Fe Train Number One, with a 3751-class 4-8-4 steam engine up front, pulled up
to the red-roofed, Mission revival-style Amarillo
station on time.
One of the people stepping off the train at the busy
depot was William Gibson, a Santa Fe employee traveling on a company pass.
his small suitcase in one hand and his well-worn tool and instrument valise in
the other, Gibson walked from the station to the nearby Capitol
Hotel at Fourth and Pierce. The Herring,
across the street, was a bigger hotel, but Gibson liked the 200-room Capitol.
At the front desk, Gibson went through a familiar routine: He asked for a south-side
room on the fourth floor or higher.
soon as he closed the door behind him, Gibson walked to the window and looked
out. His room, as he knew it would, looked down on the busy Santa Fe yard. The
roundhouse had 32 train stalls and almost always was full. In the distance, Gibson
saw a plume of black smoke as a freight train hit an eastbound grade on a big
curve. After taking in the view for a moment, he raised the window a few inches.
It opened easily — wood did not often swell with moisture on the High Plains.
At nearly 3,700 feet above sea level, spring and summer nights usually are cool
On this night, the wind blew strong from the southeast,
sucking through the cracked window. Gibson liked the fresh night air, but he had
opened the window more to let in sound.
Number One had boarded its Amarillo
passengers and was moving slowly through the Amarillo
yard. Gibson checked his watch. It was still on time. Her hogger — railroad talk
for engineer — blasted the whistle as the train headed toward the 24th Street
One long, two shorts, and then a continuous
blast until the engine cleared the crossing. The shrill sound created by the high-pressure
steam echoed off the concrete grain elevators lining the tracks and the high rise
office buildings along busy Polk Street. The whistle was music to the railroad
man’s ears. With tongue-in-cheek, he called it the “Amarillo Symphony.”
through the night, other trains moved in and out of Amarillo
as most of the city slept. In addition to the Santa Fe track, main lines of the
Fort Worth and Denver and the Rock Island Line intersected at Amarillo.
The piercing notes of train whistles spread across the city and cut onto the vastness
of the plains.
For several generations of Amarilloans, the whistle signals
of the steam engine either comforted them at night like a homemade quilt or haunted
their dreams. For some, the whistles made good company, dispelling any sense of
isolation; others heard the trains and felt lonesome, remembering or imagining
trips taken or not taken. For all Amarilloans, those whistles — long since replaced
by more prosaic air horns — represent the sound of a city’s history.
is the largest city in Texas owing its existence solely
to the railroad. Houston, Dallas,
San Antonio, El
Paso, Fort Worth and Austin
all had other reasons to be, though railroads certainly benefited each. But Amarillo
would not exist, or if it did it probably would not have amounted to much, had
it not been for the iron.
November 3, 2005 column