By Tom Wood
Sleep comes fitfully at best on this long journey, but the grimy window pane feels cool against my face. I squirm on the hard, uncomfortable wooden seat, eyes still closed, imagining what adventures might await around the next bend, in the next town or somewhere in the surrounding, snow-capped Rockies.
The high-pitched whistle of the locomotive startles everyone, whether awake or napping. My heart races with anticipation and excitement, slowing only as the chugga-chugga-chuggas begins to decrease in rhythmic pace. The engineer clangs the big iron bell three times, and the screeching of the hand brakes signals our final approach into the Denver train station.
A new life, a new job await. After three marvelous days traveling from Saint Louis, the Gateway to the West, a new world unfolds. I will spend two more in this Western boom town getting to know my new boss, A.W. Merrick, former publisher of The Pioneer in Deadwood, South Dakota. He is launching another newspaper in Colorado and advertised back east for “an eager, young reporter who desires a change of scenery.”
That’s me, Foster Peabody, determined to make a name for myself. It will be no easy task, considering that I come from a long line of successful newspapermen, educators, doctors and philanthropists — the most prominent being distant third cousin Dutton Peabody (founding editor of the Shinbone Star); great-grandfather George Peabody, who a quarter-century ago had a college in Nashville, Tennessee, named for him; and my namesake uncle, George Foster Peabody. Names can open doors, but you have to walk through them yourself. My intent is to plow through them like this steam locomotive on which I travel. …
… It is a new century, 1901 to be exact, and all those images in my mind are the stuff of legends, another world. Now twenty-one, a strapping six-foot-two with wispy brown hair and a handlebar mustache that makes me look (and feel) older, I feel that I am ready to truly make my mark in the world.
The kindly old Negro porter knocks on the door of my Pullman coach. We have exchanged friendly words on this journey—he has taken a shine to me after learning we share the same hometown—and he is full of colorful tales of life west of the Mississippi. He hasn’t told me much about his life in Nashville, except that he was born on a plantation and his parents stayed on as sharecroppers following the Great Emancipation by President Lincoln.
When I asked in that first conversation what circumstances led to his coming West, his eyes lit up and he said it was in fifteenth year. He started to say more, but stopped and said he had other duties to attend. If I am a good judge of a man, I reckon Mister Love has seen quite a bit in his railroading trips through this amazing country. We have shared stories about our youth in Nashville a few more times, but he has yet to reveal much about heading out West. Perhaps someday our paths will cross again and he will tell me his story. For now, I must prepare to write my own story, and it is time.
“This is your stop, Mister Peabody. May I help with your luggage?”