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Imprints Literary Supplement

The Best Books You've Never Read

A Treasury Of Railroad Folklore

By Joab Jackson | Posted 10/13/1999

A Treasury Of Railroad Folklore

B.A. Botkin and Alvin F. Harlow, editors

Out of print

I spent endless nights reading tales from this fat volume when I was growing up. It seemed as vast, as colorful, and as invitingly explorable as America itself must have been in the late 19th and early 20th century, the era in which these writings were set. The volume was fashioned from magazine and newspaper articles, corny jokes, songs, poetry, academic studies, excerpts from railroad-magnate biographies and other folklore anthologies. It reveals much: how hoboes cooked Mulligan stew outside the railroad yards at night; how to identify an engineer by the sound of his engine's whistle; why the signature of J.B. King was scrawled on boxcars the world over.

Like any good folklore, these adventures harbor lessons beyond their subject matter. They're about common folk wrangling meaning from hardship, wilderness, and folly. They're about how a hurricane-flooded river could wipe out a railroad track and test the mettle of a train's engineer. This is storytelling at its purest, with no big-name writers or celebrated literary forms to grab the reader's attention. It holds nothing newsworthy and probably little of historical value. There's nothing to compel further reading except the sheer magnetic draw of yet another engaging tale well told.

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