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Outdoors North

Postcards give access to past

John Pepin, Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Journal columnist

“If you ever felt a locomotive shake the ground, I know you don’t have to be told why I’m going down to the railroad tracks and watch them lonesome boxcars roll.” — Butch Hancock

In late July, a man I knew who spent a good portion of his life collecting old postcards, coins and postage cancellation marks from post offices that no longer exist, died.

I guess he’d been ill for some time.

Over his days, he had done many things. As a boy, he had a dog and a pet chicken, and later, good memories of growing up fishing and berry picking along the Lake Superior shoreline with his dad.

He had been a member of the U.S. Survey Team, a soldier during the Vietnam era and he worked at a couple of local radio stations.

But it was his fascination with stamps, postcards and the history of these bygone, out of the way, locations where post offices had been situated that allowed our paths to eventually cross.

Over a period of about 15 years, when I was a newspaper reporter manning the Munising Bureau for The Mining Journal, I would consult Paul Petosky to get information for stories I was writing.

One such occasion was when the U.S. Postal Service first issued four 32-cent holiday wreath stamps from the village of Christmas in Alger County.

I recall vividly him being there at the little gift shop and post office, waiting in line to be one of the first to get a postcard with the beautiful wreaths and postage cancellation mark from Christmas.

I share Paul’s interest in old postcards, and I find stamps to be beautiful and interesting, but I never crossed the line into full-fledged collecting. I especially like the old postcards from the early days of the 20th century that look like paintings.

Those images seem to have been elaborately crafted, compared to similar offerings today. Old postcards also featured some things I wouldn’t expect to see today.

For example, I have a postcard showing firefighters responding to the scene of the Ishpeming High School fire. That strikes me as an odd thing to depict in a postcard.

It must have been the thing to do in those days. I saw another postcard from a downstate community showing a burned school in ruins. Weird.

One of my favorite postcards shows an old Lake Superior and Ishpeming Railroad train going over a high trestle above the Dead River. I have several of the Big Spring, showing visitors of changing fashion over the years.

Others I’m fond of show early images of the street I grew up on, aerial views of the Soo Locks and a fisherman angling along the Escanaba River.

I have several of the old Ishpeming postcards displayed in a wooden collage to showcase my hometown. I like the cards showing downtown Main Street from the 1960s and earlier.

As I’m writing this, I’m wondering if postcards are one of those things that are becoming obsolete in the face of text messages, selfies and virtual conversations?

I remember looking around one day finding that all the telephone booths were gone. Maybe it will be like that with postcards too.

Collecting the cancellation of postage marks is something harder for me to embrace. Without the colorful artwork paintings of old postcards and stamps, these historical artifacts remain far less attractive to me.

However, their historical relevance is another story.

I love visiting ghost towns, bygone locations and places where railroads meant just about everything, places that time forgot.

I have enjoyed walking the train tracks remaining in these old places since I was a kid. In their greasy silvery shine, I think they at once depict movement, travel and intrigue.

The idea of those big mechanical iron horses running on tracks set out across the countryside to feed and power a nation remains an incredible idea to me.

That notion is made even more fascinating by the fact that replicas of these mighty machines were made available to children of all ages in the form of toy trains of varying sizes. Whoever thought of this was a genius.

There are even toy train cars painted in the red, black and white of the Soo Line or the old black or copper-colored ore pellet cars of the L.S.&I Railroad. These more esoteric lines sit prominently alongside more mainline fare like the Santa Fe, Burlington Northern and the Union Pacific.

When I was a kid, I didn’t collect train cars as much as I did Matchbox and Hot Wheels cars. From station wagons, police cars and tow trucks to buses, race cars and all kinds of passenger cars — like those our parents drove — these small metal cars were fun to run across the wooden floor or the linoleum.

I used to also just like to open the case I kept them in and pick the cars up and stare at the handiwork put into crafting each of these little vehicles. I loved these toys.

As the name suggests, Hot Wheels were decidedly faster, racing down orange plastic sections of join-together track, doing loops and jumps. Shooting quickly over the tile and under the bed.

I racked up hours and hours of my childhood days playing with these toys.

I still feel like a kid today when I’m walking a railroad track, anticipating that I might hear an engine’s whistle blow at any minute. I wait and hope for it to happen.

I know that if I hear the whistle it won’t be long before I’ll get to see and feel the big steel cars roll on past, shaking the ground – like massive dinosaurs walking.

The railroad tracks are also good places to go to connect directly with feelings of loneliness and vacancy. The longer I walk, the better I feel.

There are also the solemn sounds of train cars passing, one after another after another, that make my think about the vastness and frightening speed of time, past, present and future.

Steel rails and crossties also make my mind ramble far and wide. When I walk, my boots pick up the inherent rhythm associated with trains and tracks. There’s a clicking sound that is infectious and keeps me moving.

I’ve also had a great deal of iron ore and creosote on my clothes over the years from sitting along the tracks or on the ties of railroad bridges. I love to be up high like that looking over the water to a stream tumbling by.

In times like these, my mind wanders back in time. Back as far as those days when the post offices and railway stations my friend Paul used to write about were around.

I try to imagine what it might have been like growing up in those days. It’s hard to really understand, even after I read about it, probably like those folks of the old days would have had a hard time really knowing what these Orwellian pandemic times are like to endure.

The obituary for Paul said he was still getting phone calls for information about the old post offices in the weeks just before he died at age 79. His family said he loved tracking down information for people and for a long time he was best friends with his computer. He was also a friend of mine I’ll miss.

High lines and railroad tracks are kin to be sure.

A lot of the places where I used to walk the tracks don’t have tracks anymore. Some are now dirt trails for snowmobiles and off-road vehicles, others are blacktopped streets right downtown.

Even a lot of the old railroad bridges, trestles and viaducts have been torn down, along with countless railway stations across this country.

The tracks Hemingway wrote about are still there, so are these steel rails right here under this cloudy sky on an early autumn day. Sun sinking low, just like my head when I walk, both of us heading for the far horizon.

Editor’s note: Outdoors North is a weekly column produced by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources on a wide range of topics important to those who enjoy and appreciate Michigan’s world-class natural resources of the Upper Peninsula.

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