Skytrain To New York, then Rail Train to Richmond,1946

Once reunited, in January, 1946 it is not surprising that Paul and Marie dreamed of taking a trip together. Dad had just survived a world war and the years of discipline of being a soldier. Mother had survived childbirth and rationing and waiting. She understood that a clubfoot birth tends to run in families. Her concerns and fear that her child might also be born with a clubfoot were soothed.1 And her new husband had returned safely!

Because they had married during the war, neither had met their new relatives. It’s over 1,200 miles to upstate New York and 950 miles to Richmond, VA. Rail travel was the obvious choice. Since the early 1900s, railroad travel down the coast to south Florida had been extensively promoted. Rail lines moved millions of soldiers around during the war. However, a train trip from Miami Beach to upstate New York, where dad grew up, would involve long hours and many station changes to reach the village of Penn Yan.

In my imagination, the two talked for hours during those first months about their options. They talked about the cost, about the timing, and about the baby. Traveling with an infant less than a year old was another major consideration. Several airlines flew north, but each stopped many times before reaching New York City. And those planes were not pressurized, so the planes flew at low altitudes encountering much choppy weather. Some passengers would experience “altitude sickness” induced by the flying conditions. Additionally, at the time, there were no “coach” fares. All tickets were the same high price.

Marie and Paul continued to dream of the possibility of visiting their families “up north”, as we say, in south Florida. It is 470 miles to the Georgia border, so those of us who lived in south Florida consider much of the country “up north”–even Richmond, VA. Marie was an avid reader of the Miami Herald newspaper. I feel sure it was she who saw the splash of an announcement about National Airlines soon to be offering non-stop flights between Miami and New York! The paper proclaimed that National now had a long range aircraft, the Douglas DC-4, capable of flying nonstop to New York and it started February 14 that year! It would only be a five hour flight!2 (Today it is 2 ½ hours.)

Perhaps they could fly! The couple would still have to take a small aircraft to Ithaca, NY and then a bus up to Penn Yan. Paul and Marie began their planning! They would stop in Richmond on the way back to Miami Beach to visit Marie’s relatives there. From our carefully organized family camping trips a decade later, I know they began preparations for their trip with attention to detail and much enthusiasm. Each one could pack a forty pound suitcase which needed to include all the essentials for baby Paula. They could travel in spring. The weather would be mild. Paula would be ten months old.

I have clear evidence that Paul, Paula and Marie took this trip. Mother took care to record the basics of the trip in my baby book. She wrote this for me:

“I took my first trip when I was ten months old. I flew from Miami to Elmira, N.Y. From there I went by bus to Penn Yan to visit my grandmother Neilson. We stayed in Penn Yan two weeks leaving by train for Richmond, Va. to visit my other grandmother. Daddy brought me home and mother stayed in Richmond. A good time was had by all—Mother’s note”.

Taped alongside Marie’s hand-written entry is a brief notice cut from the Miami Beach newspaper about the couple’s excursion. It reads “Mr. and Mrs. Paul Neilson have completed a visit in New York. Mrs. Neilson stopped in Richmond, Va. for a visit but Mr Neilson has returned to his home at 1518 Drexell Ave.

In June, 1946 my intrepid parents boarded a DC-4 non-stop flight bound for New York. The National Airlines 46 passenger aeroplane was new, but it was still one of those early propeller aircraft. I assume our heroic couple, traveling with their offspring, knew of the difficulties since the DC-4 was not pressurized or heated and subject to almost constant turbulence since it could not fly fly higher than 10,00 feet due to lack of breathable oxygen. Did they carry their own Chiclets or did they depend on the National stewardesses to hand them out to help keep their ears from popping? Maybe both happened….

I was quite curious about the working conditions for the two stewardesses working that 1946 flight. I’ve found first hand descriptions of flying on the DC-4 planes written by retired National Airlines stewardesses. Here is their summary,

“One of the responsibilities of the senior stewardess was ‘showing the ropes’ to the junior stewardess. Working conditions were challenging, as the DC-4 was not pressurized. Flying at lower altitudes meant air turbulence, cold cabins in winter and sweltering conditions in summer. Passengers were uncomfortable and often suffered air sickness. ‘Burp bags’ and Chiclets were a must! The harsh conditions did not discourage employees or the flying public, as National continued to prosper. The public began to realize that air travel was the fastest and most convenient way to travel.”

The DC-4 was a pioneer introducing many to air travel—including my parents.

This was my first airplane trip! Once we finally arrived in Penn Yan the only evidence of our activities are snapshots and one other more formal photo of the family group. Possibly they had a late celebration with Dad’s family of their second wedding anniversary on June 10. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that Paul and his two brothers shot baskets together or played touch football—they were active, young men. His youngest brother Roger was a junior in high school. Judging from the snapshots grandmother Edith enjoyed getting to hold the new baby. Paul’s sisters, Rosemary and Jean, were part of the celebration, too. Within a few years, Rosemary would join us in south Florida.

I did not have the chance to really know my paternal grandmother Edith since we lived so far distant. However, she let us know she was thinking about us as we grew up. As children, we each received a birthday card and a crisp dollar bill on our birthdays. At Christmas, we came to expect a brown paper-wrapped parcel full of her homemade Christmas cookies. Usually they were cut into shapes like bells or reindeer and covered in sweet, sweet icing. Edith had 13 grandchildren which means she put a lot of effort into sending each of us reminders of her affection.

After two weeks visiting in Penn Yan, our small family boarded a series of southbound trains for Richmond, Va. where Marie spent her early years. Can you imagine traveling with a 10 month old child on this trip—that’s why I describe Marie and Paul as intrepid adventurers.

On To Richmond, Virginia in late June, 1946

Marie’s girlhood is shrouded in mystery. When she left her parents, why her parents separated, and why she grew up in her mother’s older sister’s household is unclear. Her female relatives sent gifts for the birth of her first child with clear indications of interest and goodwill. Her mother, Mamie and the three aunts in Richmond showered her new baby with gifts. More presents arrived for the child four months later at Christmas. On the baby’s first birthday, Marie recorded a long list of gifts ranging from a silver rattle to handmade sweaters to nightgowns and booties. Of course, part of Marie’s reason for keeping an accurate list was to be able to send thank you notes for each one.

After a long train trip, Marie, Paul and the child arrived in Richmond to visit Marie’s family. Soon, Paul boarded a train to take Paula back home while Marie stayed a week to visit. Marie summed up the experience with “A good time was had by all”, so I am prepared to believe she enjoyed her stay.

Streetcars were a familiar sight here and in other large cities so transportation around the city would have been easy. Perhaps they visited the famous department store, Miller & Rhodes in downtown Richmond to have lunch and do some shopping—even window shopping. When traveling downtown, Marie and her friends could not miss seeing the imposing structure of Old City Hall built in 1894 of local gray granite in the Gothic Revival style.

The building occupies its own city block in downtown Richmond! The massive and ornamented nature of the design makes me want to visit it myself! Imagine this: the interior centers around a large skylit atrium surrounded by four levels of cloister-like arcades, linked by a grand staircase. The building housed city offices and courts until the late 1960s. It was restored in the early 1980s and is now used for offices and special events. Of course it is designated as a U.S. National Historic Landmark.

Other days they may have played bridge or canasta with friends. Marie had a chance to visit, to laugh and to enjoy the freedom rarely available to a new mom. While she was in Richmond, Paul had a chance to bond with his new daughter as the primary caretaker.

This would be the last time she was in Richmond. As I’ve mentioned, we later took numerous family camping trips, stopping in nearby states, but never did visit here. Add this to the list of mysteries.

Richmond was a bustling city with two major train stations. Both stations were referred to as union stations! Which of these elaborate train stations did my parents use in 1946? I enjoyed this sleuthing challenge. First I discovered that “union station” simply means that the station serves one or more rail lines which makes changing trains easier for passengers traveling on different lines. The two or more railroad companies using the station actually paid for the building of that station. In Richmond there were two union stations—one on Main Street downtown and one on Broad Street, as pictured above.

Further inquiry convinced me that Paul and Marie must have arrived at the huge Broad Street Station. Traveling from the north, they probably used the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad, the principle line using that union station. Broad Street Station was built in 1917 in the neoclassical style featuring an elegant central dome and ten columns across the symmetrical facade—no clock tower here. This station is now the Science Museum of Virginia.

Departures: when they each boarded a train for home they left from the elaborate Main Street Station, in the downtown area, with its dominating clock tower as part of its Renaissance Revival architecture. This is an ornate six-story tower with four clock faces. Built in 1901 by two rail lines—one was the Seaboard Air Line Railroad which, as the name implies, served the eastern seaboard down to Key West.

From 1915 to 1958, this station was the principal departure point for all passengers heading south—passengers like Marie and Paul. It is quite a grand building—nothing like the Miami train station. Main Street Station and its train shed (an over-arching roof above the arriving and departing trains) is one of the last surviving train sheds of its type in the nation. Both were added to the National Register of Historic Places. Today the station serves Amtrak passengers.

Here’s another question.
Were they traveling on a steam or diesel fueled locomotive train? In the 1940s, diesel locomotives began to be introduced on U.S. railroads in large numbers. Steam and diesel locomotives ran side by side for a brief time in the 1940s and early 1950s, but new diesel locomotives took over as they radically cut maintenance and operating expenses.3 Answer: probably both given the number of trains used on their trip.

More than likely on the train trip south, both adults would have been traveling in segregated rail cars! In my research, I found this photo of a rail car built in 1924 by the Pullman Company. “The car was built with a dividing wall in the middle of the passenger car denoting it as a segregated or “Jim Crow” car. The Central of Georgia Railroad used this car in regular service, relegating African-American passengers to a separate section complete with segregated restrooms until the end of that era on railroads in the 1950s.”4

Remember that during WWII the armed services of the U.S. were segregated! Not until the executive order by President Truman in July 1948, was discrimination “on the basis of race, color, religion or national origin” abolished in the United States Armed Forces. This executive order did not legally obligate public establishments such as lunch counters, stores, restaurants, and theaters to open to all on an equal basis. Civil rights advocates sought equal access to transportation. Prior to the 1960s, segregation on streetcars, buses, and railroad cars was consistently challenged by blacks and their allies, both in courts and through direct action including boycotts especially in the south.5

Home Sweet Home
Reunited for a second time this small family started making plans for another dream—a home of their own! Miami Beach was expensive and housing was limited since it was primarily a tourist town. They soon learned that to take advantage of the GI Bill’s mortgage loan assistance for veterans, one could only seek a loan for new housing. Mortgage loan assistance was not available for existing housing. This requirement limited their options.

Only this week did I find, in 1940 census records, that Marie had worked as a “saleslady” prior to WWII. In 1946, with an infant at home, her possibilities for bringing in a salary were non existent.

Paul was working and attending night school studying to be a land surveyor. Until he had a job, they would not be eligible for a loan to buy a house for their growing family. In January 1947, the couple could tell Paula she would have a sister or brother just after her second birthday. They needed that new house!

Transportation would be an essential part of the answer to where Marie and Paul would live. Today, while we are in the midst of this Covid pandemic, we can now see how our transportation options and choices affect each of us personally and as a society. Choosing to stay home is not an option for everyone.

Working for an airline, working for a transportation company, for 16 years brought benefits and complications to me personally. The thrill of flying captivates many people—for many different reasons. As I tell my story, I’m weaving the complex strands of the personal and political realities of a young woman coming of age in the late 1960s and early 1970s. All these tangents matter! Each is part of the whole.■

Postscript one:
I learned that Richmond had the first successful electrically powered street railway system in the United States. Designed by electric power pioneer, Frank J. Sprague, the trolley system opened its first line in January 1888. Richmond’s hills, long a transportation obstacle, were considered an ideal proving ground. The new technology soon replaced horsecars.

As part of a national trend, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the electrically powered street railway systems accelerated Richmond’s expansion. To generate traffic and fuel sales of property, amusement parks were created at the end of the lines at Lakeside Park and other spots.

After WWII ended in 1945, the network of trams was bought up by Virginia Transit Company to close it down, almost at once, and substitute it by a bus system. So, perhaps that streetcar trip was unavailable when Marie visited in 1946 depending on how quickly the transition happened.

As roads improved in the early 20th century with generous support from federal and state government funding, streetcars were unable to compete with automobiles and buses.

Postscript two:

Last week when I searched for a photo to illustrate the land surveying work done by my father on Miami’s highways, I found an aerial photo of the I-95 interchange built in the 1960s. When I read the article about the section of I-95 to be built in Miami, I was struck by the decisions of the federal, state and local officials who made the crass decision to run the interstate through the historical Overtown neighborhood thus destroying or dividing that historic African-American community.

This week I discovered the same tactic used in Richmond. In the 1950s the toll road, approved by the state of Virginia, led to the destruction of many historic locations, vistas and the built environment, including blocks of homes and businesses in Jackson Ward, Richmond’s oldest historically African-American community. This highway became I-95 which now has a raised highway a mere 75 feet away from Main Street Station. This is right at the level of the clock tower as you can see in the photo.

1 After Marie’s death, I found notes about the clubfoot exercises added to the card with the list of recommended Exercises for Infants she received from her doctor in 1945. That card indicates that she was doing clubfoot exercises on me as an infant! Those exercises were taken from the book Baby’s Daily Exercises by Dr. E.T. Wilkes
3 What Happened to the Railroads?
4 Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum in Chattanooga, TN
5 Looking Back on the Fight for Equal Access to Public Accommodations

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