Do You Speak Train?

Jul 3, 2020

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

In an age that is losing touch with its roots, Rock Islanders are fortunate. Immigrants to this area have preserved at least some of their language. From Swedish, Spanish, Greek and German, to Chippewa and Chinese, we are still a mosaic of American cultures.

But one important language has disappeared: Rocket, a dialect of that rich and poetic language of whistles, hisses, screeches, clicks and bangs known as railroad.

It was a language once common in the United States, but now rare. The native speakers of Rocket, the engines and cars of the old Rock Island Lines, lie silent and rusting among the weeds on sidetracks of rail yards. Too bad that linguists did not think to record this language before it died.

Some of you remember. If you took the Rocket across Mid-America when you were young, you remember how instinctively children understood the sounds trains made. We children used to put our ears to the tracks and hear the train coming miles away in the small clicks and whines singing through the iron rails.

It was even better inside the train. No train ever left a depot without going into detail about its departure in sentences of hisses, chuffs, puffs, whistles, and sharp bangs that passed from engine back through every car. "I think I can, I think I can," the train said. Even at night, the train told us in measured clicks how fast it was going, whether it was speeding up or slowing down. The whistle far ahead announced crossings and small towns. Trains passing in opposite directions told each other what lay ahead. The voices of trains carried us across the prairie into the night and sent us to sleep against the hard benches in a lullaby of new passengers settling in and tickets being punched down the aisle.

Just west of here, a retired schoolteacher has moved a Rock Island Lines caboose into her yard and turned it into a bed and breakfast as a way of preserving the good old days. It's cozy, and quaint. But the caboose never hums a tune, never squeaks, not even a click, click.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.