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Americana – Automobiles and a Steam Train on Main Street

The steam train was the first main mechanical form of transport in the US for moving passengers and goods. Many towns and cities sprung up near the new tracks, and in some locals the steel rails were installed on the main thoroughfare of a village.

The lead photo taken in 1938 shows the center of Osage, West Virginia, a company coal mining town located across the Monongahela River and just west of the city of Morgantown. The Marion Post Wolcott image for the Farm Security Administration shows the steam-powered coal train that traveled right through the whistle-stop in the morning and the evening on Scotts Run Road carrying the coal extracted from the local mine.

The Department of Defense photograph below dated 1947 was taken just down the road in Osage from the lead image and shows the Good Humor Inn, the local dining and dance spot in town.

Tells us what interests you in the photos that are courtesy of the Library of Congress.



27 responses to “Americana – Automobiles and a Steam Train on Main Street

  1. The photos don’t look nine years apart. Judging by the condition of the cars and trucks, life was hard in Monongahela County. It seems fitting that the photos have the appearance of a gray overcast day.

    • I think the “wrong side of the tracks” is the side where the prevailing winds blow the smell, smoke, and cinders. The upwind property would be more expensive.

  2. I loved the old steam trains that literally seemed alive with their huffing and puffing.. As a boy I lay in bed at night waiting for the unearthly cry of the steam whistle of the logging trains. The car in the first picture confused me for a moment…I think it’s a 1938 DeSoto but the grill wasn’t quote right.. Our family car was a 1937 DeSoto which had a magnificent grill and was a great car for its 14 years in the family. The car in front of the DeSoto is a 1937 Ford, I’d say and the hubcap gives it away. Or am I wrong?

  3. Bottem photo: four Coca Cola signs, two Royal Crown, and one each Dr Pepper, and Orange Crush. They must love soda pop in Osage, W VA. Clears out the coal dust?

    • The Osage Spot offered pocket billiards and beer according to the sign painted on the front window. Found a better picture of the front of the Osage Spot at the Shorpy site.

  4. Osage was served by the Monongahela Railroad. I know nothing of the railroad, but I notice that is a double-header, and that they took several photos that day which can be found in the library of congress. Lead locomotive is a 2-8-0 that was already about 30 years old in 1937.

  5. Top pic, isn’t this a happy scene. Hop off the train, hit the Osage Spot, meet a gal, go across the tracks to the barber, and a quick visit to the justice of the peace, all before the train pulls out. Couple gals there right now. Looks like a pretty new GMC pickup back there, ’38?
    And the bottom pic, apparently a bit farther down the line, we see, what appears to be Ma Kettle in the plaid dress, leaning over trying to get into the Plymouth (?), “You let me in this car right now, sonny”!

  6. The sedan in the lead photo is a 1938 Chrysler I think. It looks like it’s parked only about 3 feet from the tracks. Don’t open the passenger door!

  7. Google Earth street view shows the Good Humor Inn building is still there. And the two story building partly hidden by the locomotive has survived.

  8. In the town of Kawakawa, in the far north of New Zealand, the railway still runs through the main street, although nowadays it is only used by trains of the local Bay of Islands Vintage Railway.

  9. Joe is correct about the double header – I had missed that. But did you notice the leading engine is “dead”? Do you suppose it was being pushed back to the shops?

    Great photos that expose the grubbiness of the “good old days” Memories tend to be very selective. Roosevelt hired an army of unemployed photographers to go out and record America. Fortunately, they did their job and it resulted in some of the most powerful photos of all time. Even the lesser ones, such as these, are great.

    It is also a testament to how we change. Back then, people accepted a railroad going through the middle of town. More than likely built the town around the existing railroad with its smell, dirt and noise. Now we have people campaigning against windmills because they are visually offensive.


  10. There is still a town where the railroad runs right through the center of town and is actually celebrated: Wayzata, MN.
    Located on the shores of Lake Minnetonka, it was served in the late 1800s by the St, Paul & Pacific railroad which brought thousands of vacationers each year to the many lake resorts. In 1883 city leaders passed a law forcing the tracks to be located farther inland away from the shore. This did not sit well with railroad baron and owner James J. Hill. He retaliated by building a new line which essentially completely cut off the city from its lifeline. After many years of economic stagnation, the city begged Hill to reconsider. He did and built tracks along the shore and a new station. Each survives to this day. And that is why, several times a day, freight trains rumble through Wayzata past a park and along the main street in front of its many trendy shops and restaurants.
    Wayzata is still grateful. On the second weekend of Sept each year it celebrates J. J. Hill Days, a city-wide festival.

  11. Gadsden Al still has tracks running thru the center of town. Not a “high use” line, but still see’s trains several times a week.

  12. I don’t think “tracks through town” are as uncommon as some might think. In Rocky Mount, NC, the railroad goes right down the middle of the main street (which is SW Main) — though now far better integrated into the surroundings than Osage — and it’s also the dividing line between Nash and Edgecombe counties.

  13. Numerous towns in New England still have level grade crossings, and freight trains use them, albeit only every few days. It reminds one of the enormous influence of the automobile, which rose to prominence in the short twenty years between 1900 and 1920. Steam and rails started our industrial revolution here in the United States, but it was the automobile that gave us economic freedom and prosperity.

  14. Santa Cruz, CA has tracks right up by the boardwalk on the beach. In San Diego, the freight tracks are isolated from the streets, but still thread through the waterfront.

  15. I spent a few years in Bedford, IN, with tracks running right across the middle of town. J Street shares space with the tracks which run adjacent to the county court house. Many times I was held up driving to or from work for that dratted train. Now I miss it.

  16. Monona, Iowa has the Milwaukee, St Paul & PAC RR, still operating near center of town! Over the years, a number of accidents have occurred there including one that badly damaged my grandfather’s new ’41 Chevy, and injured gramps.
    Gramps was up and running in 6 months, but the Chevy was never the same. It had suffered a bent driveshaft and though straightened, it remained out of balance and vibrated horribly at over 25 mph?,. Yet, uncle Orville chauffered it that way for another 10 years!

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