“Blue Water Line”: A retrospective on grassroots transit initiatives

Some time ago a folk song called “Blue Water Line” crossed my path.  The song (whose lyrics are available here recounts a grass-roots effort to buy out a failing railroad before the city replaces the depot with a new factory.  The second verse talks about all the historical connections that form the basis for the preservationist sentiment–Lincoln, Jessie James, etc.  The third lays out the financial needs for the bailout to work.  The chorus ends with the line “If everybody gave then we could save the Blue Water Line.”

The origins of the song are obscure, as is the question of whether this is a specific instance, or a generalization of a recurring theme.  The defiant (if rather silly) reference to making railroad opponent William Jennings Bryan stoke coals on the newly-resuscitated railway suggests at date not later than c1920, though of course the theme of closing railroads would have resonated when the song was recorded in the late 1960s (an era which also produced the better-known “City of New Orleans”).  There is some evidence the song was a heavily rewritten version of a song of which Bryan was the central character.

Despite the perky music, the tune as a whole has a rather macabre feel to it (like other ballads such as “Casey Jones” where you know the hero is going to snuff it in the end).  The song, after all, takes place after the city has made its decision.  Granted, such votes can sometimes be reconsidered, but it’s a bit late to be starting an effort.

And then there’s the larger question:  Save it for what?  If the market is drying up (and with the exception of World War II, the market hasn’t been very conducive for passenger railroad operations since the beginning of the 20th century), what sort of terms are going to let the service continue indefinitely?  How long until the next bailout? Have they considered the cost of ownership, including operations? (To their credit, at least they’re trying to preserve it themselves and not immediately clamoring for a Congressional earmark–I assume.  In retrospect, I suppose they could be applying for a local-match grant…but probably not if the song is set in the 1910s/20s.)

As a packrat, I understand the pull of sentimental value.  As a transportation planner, I understand the importance a town might attach to its passenger rail link.  On the other hand, we don’t know just how rail-dependent the town in question is.  For all we know, it might be in such a state economically that, without the factory, there might not be a town.

Who knows?  Maybe there are very important economic reasons to maintain the rail service in spite of the costs.  If so, the people who are organising the bailout would be well-advised to mention them, if they want to build a winning proposition.  But they don’t–their case is built entirely on sentiment, which tells me their cause might be better served by building a small museum or the occasional recreation train than maintaining an expensive regular passenger service.

Of course, in a final twist of irony, the city’s new factory possibly wouldn’t have lasted past the 70s and 80s either.  Who knows?  Maybe their factory would’ve ended up being converted to loft apartments… in conjunction with a new transit-oriented development….


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One Response to ““Blue Water Line”: A retrospective on grassroots transit initiatives”

  1. dhparker Says:

    Interesting folk song/transit initiative study! You may already have found this site: http://www.brothersfour.com/index.html Down near the bottom of the page is a link that says: drop us a line. You might want to see if they know anything more about the song.

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