Before my dad died in August 2010, he had begun work on his next book. “The time has come,” he had decided, “to write about more than just the things one understands; it is just as important if not more so to write about the things one cares about.” The thing my dad understood was twentieth-century European history. The thing he cared about—more than almost anything or anyone—was trains. His next book would be titled Locomotion: a history of the railway.
He spent his Putney, London childhood riding trains to nowhere in particular, just for the sake of riding. On summer days, he took the quaint suburban electric railway around suburbs and lumpy British hills, then back to Clapham Junction, where he picked his ride home from a row of grunting diesels and majestic old steamers that shuffled along nineteen different platforms. I spent my childhood listening to these wistful remembrances, trying to imagine eight-year-old Tony peering out onto a dark and smoggy London.1
Whenever he could, Dad took us railroading through Europe. We would board at the Gare du Nord, with its serpentine TGVs, or the Gare du Midi, with its blue and yellow boxy Belgian locals, or Waterloo, with its rows of channel-hopping Eurostars. We always arrived early so Dad could sip a double-espresso in the main hall.
If stations were his “cathedrals,” as my dad once wrote, timetables were his Bible. “My Europe is measured in train time,” he wrote. I distinctly remember the Christmas when Mom got him a Cook’s European train timetable, stuffed with up-to-date minutiae on the comings-and-goings of even the most local lines. It sat on his bedside table for months. My dad, ever the social democrat and in most respects fiercely egalitarian, took great pleasure in the fact that trains would not wait for anyone. “Rail travel,” he wrote, “was decidedly public transport.”
The other reason my dad cared so much about the railway’s effect on time was that rail travel was decidedly historical. “The truly distinctive feature of modern life,” he wrote, “is neither the unattached individual nor the unconstrained state. It is what comes in between them: society.” The advent of the railway marked this historical turn. Riding a train became the physical embodiment of a society moving collectively—not just through space, but through time.
This was the metaphor for trains that the historian Tony Judt, perhaps with a healthy dose of deformation professionelle, firmly held. What strikes me when I read him on railroads, though, is how his writing bears strikingly little resemblance to the man I grew up with—Tony as a private individual, and as a father. For that Tony, the railway was decidedly solitary and ahistorical. The two trains he cared about the most—one in a tiny Swiss town called Mürren, the other in a slightly larger but also tiny Vermont town called Rutland—were not about going somewhere collectively. They were a way to enter a state of timelessness where the past didn’t matter—where history didn’t exist.
To get to Mürren, you have to take the train. From Lauterbrunnen, a small valley town dappled with sun that glints off mountain glaciers, a cable car rocks you gently up a cliff side to Grütschalp. From Grütschalp, a dinky, light-brown single-carriage electric snakes slowly along the mountainside, stopping only at Winteregg—a stereotypically Swiss café with coffee, ice cream and astonishing views of the Jungfrau and Eiger mountains—before tugging you into Mürren. This route has been the same since 1891.
The people on the train to Mürren were almost always tourists and almost always British. My dad first came with his dad, Joe, in 1956. Joe, born in Belgium but by then a seasoned Londoner with a lower-middle-class British accent, saw Mürren as an escape: away from his wife (they eventually divorced), away from London, back to the continent.2 When I asked Joe a few years ago what he remembered of Mürren, he told me about the silence. “It was so quiet, a silent sheet of ice, a small village overwhelmed by the heights around it.” And indeed: in the Fifties as today, there is nothing to be done in Mürren but listen to silence, broken only by the habitual click-clack and whirr of the brown electric train. There are no cars (there is no road up the mountain) and only 426 inhabitants. Mürren’s hotels—seven, by my count—have nearly fifteen hundred beds, but these are hardly ever full, especially in summer, when my dad liked to go.
As a child in the 1950s, my dad was struck by how Switzerland seemed untouched by the war. The hotels were still “old, solid wood everywhere,” he wrote. The trains were methodical, technologically stunning, and a wonderful exception to Europe’s otherwise demolished infrastructure. Dad’s favorite quotation—one he managed to sneak into nearly every lecture he gave—was Harry Lime in The Third Man: “In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love—they had five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.” He read this as a compliment.
But when I read his work, it becomes difficult for me to distinguish between Dad’s childhood idea of Mürren and his adult one. When he was a child, Mürren might have offered him an escape from all the usual schoolboy alienations; perhaps it meant refuge from London; or perhaps it was simply a beautiful vacation spot that his father loved. When he began to study the history of twentieth-century Europe, though, I suspect Mürren took on a different role. My dad chose to become a historian of his own land in his own time. He remained perpetually at work: his source base was the world around him, always there, right under his nose. I suspect that Mürren became a place for my dad to turn off his historical radar; a beacon of childhood nostalgia, yes, but also of profound academic relief. If nothing happens, there is no history to be done.
From 1916 to 1918, some four hundred British soldiers and officers made Mürren their home. They were injured prisoners of war, held as part of an Anglo-German repatriation agreement. Switzerland’s location and neutrality made it the perfect place for the English, Germans, French and Belgians to exchange prisoners without risk of seeing their former captives back on the battlefield. The soldiers’ journey up to Mürren was the same as Dad’s in the Fifties, or mine today: a funicular followed by a trundling brown carriage.
Perhaps sensing they might be a while in Switzerland, the soldiers transformed the Swiss village into a surreal, miniature homeland, a London in the Alps. On May 27, 1917, they renamed Mürren’s few streets. One could stroll down “Piccadilly Lane” onto “Old Kent Road,” and from there wander to “Bow Street,” where he might stop and watch the train make its regular departures from “Charing Cross Station”! (“The geography is rather mixed,” one officer conceded.) The British internees established shops and training centers: a carpenter, a tailor, a dentist’s office, a motoring school, even a watchmaker’s store. They founded a YMCA hall for entertainment, and opened a library with over two thousand English volumes. They formed sports teams out of the hotels they lived in—the Hotel Eiger versus the Hotel Jungfrau in football, for example—and kept careful track of the results.
Soldiers communicated with their friends and families in England (and frequently wrote to ask for money), but they rarely heard news of the war that raged on around them. Sometimes, they didn’t want any. The editors of the local magazine BIM, British Interned at Mürren, asked not to receive war updates from London-based correspondents, perhaps to avoid raising hopes and fears. “At times echoes of the heavy guns reach us, reminding us of days that are past,” wrote BIM’s editors in their first issue. “We more or less patiently await the day when, for the last time, we descend the funicular on our way … home.”
Eventually, the YMCA ran out of its cheap tobacco, and to pass the time, soldiers began speculating on what part of the car to sit in, should the funicular cable snap and send them hurtling down the mountainside. “One end of the town seems dead and deserted, and the other end is not much better,” mused a listless writer for BIM in October 1917. “We are altogether lonely and miserable.”
When the war ended, so did the little world the soldiers had created in Mürren. BIM stopped without notice. The village’s roads were renamed. Its hotels no longer doubled as sports teams, and went back to serving wealthy British tourists. It was as though a little civilization had, one day and without warning, tumbled off the face of the earth. For two years, four hundred British troops had waited desperately to board the little electric train at “Charing Cross Station,” out of Mürren and back into the world.
In 2002, Dad brought me and my brother to Mürren for the first time. I was eight—the same age he was when he’d first gone in 1956. We took four trains: an impeccably modern inter-city line from Zurich Flughafen to Interlaken Ost; a slower but equally punctual regional train, with light blue polyester seats, from Interlaken to Lauterbrunnen; the cog-rail funicular up to Grütschalp; and the single-carriage cream-and-light-brown electric into Mürren. “There was still nothing to do,” he later wrote of our trip. “Paradise.”
I’m certain Dad didn’t know about the interned soldiers who, some 85 years earlier, would have agreed with “nothing to do” but objected to “paradise.” And yet had he known about BIM, about renamed streets and hotel sports teams, I think he would have said that history confirmed his instincts. The British soldier and my dad saw the same scenic train and felt the same escape from history, though only one of them enjoyed it.
At the end of every night, my mom, my brother and I walked down the little sloping road to Dad. We were heaving from our race up the hill, raw mountain air chilled our lungs, and we did not talk. Dad’s outline came into focus. Catcher-like, stocky, with a thick neck and a ruddy head, he stood alone in the crisp air, the bald plateau of his scalp reflecting the light of Mürren’s streetlamps out towards the Eiger mountain, whose dark outline carved a puzzle out of the blue-black sky. I stared at Dad, Dad stared at the mountain; nothing moved. In that second, I knew nothing would.
The railway brought us, at least metaphorically, from New York City to Rutland, Vermont in 2004. There were other reasons, too: the shock of September 11 had sent us and many other New Yorkers in search of refuge, a place where planes wouldn’t fly into skyscrapers and where the world remained unchanged. The clapboard house we settled in, creaky with old wooden beams, sits atop a hill, twenty minutes from town. At the bottom, a wall of evergreens conceals the railroad. Dad, double espresso in hand, stood on the back porch twice every day to catch a glimpse of the freight train through the trees. “We chose Rutland very deliberately because of the train station,” Mom said. For Dad, a train meant Rutland was an American Mürren.
Rutland is the last stop on Amtrak’s “Ethan Allen,” which runs daily out of New York City. The engine, a big, hunkering diesel, arrives at Rutland Station late each night and leaves early the next morning. The only other train in operation at the station, an earth-shaking freight, pulls propane, marble and everything in-between from Rutland to Massachusetts. But Dad never asked why this modest Vermont enclave (as opposed, say, to larger cities like Burlington or Manchester) could boast Amtrak service to New York or a freight railway that bordered our house.
It took Rutlanders a little longer than most Americans to come around to the railroad. By 1840, there were over three thousand miles of track in America, but Vermont had none. Worried that they would be left out of an economic boom, Vermont businessmen pushed through a charter for a railroad from Rutland to the Connecticut River, with a station smack in the center of town. The marble industries of neighboring West Rutland and Proctor prospered. In a speech to the treasurers of the Rutland-Burlington Line in 1849, an excited President T. Follett proclaimed that “Vermont is to participate fully in the enjoyment of those great enterprises which distinguish the present age of the world.” The more trains there were, the faster Rutland moved forward.
With trains came immigrants. Irishmen, fleeing famine at home, made their way from Boston and New York to work on railroad construction and settled in Rutland. Swedes, hearing of work at the marble quarries, soon followed. Then came the Poles. Then, at the turn of the century, Italians and Greeks; Finns, Hungarians, Czechs. Once a town of New England Protestants, Rutland in 1900 could boast of Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches, Polish and Italian schools. Rutland was “one of the most important municipalities in northern New England,” the Rutland Railroad Company bragged in an 1897 pamphlet, because Rutland was “the railroad center of the state.”
But this was not to last. The automobile, railway’s kryptonite, invaded Rutland as early as 1920. In 1927 a massive flood caused by a rainstorm did irreparable damage to Rutland’s railroad bridges. In 1947, another one knocked the limping industry off its feet. In 1961, a worker strike and lockout dealt the final blow; Rutland Railroad went bankrupt, and Rutland’s rail yard tumbled into disrepair. “It seems to me as if some sort of jinx has overtaken Rutland,” one local complained. The Rutland of my childhood had a plummeting population, a heroin problem, a homogeneous, aging community, and a Walmart where the old train yard once stood.
My hunch, and my mom agrees, is that my dad knew the gist of Rutland’s history. That this town once ran on trains; that its silent timelessness depended on the absence of a railroad that once was. He knew Rutland didn’t quite fit with Mürren, just as the passive American pastoralization of trains didn’t quite fit with the European emphasis on the experience of riding the railway. But here, as with Mürren, he pushed the past aside.
In 2008, Dad became terminally ill with ALS. By 2010, he was wheelchair-bound and paraplegic. Everything became an ordeal, from brushing his teeth to peeing to falling asleep at night. The worst part, though, was that his train days were over. “The most dispiriting consequence of my present disease,” he wrote, “is the awareness that I shall never again ride the rails.”
He wanted to be cremated. He and Mom considered two places to spread his ashes: Rutland or Mürren. But they worried we might sell the house in Rutland—and Vermont was, after all, but a lesser version of Switzerland. Besides, Dad had made already his preference public. “We cannot choose where we start out in life, but we may finish where we will,” he wrote. “I know where I shall be: going nowhere in particular on that little train, forever and ever.”
Trains were for Dad the antidote to everything he thought trains should be for us. “If we lose the railways … we have forgotten how to live collectively.” If he lost his railways, he had forgotten how to live alone. “That I should have experienced trains as solitude is of course a paradox,” he once conceded.
Dad indulged in a fictional Mürren and a fictional Rutland, and in doing so he violated one of his own most cardinal rules: that we are responsible for knowing the history of the places where we make our lives. Examine its past, and Mürren becomes a beautiful prison; Rutland, a shadow of her former self. These towns and their trains were only timeless if they had no history. (At a moment when nostalgia wins American elections, this might be a simple but useful reminder: a refusal to acknowledge a place’s history invites false perceptions of its current state.)
My father never wrote about Rutland or Mürren except as places immune to the flow of history. This decision was not pure and simple denial, nor was it moral inconsistency. For Dad, history was a diagnostic craft—there had to be a tension worth addressing—and in the grand scheme of modern Europe there just didn’t seem to be anything problematic about Mürren or Rutland. “Nothing ever went wrong there,” he wrote.
But I suspect there is more to Dad’s refusal than this. He understood just how powerful history can be. This is especially true of archival work, the kind of professionalized history I’ve performed here, and the kind my dad practiced and believed in. Oral history can come in imagistic snapshots, with no clear sense of progression and ample room for myth making. Archives have a way of crushing nostalgia and overruling memory. Beneath the obvious benefits, there is something regrettably final about this. We can revise histories, and historians often do. But retraction, the act of taking back a history once we know it exists—that is much harder.
I set out to write this essay because I wanted to know how Dad found these two towns, an ocean apart and linked only by his love—and what trains had to do with it. To answer this question, I instinctively turned to archives. I owe that instinct to Dad. He bequeathed me his Rutland and his Mürren, two pristine myths. But he also gave me the tools to tarnish them: his devotion to history, his conviction that archives would help him to interpret the world. I inherited both these gifts, but I forgot to keep them separate. Only now do I realize that for me, the electric train to Mürren will conjure memories of idle British soldiers, shuttled away from society and plunged into boredom. The single freight train in Rutland—the freight that, as I type this sentence, moves slowly through the trees behind me—will now seem to come with painful infrequency. I cannot undo this. Dad knew as much, and was one step ahead of me. Trains don’t bring us into or out of society; history does.
We traveled to Mürren to spread Dad’s ashes in August 2010. On our way there, we realized that leaving an urn of human remains inside the little electric carriage itself was a little too literal. Spreading Dad on the tracks was also not an option—my brother convincingly argued that, much as Dad loved that train, he did not wish to be run over for eternity.
Instead, we went for a hike. Starting at the Mürren train station—“Charing Cross,” that is—we headed out of town up a dirt path caked with petite flowers and frosted grass. The route wound up the mountain a ways and then leveled out, following the train track from a couple hundred feet above. We reached an undulating meadow. Below, the meadow fell into a steep cliff; through a mess of evergreens, tiny bits of train track glinted in the chilly sun. We spread his ashes there.
I’m not sure we got dad’s last request right, though. He was, after all, a European, and the Rutland model of standing and watching trains from your back porch was only ever an American compromise. He had no patience for people, like the preteen “trainspotters” of his British youth, who just stood and watched trains go by. Trains as vehicles of history, as the best of modernity, as civil society, or as just the opposite—all that symbolism only works when one becomes a passenger. You had to be going nowhere. “The point of a train,” Dad said, “was to get on it.”