This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.
For the better part of a century, down until the end of World War II, the quality of life in the small rural communities scattered across the great American heartland depended on whether those communities could attract a minister and a church and a doctor, along with a hospital. A lawyer or two came in handy as well. But more necessary than all of these occupations was the station master down at the railroad depot. The station master determined whether or not a community survived at all.
Nowhere was the depot and its master more important than in the farm state of Iowa. Long before cars, buses and trucks, before paved roads, the railroad was the only way to move goods and people in and out of towns. By 1910, Iowa could boast that it was the only state in the Union in which no one was more than eight miles from a railroad. A rail map of Iowa looked, they said, like a plate of spaghetti.
Presiding over this mysterious domain was the station master. Even though he isolated himself and his family by living over the depot and often working the night shift, he was by far the best-known man in town. When I was growing up in my small town, we boys would often sneak down to the depot after school to watch the master through the ticket window grid as he wrote out the mysterious language arriving in dots and dashes over the telegraph wires. We knew that when he began to shuffle packages around the station, a train would arrive half an hour later. How could he know these things no one else knew? We envied his friendship with engineers and conductors.
The grownups knew him just as well. It was he who planned out your itinerary and sold and wrote out the complicated passenger tickets, weighed the packages you were sending, handed out the boxes of baby chickens you had ordered, and sometimes sold postcards and notions. The station master knew who and what had come into town, and who and what had left.
Today, a small Iowa town might be fine for grownups. The preachers, doctors and lawyers are still around. But for children, the disappearance of the station master and the depot means that after school hours are less magical than they were long ago.
Rock Island Lines is underwritten by the Illinois Humanities Council and Illinois Arts Council, a state agency, with additional funding from Humanities Iowa, the Iowa Arts Council, and Augustana College, Rock Island.