Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Mournful Wail of the Train Horn

I grew up in Northeast Minneapolis, Minnesota, a few blocks away from a major train line.  In fact, Soo Line, now swallowed by the larger Canadian Pacific Railway, had a yard not a half mile from my front steps.  Last I checked, this train yard is currently under development and has been sold off, no longer owned by the railroad.

I remember those nights when I was young.  I would be laying in my bed, thinking of whatever I was thinking of, feeling the soft summer breeze come through the window of my bedroom, lightly flapping the curtains.  Then, without fail, off in the distance, I would hear that mournful wail.  It would start low and last a long time.  Then, it would increase in volume and pitch.  As the train came nearer to our house, the loud sounds of metal on metal would fill the neighborhood, the horn would let out one last distant wail and then break free of it's yonder bonds as the train crossed the bridge over my front street.  The sound of the horn would wash over the whole house, shaking it to it's crumbling foundation.  Then, the pitch would lower and continue on into the distance, leaving only the clackety-clack of the wheels to lull me to sleep.

At the ripe old age of nineteen, I moved out of that house and headed slightly north to Spring Lake Park, Minnesota.  I lived there for a year and a half and never heard a train horn.  I never slept well.

Then I moved to Winona, Minnesota which had a river track across the Mississippi waters over in Wisconsin.  I began to sleep well again.  I would head down to the river just to watch the train drive the miles of track between the bluffs and let the sound of its horn bring back the flood of memories in my head.  I would imagine myself watching the threadbare blue curtains slowly moving toward me in my bed, lifted by the breeze of not the summer winds, but the traffic on Lowry Avenue, oddly heavy for that time of night.

After Winona, I moved to Rochester, Minnesota, and then Pine Island, Minnesota.  I don't remember any trains and I didn't sleep well in those years.

Then, we bought a house in Pipestone, Minnesota where we lived for six years.  This house was exactly two blocks from a major Burlington Northern Santa Fe train line where a train would pass every thirty-seven minutes.  Over those six years, I regained my health and had the best sleep since my childhood.

We sold that house and moved into my brother's home for a year.  No trains, no sleep.  Then, we moved to Eden Prairie, Minnesota where the far off wail of the horn could be heard, twice nightly, across the great Minnesota River.  My sleep began to improve.

Finally, we settled down in Farmington, Minnesota, three blocks from a track where trains are as common as butter on bread.  My life is now perfect.

I can see the real estate agent now. 

"So, I. C., what is most important to you for your next home purchase." 

"The audible, close, mournful sound of a train horn."

They don't list that feature on the MLS listings.


  1. This is so true. When I was a little girl, we lived in the same town as my grandparents, who lived a few blocks from the train tracks. We slept over there a lot, and every time I went to visit, I went to sleep hearing it. Fast-forward 25 years later to the first night I laid my head down in the house my husband and I bought when we were engaged... I heard the low train whistle, something I hadn't slept with in all that time, and I knew I was at home. I love that. I love that I still live here, and I love that my kids go to sleep hearing it unconsciously. They will remember it all their lives.

  2. We have urban tracks for the Santa Fe at the end of our street. A couple of times a day we hear the horn blowing at all the intersections that cross the tracks in this tract. It's a comforting sound. Even in the urban sprawl there's something relaxing about the rumble of the cars over the track. When I lived near the main channel into the LA Harbor, in the early morning the tugs would be out and you'd hear the horns talking to each other. Funny how simple noises bring a song to your heart.

  3. I completely agree. I grew up in town near the railroad tracks and I was so comforted when I moved to college by the constant sound of trains. (Odd that in gorgeous Northfield THAT would be my biggest comfort.)

    A few years ago I moved to Duluth, and it took me ages to get used to the fog horn thing they use for shipping traffic in the summer. It's so jarring and awful--it makes me even more aware of how much I miss train noises.

    Thank you for putting into words what I'd been thinking!

  4. Dude... we had a train horn once or twice a week at my place.

  5. Wow, this brought back memories. When we were newly married, we moved to a two-bedroom apartment in Peru, Indiana (my husband was in the Air Force and sent to Grissom AFB nearby). Train tracks ran right behind the old house in which our apartment was. At first we could not sleep at night--something like 30 trains a day could run on that track (in 1969). But we got used to it. A railroad strike came along and ... NO TRAINS. We could not sleep!

  6. I agree--I lived a few blocks from a train all my life--I've been successful in my moves. I added the following piece to the Wikipedia article on Trainspotting...I'm glad it is now (or for now) a permanent part of the Wikipedia article: "Nostalgia may also result from the long, lonesome wail of the train's horn, which mimics vocalizations that want for a more simple time, as heard in country or folk music worldwide.[21]"

    The reference is to an NPR story about a guy that compares folk music around the world and said that they all have something called a "wail-break" but I have not been able to find information about it again.

    Also on NPR today there was a comment about trains being musical. The NPR story was in "On Being with Krista Tippett" covering "The Last Quiet Places."