s hard to give you the flavor of Slow Train to Yesterday without quoting great chunks of it. Let me just introduce Chapter 2, titled “Root, Hog, or Die”:
“Esmont, Virginia, about thirty miles south of Charlottesville in Thomas Jefferson’s country of Albemarle, is a backwoods village without a celebrity’s birthplace or a gas pump; there are three stores, the largest claiming in golf-leaf letters Everything for Everybody, a post office, a dozen pleasant, plain houses under great trees which border the tracks, and a large brick building called The Bank.
“‘At least, it used to be a bank,’ said H.C. Drumheller, as he oiled up the waiting mixed train of the Nelson & Ablemarle. ‘Mr. Roosevelt give it a holiday back in 1933 and it ain’t opened up since.’
“The N&A’s engine blew a short blast and we climbed in the wooden combination passenger-and-express car, bearing the legend Chesapeake & Ohio. This part of the tracks, the conductor explained, really belonged to the C&O; in return for operating a daily train, the big railroad allows the little one the free use of a car.
“’You can ride on the back if you want to.’ Mr. Drumheller kicked upon the rear doors. ‘You won’t fall off, will you?’ He collected thirty-four cents for the round trip to Warren, the end of the line, and disappeared into the baggage-room while J.P. Critzer, the brakeman, continued the discussion of the N&A.
“It had suffered its greatest emotional crisis some 10 years before the war, during the filming of In Old Virginia, starring Madeleine Carroll. The script called for Madeleine, a sweet Virginia girl, to dismount at a rural station, and the producers, when they heard about the N&A, rightly decided there was no station more rural than Esmont. They built shooting stages by the tracks and, the brakeman recalled, ‘sprayed the depot all over to make it photograph good.’ But at the last minute it was found that Esmont was too shady. The platform lumber was given to the natives and the N&A’s train moved out to the main line of the Chesapeake & Ohio, with a C&O crew aboard.
“’Didn’t none of us here go to see the picture,’ said Mr. Critzer, spitting negligently out the window.”
This little snippet gives you the flavor of the entire book. There’s a long, loving look at Tweetsie, the narrow guage East Tennessee & Western North Carolina that so enchanted Beebe, too, and a beautiful portrait of the Washington & Old Dominion in Virginia. There’s even a chapter on the vanishing (at the time) commuter train in more urban areas.
Slow Train to Yesterday is a desert island book if there ever was one. It’s compact, about the size of a trade paperback. I take it with me on trips, open it wherever my finger divides the pages, and begin reading. Whatever mood I was in, my face will break out in a grin.
When published, the book sold for $3. I don’t remember where or when I came upon it in a used book store, just that I picked it up, couldn’t put it down, and forked over $7, according to the notation on the inside cover. What a steal. shows 10 copies available at prices between $4 and $19.80. has 18 for sale, at prices between $6 and $45. has several dozen, too, although some of these three listings may overlap. In any event, I recommend you buy your copy now, before the crowd shows up. You’ll thank me for the tip. — Fred W. Frailey

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