Friday, May 25, 2018

R.I.P. Amtrak's Pacific Parlour diner/lounges

Recently I found out that Amtrak (a quasi-governmental agency, and America's passenger train operator) earlier this year discontinued the use of the five "Pacific Parlor Cars" on its California-to-Washington State "Coast Starlight" (which was named after a Southern Pacific streamliner from the early-to-mid twentieth century.

In early 2017 I had the pleasure of riding the Coast Starlight as part of my rail adventure from Washington DC to New Orleans, Santa Monica and Sacramento.  And I very much enjoyed my time on board the Starlight and its Pacific Parlour Car.

Fortunately I got a picture of the cover of the menu after I boarded...

Mandy said "A table with a view, please."   The host's response:  "Yes, Ma'am!"

 What a peaceful place to watch the sun set!

Deluxe was the word...

Now for some info about the design of Pacific Parlour - or Hi Level - cars.  From Wikipedia, Hi-Level is a type of bilevel intercity railroad passenger car.  The now-defunct Budd Company designed them in the early 1950s for the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railroad for use on the El Capitan, a coach-only streamliner which ran daily between Los Angeles and Chicago. The design was inspired by two then-recent developments in passenger railroading: the dome car employed in intercity routes in the Western United States, and bilevel commuter cars operating in the Chicago area. Budd built 73 Hi-Level cars between 1952 and 1964.

Car types included coaches,  dining cars and lounges.   Most passenger spaces were on the upper level, which featured a row of windows on both sides. Boarding was on the lower level; passengers climbed up a center stairwell to access the upper level.  End doors on the upper level permitted passengers to walk between cars; some coaches had an additional stairwell at one end to allow access to single-level equipment. Santa Fe and Budd considered but never created a sleeper.

The first two prototype coaches entered service on the El Capitan in 1954 and were immediately successful.  Budd built sufficient coaches, dining cars, and lounge cars to fully equip the El Capitan, with additional coaches seeing use on the San Francisco Chief.   Amtrak inherited the entire fleet when it was formed in 1971, and continued to use the Hi-levels on its western routes.

Unfortunately, tunnel clearances restricted their use in the Eastern US, and that's why the current Superliners do not roam eastern rails.   In 1979, the first Superliners (based on the Hi-Level concept although built by Pullman Standard entered service. Amtrak gradually retired most of its Hi-Levels in the 1990s as more Superliners became available. Five lounges, outfitted with more luxurious interiors and designed to operate adjacent to Superliner sleepers and dubbed "Pacific Parlour Cars",  provided first-class lounge service as a special amenity on the Coast Starlight until their retirement in early 2018.

My own thought is:  They WILL be missed!


Friday, May 18, 2018

Nails...and a day in the old car.

A couple months ago, I had some preventive repairs done to the antique.  But I didn't have time right then to do my usual "shakedown cruise".   In fact, it took another month to even get around to starting it.   So I decided it was time to head for Harpers Ferry and Shepherdstown in West Virginia, which would give it multiple hours of operation.  That would help me be sure it is ready for longer trips, or bring out any problems needing attention.  (And the latter is what happened.  More on that in another post...)

You may also remember that at a pedicure several months ago, one bruised toe nail was turning black...and the tech thought it might have been so bruised it would fall off.  Also, that nail on the left big toe had been cracked ages ago, requiring it to be glued together and covered in acrylic, to keep it from splitting further.   Because of the discolored nail and the relative difficulty in removing acrylic,  she switched me from "acrylic on all toe nails" to just as an underlayment on the cracked big toe, and then used tan nail polish on them all.

The morning we left on our trip, the glued-together crack on my big toe nail split, and the resulting sharp edge ruined a pair of stockings.  No time to visit the salon...   So,  out came the cuticle scissors, and I trimmed the nail back as far as I could, then filed the sharp edges down.   In the process, I noted that the crack appeared to be shortening (growing out), and perhaps that particular problem could disappear by late  fall.   Yay!

When we returned home, one of the first things I did was to head for the salon...   There was good news all around.  Not only is the big toe nail growing out nicely, but the discolored one is holding on, and discoloration is beginning to lighten just a bit.  But they will still need painted for the foreseeable future.

She repaired the big toe nail, painted them all up, and did the usual fill on my fingers.  But the colors are slightly more noticeable than usual this time.  See below:

When I showed my wife, and mentioned that at least I can now wear sandals over the summer, since my nail probably won't fall off,  she didn't argue.   Is that a good sign?  Your guess is as good as mine.  Now the proof will come when I put on sandals as we are going out.  What will her reaction be?

Did I mention that one of the friendly lady customers who came in, stopped to comment about our always having appointments on the same day?  And that they seated us next to each other in the pedicure chairs?   Another lady was seated on the other side, and we all were talking about nail colors and types of designs.  They both think I should wear bright colors, at least on my toes.  Very affirming...

Now for some fun with the shakedown cruise...    Following pictures are from Harpers Ferry, WV - at lock 33.  Notice the ruins of a gray stone house in the distance.  It was the residence of the lock-keeper "back in the day."   Now, from the dampness and rot, wood has all disintegrated and the stone outer shell is all that remains.

A close up of the house...can't find it on the on-line aerial map programs....because of the trees growing up  through it!   But those stone walls look fine...

Following is a telephoto shot of the Hilltop House hotel, which was featured in my last post.

From there, the GPS took me on a whole bunch of back roads (fortunately all paved), which was the short way to Shepherdstown.   

When I saw this bridge, I knew right where I's the high trestle (formerly Southern RR, now Norfolk Southern) just outside of Shepherdstown.  I have some pictures of an excursion train on this trestle.

A comment on my attire: wearing a skirt didn't cause any problems.  However, I didn't hear "Ma'am" at all on this trip.   On the bright side, no "Sir" either.  I can handle that.

Following are some pictures from Shepherdstown, WV.  Shepherdstown was founded by Thomas Shepherd in 1734 as part of the grant of 222 acres on the south side of the Potomac.  Originally named Mecklenberg, in 1798 the corporate limits were extended and it was renamed "Shepherd's Town."   It is the site of Shepherd University, and is the only town on the C&O Canal (on the other side of the Potomac) to have a lock (#38) named for it.  As in "the Shepherdstown Lock."

For those not familiar with Shepherdstown, it was the focal point of a momentous battle in the US Civil War.   On September 19, Union General Griffin sent 2 regiments across the Potomac at Boteler's Ford.  They attacked Confederate troops under General Pendleton, capturing four artillery pieces before being recalled.  Somehow the message to General Lee got botched, and he was told they lost all 44 pieces.  So the following day, retaliation took place. After violent clashes along the heights (with substantial casualties in the 30+ percent range) Union soldiers were decimated by the Confederates.   The total Union dead and wounded at Shepherdstown made it the bloodiest battle fought in what would become West Virginia.  A sign in town notes that "The whole town was a hospital."

And as a result of that, it is now billed as the most haunted town in America, known as much for its ghostly residents as it is for the local arts scene, university (Shepherd University) and historic attractions (of which there are many.)  And there was a documentary about the paranormal activity here on the telly a few years ago.  I don't doubt that there are apparitions there...but hope to never meet any. 

Following is one of the pretty buildings of Shepherd University (Shepherd State Teachers College, 1872.)

A picturesque main street follows:

And some interesting architecture:

It was a fun day...

Be safe,


Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Busy...part 2

I forgot to mention in the first travelogue, that the morning we left to go to visit the kids, I put on my necklace and bracelet.  That didn't last long...I was told to leave them at home.   Not wanting to start our trip with an argument I probably wouldn't win anyway, they stayed home.   A disappointing turn of events, to be sure.  But it wasn't the end of the world!   Stirrup pants, capris, flats and women's tops (all part of my everyday wardrobe) were packed, and they couldn't be left behind!
While still in Bristol, we drove past the restored Paramount Theater.  We didn't have time to see if tours were available,  but it certainly looks impressive...

It reportedly opened on February 20, 1931,  and its 1400 seats functioned as a movie house and vaudeville stage with organ, for more than 50 years.  A bunch of seats were removed in the 1950's remodeling, to accommodate Cinemascope and stereo sound.  The original organ was dismantled and removed, but later replaced.  In the early 1980's, the Paramount was closed, and slated to be demolished to make way for 36 parking places.   Bristolians came to its rescue and the building's owner donated it to Theatre Bristol, which agreed to establish the Paramount Foundation.   

After a final meeting in June of 1987 to evaluate the restoration/demolishment of the building, it was decided to proceed regardless of the hardships involved.    And it has been a very successful addition to the local cultural scene.

I couldn't resist getting a picture of this fine fellow below, a first-class piece of street art near the train station in Downtown Bristol.

The Cameo Theatre (below) is another Art Deco gem in Bristol, a relic from the past, but unlike the Paramount (above), it has apparently not yet been massively restored, and now sees only occasional use for events.  Time will tell if it transforms itself into another asset to the arts in Bristol.

Below is the Grand Guitar,  the back of which is visible alongside I-81.  If you've passed that way, you may have noticed it, and wondered what it is.  We found a great front view from US-11...

Yes, as you might inagine, there is a story about this building.  According to his family, Joe Morrell, who was a manufacturer of dulcimers, ran a record shop, and performed under the stage name of Herbie Hootenauger, had dreamed of building a shop shaped like a giant guitar (so it didn't look like every other building in town.)  And in May off 1983, he accomplished that goal.

Inside the building was a gift shop, a recording studio, an AM radio station (country music, of course)  and his personal collection of hundreds of musical instruments, including one shaped like a pig, and another made from a dead armadillo.

National Geographic featured the shop in 1985, and in 2014 it was added to the National
Register of Historic Places.  But by then, its owner (Morrell) had passed away and the building had been sold to a developer who promised to restore it.  Despite that promise, it remained abandoned for years.  (Still is.)

If this shop could play a country music song today, it definitely would be a sad one.

While in TN visiting our son and family, we went as a group to Chattanooga's wonderful tourist destination called Rock City.   What a place!  Trails all through and around rocks, plants and nature on the side of Lookout Mountain, which was the site of the "Battle above the clouds" back in the Civil War.

Following is a picture of yours truly in one of the rest areas provided, because of the many trails to walk...

One of the attractions is a waterfall right on the edge of the mountain.  And the views were both panoramic as well as spectacular!   You can see seven states from the nearby overlook on a clear day!

D-I-L's father has a boat, and following is a grab shot of me on a boat outing while we were visiting.  That sure was fun!   And nobody even gave my sandals or jean capris a second thought...   Since they're part of my everyday wardrobe, my wife was fine with them.  Even though it was nearly 80 degrees on shore, it was cool out on the water.  So my wife and I wore our matching unisex heavy sweaters...that we bought years ago, at a tourist site in Utah.

All too soon it was time to return home...the kids caravanned back with us, stayed almost a week, and then they drove back to TN.  Best non-Mandy vacation in a long time!


Friday, May 11, 2018

It's been a busy three weeks....

There hasn't been much activity on the gender front these past few weeks since my last post.  Mandy has basically stayed "in the suitcase" and I've bustled around the area in androgynous mode.  No skirts, but yes, there have been the typical "Miss-identifications" among strangers.  

The most noteworthy activity was our visit to Tennessee to see our Son, D-I-L and their baby, now 2-1/2 years old and growing up fast.  We've been anticipating this visit for some time, and it finally came together.  

The drive is about 12 - 13 hours (including a lunch break and a couple of rest stops) so we break it into two days, and do our usual sightseeing enroute.  Below are some of the noteworthy stops we made this trip.

First is the Hilltop House hotel, located (obviously) on the top of a hill overlooking Harpers Ferry, WV.  This famous hotel was built in 1888 by Thomas Lovett, a man of African-American descent who dreamed of managing a hotel overlooking the site of John Brown's historic act.  His hotel burned in 1912, was rebuilt, and burned again in 1917 or 1918.  Lovett and his wife persevered, and the hotel became host to such notables as Mark Twain, Alexander Graham Bell, and Bill Clinton.

It is also said to be haunted.   Episodes of paranormal activity have been noted by staff and visitors alike.   Some of the things noted have been: laughing, pots banging, furniture moving by itself, and sightings of soldiers...including a whole regiment of men, which makes its way up the road to the hotel.   Room 66 was one hot spot in particular:  haunted by the ghost of a small boy who perished in the 1912 fire, a portrait of the boy in that room was alleged to cry real tears.

I had been hearing about the Hilltop House back in the early 1900's, and had good intentions about going there for a night, to sample the hospitality.  But I kept postponing the visits.  Unfortunately in 2008 the hotel was deemed unsafe for continued occupancy, and it was closed.   There have been periodic attempts to restore and re-open it, and in the interim, a change in ownership.  But so far, nothing has come to fruition, for whatever reason. (The jury is still out on a March 2018 attempt.)  

Naturally, we stopped by for a few pictures, in case nothing ever happens and it eventually succumbs to the forces of abandonment and nature...

Above is a front view of the hotel, showing the crumbled front porch and front wall.  This is very sad to see.   If you are interested in more pictures, simply go to You-Tube, search for Hilltop House Harpers Ferry and find lots of them, including some interior pictures and videos posted by urban explorers.  (Not us, we don't do that.  No way we'd want to, with all the paranormal activity.)   There are also some really amazing pictures taken from drones.

And another pic, showing the deterioration of the dining room addition.   One can only hope that restoration of the 80+ rooms can begin, and bring this historic place back into daily usage.

This is the view from the overlook in front of the hotel.  The railroad tracks with the train is the CSX Transportation main line to Pittsburgh, which my wife and I have traveled many times.  (And each time, I think about the missed opportunity to stay at the Hilltop House...)   Under the bridges and making a left turn, is the Potomac River.   Upstream to the right, is the Shenandoah River, which joins the Potomac at Harpers Ferry. 

Another interesting factoid is that Harpers Ferry is the easternmost town in West Virginia...

In last year's post about my trip to the East Broad Top narrow gauge railroad, the town "Burnt Cabins, PA" was discussed.  On this trip, I noticed a sign for "Burnt Factory" in Virginia.  So we took a detour, and found some nice homes and a pretty church.  Plus a lot of trees. But no burnt factory.

A brief internet search resulted in being unable to confirm the origin of the name, but like Burnt Cabins, it presumably was named after some sort of local factory being burned at some point in history, maybe the Civil War?

Onward to Bristol...   This is a very pretty town, which straddles the VA/TN state line.   It once depended on passenger trains for its transportation needs, as evidenced by this majestic station.  It has been restored and is in use - but not for train passengers.  Trains don't stop here anymore, nor do passenger trains cover these well-maintained tracks - only Norfolk Southern freight trains.

This depot (built in 1902 at a cost of $79,063) is the fourth to be built on land donated to the VA & TN Railroad by Rev. James King in 1848.   Because it was built on filled land, concrete support columns had to be constructed to bedrock, 20 ft below.  Its main feature was the two story tower, but in the beginning, there were a newsstand, lunch counter, smoking room and men's toilet.  The second floor was the railroad office.   The single story part was the ticket counter and waiting room, divided into separate areas for men and women.  It has been restored and is now office space.

N&W discontinued steam engines in the 1950's, and with the coming of Amtrak, passenger service was eliminated.  But Bristol continues to be a division and crew change point, with about a dozen freight trains a day through town.

Substantially all of Bristol's current tourism results from traffic on nearby I-81, the nearest north-south major artery.   Numerous motels at the interchanges provide plenty of rooms for overnight guests.

This picture is a grab shot to show how I was dressed enroute, and for much of the trip.  No skirts :-(   As an aside, I was standing in Virginia, and the other side of the street was in Tennessee.  Just a crosswalk away...

Speaking of Tennessee, does anyone remember the US Country and Western singer Tennessee Ernie Ford?  If you do, then you might enjoy seeing the house (above) where he was born, just a mile or so from the train station in Bristol, TN.  Of course, the place was remodeled after a fire years ago, so it's not exactly "as it was back in the day."  But it still is a "piece of history."

And above is a bit of info on the singer...

Stay tuned, more to follow: