Talkin’ about Trains

The High 48s Bluegrass Band

48s_GNR_Cover_MediumBack on the May 26th show I rediscovered the 2014 album of train songs, called Great Northern Railroad, from a band called The High 48s, a slim cardboard volume hiding amidst the plastic jewel boxes on the cart I bring in to the studio (if you go to the posts on Jon Chase slide show, or the Cosmo Cavicchio video, you’ll see the cart). I played their song about the ‘Baltimore and Ohio’ (Railroad), a lovely number written by Becky Schlegel. I have fond recollections of going with my parents and brothers to the B&O Station in Silver Spring, Maryland in the early evening, to watch the Capitol Limited (to Chicago) and the National Limited (to Cincinnati) come through about half an hour apart. I’m not sure which came first, but it left explosive caps, called ‘torpedos’ on the track, which banged when the following train hit them, a warning I guess. Afterwards we would go across the street to the Giffords Ice Cream store for desert.

I wondered idly where the name ‘High 48s’ came from. Was it a reference to latitude (turns out the band is from Minneapolis, close at 45º)? The query disappeared from my mind in the press of the next record, and the one after that, but when I got home, there was the answer: listener Ed McMann in Sausolito, California, had looked up the band’s website, and there it was:

The band takes its name from railroad slang for the boxcars originally used to transport troops on the front lines in WWI that could carry 40 soldiers or 8 horses, and were later used in the US on fast-moving “hot shot” freight trains by train-hoppers looking for work during the Great Depression.

Wikipedia has more detail:


Men of the British Expeditionary Force being transported from Cherbourg to their assembly area in a railway goods wagon, 29 September 1939. (Photo by Lt. G Keating, British War Office, P.D., via Wikipedia)

Forty-and-eights (French: Quarante et huit, typically written 40/8 or 40&8) were French 4-wheel covered goods wagons designed to hold 40 men or eight horses. Introduced in the 1870s, they were drafted into military service by the French Army in both World Wars. They were also used by the occupying Germans during in World War II, followed by the Allies.

There’s more, the Merci Train!

In 1949, France sent 49 Forty-and-eights to the United States laden with donations from citizens of France in thanks for the U.S.’ role in the liberation of France, one for each of the then forty-eight states and one for Washington, D.C., and Hawaii to share. Called the Merci Train, it was sent in response to the Friendship Train America had created two years earlier to aid France in the dire immediate aftermath of World War II. Over 700 boxcars worth [sic—with?] the donated supplies were collected across the U.S. and shipped across the Atlantic via donated transport.

As it turns out, some 43 of the 49 Merci Train boxcars are still in existence, maintained as historical exhibits in their respective states (no, not here; the Massachusetts one was apparently destroyed). And the mystique of the Quarante et huit led after the First World War to the creation of a veteran’s honor society, called The Forty and Eight (or 40 & 8). Says Wikipedia, the boxcars

were seen by the troops as a miserable way to travel, and the new organization was thus called the 40 & 8 in an attempt to make some light of the common misery they had all shared.

The 40 & 8 still exists, mainly as a charitable organization, and is organized into local units called Voitures (boxcars).

As for ‘High 48’, the band’s website is the only source I’ve seen for that term: “railroad slang for the box cars on Hot Shot freight trains.” ‘Highball’ is the term for a clear track ahead, and latterly a fast train, and we now know the ‘48s’ are boxcars, so maybe it’s strictly railroad lingo; it doesn’t seem to turn up in lists of hobo slang that I’ve found.

I really like The High 48s’s Great Northern Railroad album. But they have others, not just about trains. I contacted them and fiddler Eric Christopher tells me they have a new album out, Daddy was a Bankrobber. I’m looking forward to hearing it.

‘Riding the Blind’

DavidDavisWRB_Ramble_COVER_RGB-768x768Last week I did a ‘Tear and Compare’ between Charlie Poole’s original ‘Milwaukee Blues’, and the same song on David Davis’s terrific new Rounder album, Didn’t He Ramble: Songs of Charlie Poole. The first verse goes like this,

One Tuesday morning and it looked like rain
Around the curve come a passenger train
On the blind sat old Bill Jones
A good old hobo and he’s trying to get home
Trying to get home, he’s trying to get home
He’s a good old hobo and he’s trying to get home

Whereupon long-time listener Jim Walsh called up to ask, “What’s the ‘blind’?” I had to admit, I didn’t know. I knew what the ‘rods’ were, as in

Old Bill Jones said before he died,
“Fix the roads so the ‘bos can ride
When they ride they will ride the rods
Put all their trust in the hands of God
In the hands of God, in the hands of God
They’ll put all their trust in the hands of God”

They were steel rods under the freight cars, to add structural support for heavy loads. Here’s a picture:


Two hobos ride the rods on the underside of boxcar. (1894, PD, via Wikipedia)

A little research tells me the ‘blind’ was hobo slang for the doorway to the baggage car right behind the locomotive tender. The door would be locked, but either the frame or the portion of the canvas vestibule (if there was one) would afford protection for the train-hopping hobo. The ‘blinds’ could also refer to the vestibules of passenger trains, though there of course you’d risk discovery by the conductor. See here and here, among other places.

[Edit: See Steve Bartlett’s comment on the ‘blind’ end of a car, below, for a more accurate explanation than mine./ CL]

In this photo you can see the vestibule, which would have been the ‘blind’, on an HO model baggage car:

Here’s Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers:

Scroll down to the Joe Val preview post for David Davis playing ‘The Milwaukee Blues’ at a festival.

What’s fun about doing HAH is that it’s never old hat: I learn something every day! /CL


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6 Responses to Talkin’ about Trains

  1. Stephen Bartlett says:

    Hi, Lynn,

    “Blind” or “blinds” refers to the “blind end of a passenger service car, i.e., one with no vestibule, and mostly without a window in the end door. Vestibule ends are by the definition, not blind ends.
    The canvas thingies are “diaphragms.”

    Carl Kantola, a mechanical engineer I worked with on the New York Central, told of hobos riding either the blind end of a front car or the rear of the tender in freezing weather, being drenched when the engine took water at a track pan, then freezing solid in place. They could not get off at speed.

    Also, occasionally a ‘bo might fall off over a track pan and land lengthwise in the pan. At that point his body might be scooped into the tender cistern of the next train taking water.

    Steve Bartlett

    • Ah, so the term comes from the ‘blind end’ of a car, not from the limited ability of the ‘blind’ to hide the traveler. I should have thought of that. The sites I looked at seemed to think it was the latter; your etymology makes more sense. Thanks for clarifying.

      I have seen those ‘canvas thingies’ called ‘bellows’, too. They actually connect the car vestibules, but are sloppily (as in my post) confused with the vestibules themselves.

      Some readers may not know that track pans were laid along the crossties between the tracks, allowing the locomotive tender to scoop up water on the fly, without having to stop at a water tank. The New York Central used them (obviously level track on ‘the Water Level Route’ helped). I haven’t heard of any other roads using them.

      Those NYC ‘bo stories are pretty horrific, sad to say; train-hopping was (and remains) inherently dangerous. /CL

  2. Stephen Bartlett says:


    This link takes you to track pan info if you are interested:

    It says the New Haven had pans — a friend who should know saidthey did not. If it matters, I can ask people who would know for sure.

    It also mentions the B&O had a pan (or pans).

    They were useful but labor intensive, including heating in cold weather to prevent freezing.

    Carl Kantola, by the way, held many locomotive appliance patents. One was for an improved scoop and tender venting design to reduce blowing water all over, including through the plate glass windows of adjacent trains, less loss, and higher speed scooping. Carl also held the patent papers for the shroud design on the Central’s Commodore Vanderbilt locomotive, reproduced by the thousands by the Louis Marx Co.

    The Central took full advantage of their pans – with several of their locomotive tender designs having extremely long coal bunkers and space for very little water, as water could be frequently replenished at the many pans.
    Now, back to Hillbilly Music??

    Steve Bartlett

  3. Caroline Darst says:

    I learn something every week from HAH. . .Kitty

  4. Caroline Darst says:

    All the recent RFK death coverage reminds me of the following reminiscence of my husband. We were watching Brinkley – a train “nut” – describe the GG1’s pulling the funeral train as “diesels”, which they obviously were not. Guy finally wrote a full-page single-spaced note to his United Press International bosses in New York City talking about the GG1’s on the funeral train, the years they probably were built, the tractive force per wheel, etc and etc and etc. I’m afraid I sympathized with the bosses, who wrote back saying words to the effect that “Our train expert says. . .” BUT Brinkley did correct his coverage. . .

  5. Thanks, Kitty— For those who might not know, her husband was my good friend Guy Darst. I can just imagine that indignant full-page note! Guy was an ardent railfan, an ink-stained wretch, and a terrific writer. And for those too young to remember, the Pennsylvania Railroad GG1s were the most famous electric locomotives ever made in the United States, and ruled the Washington-New York corridor for many decades. Nobody who saw them ever forgot the experience. Their distinctive, streamlined look was attributed to industrial designer Raymond Loewy, though he mainly took off the rivets from the prototype and added the famous PRR pinstripes. The designer was really Donald Roscoe Dohner, a correction Guy would have enthusiastically approved. Here’s one pulling the Congressional in 1965:

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