The Sound of the Train Whistle

Marty and I had a wonderful time in Michigan and enjoyed seeing family and friends—not to mention Steve and Robin’s wonderful cooking!   We are now back in New Hampshire, where this morning I was awakened at 5 a.m. by the sound of a distant train whistle.   Although we  live in the country, we are only about 10 miles from Brattleboro, Vermont, and when the wind is blowing our way, we can occasionally hear a whistle from the tracks that run along the Connecticut River to our west. My friends and neighbors who grew up with me in East Tawas, Michigan, will immediately appreciate that this is one of the most comforting sounds in the world to me.

There were railroad tracks in front of our house on East Bay Street, and The Detroit and Mackinac train, now defunct, rumbled by several times a day and night.   At its height, it carried passengers as well as freight, but the passenger service was a victim of the increase in automobile ownership and improvement of roads to the larger cities of Bay City, Saginaw, and Detroit to the south, and was discontinued when I was in grade school. As children, my friends and I used to put pennies on the track, which the next thundering train would dutifully flatten unrecognizable (but nothing more valuable than a penny—for a nickel, you could see a Saturday matinee, or buy very nice marbles at the five and dime).   On its daily runs north and south, the train shook the entire house— pictures on the living room wall had to be readjusted several times a week.  Every night at 11 p.m., the rumbling of freight cars, as the train headed north to its terminus in Alpena or Cheyboygan, would put me to sleep—I never quite dozed off until I heard that familiar sound. When I moved away to college, I missed this nightly drama, and it took me some time to learn how to drop off to sleep without it.

Later in his life, my dad developed a ritual with two of the three conductors who ran the trains in the evening.   My grandparents had a hurricane lamp (pictured) that Dad inherited and that now sits by the window in our fireplace room. I never turn on that lamp, which sat in my parents’ sunporch for years, without thinking of my dad.  As he saw the train was approaching in the evening before he went to bed, Dad would briefly “signal” the conductor by turning the lamp on and off a few times—and the conductor would toot the train horn in reply. At least, two of the three of them did—Dad groused that he could never get the third one to go along with the program. Where he got this idea I haven’t a clue—one of the wonderful things about my father was his constant ability to take up some new delight in life.

2016-02-15 16.05.14

My favorite author, Haruki Murakami, has written, “memories warm you up from the inside. But they also tear you apart.”  The second part of that quote isn’t really true here, but the first certainly is.  I think it likely that I will never make it back to East Tawas again, but this morning I was warmed by memories not only of my childhood there, but my dad’s final years. All from the sound of a train whistle.


10 thoughts on “The Sound of the Train Whistle

  1. What a beautiful memory! Your Dad must have been quite a guy to convince the conductors to blow the train whistle when that lamp was on! I live about 2 miles off Plank Road and know whenever I can hear the train whistle, rain is not far behind. LOVE to hear it! I’ll think of you now when I do! Sorry to hear you likely won’t make it back again. I do hope you’re wrong!


  2. It would be nice if you could come back to East Tawas for a visit, Nancy. I, too, listen for the train each night, sometimes hearing it as it comes back from Alpena (or wherever the destination).


  3. Last paragraph especially beautiful


    On Wed, Apr 27, 2016 at 6:23 PM, The Age of Wander wrote:

    > nreisig posted: “Marty and I had a wonderful time in Michigan and enjoyed > seeing family and friends—not to mention Steve and Robin’s wonderful > cooking! We are now back in New Hampshire, where this morning I was > awakened at 5 a.m. by the sound of a distant train whistle.” >


  4. Hello Nancy, living close to the tracks myself, not to mention the whole D & M complex, I hear ya! You know how details get a little fuzzy thinking about life in Tawas–I have a vague memory of where my aunt and uncle, Mildred and Louis Braddock, lived before they moved closer to the beach on Lake Huron–was that the same house you lived in, or was it just close by? As for your home, was the lamp kept in a front window? I feel like I remember that. . .Hope you are feeling well on this spring day in New Hampshire.



    • Laurie, I don’t remember where your aunt and uncle lived before moving, but maybe a bit in from Bay St. still, you could hear the train from there for sure. Yes, the lamp was in the front sunporch. I think it must have been there since we sold my grandfather’s house in 1980 or so.


  5. Nancy, I too have many beautiful memories of the Detroit and Mackinaw Railway. My father, Arnold Kuerbitz, was employed by the railroad before going to war. His parents and he lived on the corner of Second Avenue and Second Street in Tawas City about a half block from the tracks. He returned home from the war on the train and the engineer stopped the train near the house for him to get off and walk the half block to his home. I can just imagine the thrill his parents had when seeing him come home to them, his wife Betty and baby son (Frank). My father returned to work at D&M and eventually became the conductor. One of my greatest memories of growing up in that same house was hearing the train whistle and running to the corner (often with the neighborhood kids) or to the livingroom window to see him coming home on the train. We waved and waved. He ALWAYS waved back to us and my Mom with a white hanky so we would be sure to see him.
    I miss him…


  6. I never realized until a couple of years ago that there was a pattern to the whistle. Now I listen for it and chuckle at the small deviations various conductors make to the pattern, while still keeping it clearly recognizable. thinking of you


  7. Hi Nancy, this is the first time I have seen your blog although I have seen your many Facebook posts. They are so beautiful. My memories of you are when you lived in East Tawas with your parents and their Hennigars Department Store. It was awesome. I am amazed with the wonderful life travels you have had. I am heart broken though to learn of your metastatic cancer. Please know that you will be in my thoughts and prayers. Stay strong, girlfriend. You got this. Kharla Howser


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