Amtrak Anniversary Saturday: Where Were You and What Were You Doing May 1, 1971?

Where were you on May 1, 1971? Did you do anything to observe, document or celebrate the transition between freight railroad operation of intercity passenger trains and Amtrak operation?

Maybe you were too young to remember or to have been aware of the day that Amtrak began. Or maybe you had yet to be born.

I was a senior in high school on the day Amtrak started. It was a Saturday just as the 50th anniversary this year is falling on a Saturday.

At the time I was living in Mattoon, Illinois, which would be a stop for Amtrak trains operated between Chicago and New Orleans, and Chicago and Carbondale, Illinois.

I recall seeing from my backyard the first New Orleans-bound Amtrak train from Chicago.

I was disappointed that it looked exactly like the Illinois Central City of New Orleans of the day before with locomotives and passenger cars wearing IC chocolate brown and orange with yellow striping.

Like all teenagers I was naïve about how the world worked. I had read in newspapers about this new Amtrak operation that was to begin on May 1.

Yet I was expecting the trains to look quite different than they had. In fact, it would be more than a year before I saw a passenger car or locomotive that had been repainted into Amtrak’s livery.

Aside from seeing the first Chicago to New Orleans Amtrak train I also saw the last IC passenger train to complete its final journey.

The last northbound City of New Miami had left its namesake city on April 30. Trains that left that day were to continue to their terminus.

Therefore, the last pre-Amtrak train to finish its trip that was not slated to be part of Amtrak would not halt for the final time until May 2.

The City of Miami would not be joining Amtrak. Instead, it passed through Mattoon around 3 p.m. just as it had for many years and rolled into history. The number of trains making their final runs was a major focus of news coverage of the coming of Amtrak.

Sometime that summer cars from other railroads began showing up in the consists of the Amtrak trains that served Mattoon.

It had always been a thrill for me to see whenever I could passenger cars from other railroads. It wasn’t something I got to see often.

That June, I began college although I wouldn’t begin living on campus until late August.

I sometimes saw Amtrak trains during my trips home and during school breaks and made mental notes as to how they had changed or not changed.

My first opportunity to ride an Amtrak train did not come until late 1972.

In looking back I recall having had a sense of something historic occurring but I’m not sure I realized the gravity of it.

I wish now I could have done more – far more, actually – to have experienced and documented those historic days.

But I didn’t have a camera, didn’t have much money, and didn’t have anyone who could have taken me to ride and/or photograph trains in their final hours.

Besides, I was in school and the only time I might have been able to do that would have been on weekends.

So I just followed what was happening by reading about it in the newspapers. I did, by the way, save some of those newspaper stories from April 30 and May 1.

Fifty years later I’ve ridden most Amtrak routes at least once and made thousands of photographs of Amtrak trains and related operations.

More than a decade ago I started collecting Amtrak system timetables and have a nearly complete set.

In fact the last printed Amtrak system timetable still sits on my desk. Dated Jan. 11, 2016, I refer to it often when looking up information for stories I’m writing about Amtrak.

My collection also includes some Amtrak memorabilia, including dining car menus, annual reports, and route guides.

My Amtrak photo collection may be vast, but not nearly as comprehensive as I wished that it was.

I wish I had photographed more or had the opportunity to photograph more widely during Amtrak’s first decade, which I still consider the most interesting one in its history.

Much of my collection of things Amtrak was prompted by my research for a book that was published by Indiana University Press in 2006 titled Amtrak in the Heartland.

I have had a keen interest in Amtrak since it began, probably because I’ve always had a passion for passenger trains.

In many ways, the company that calls itself America’s Railroad and I came of age at the same time and have grown older on parallel tracks.

I can’t remember a day when I wasn’t interested in Amtrak and can’t envision a time in which my interest in the history and current day affairs of the carrier will ever wane.

So, happy anniversary Amtrak; it’s been quite a ride we’ve had together.

Commentary by Craig Sanders

Tags: , , , ,

One Response to “Amtrak Anniversary Saturday: Where Were You and What Were You Doing May 1, 1971?”

  1. pwwoodring Says:

    As both a longtime supporter and past employee of Amtrak I have long considered myself to be a member of the Loyal and Ancient Order of the Pointless Arrow, and I’m guessing that brother Craig does as well!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


%d bloggers like this: