On Trains & Tolstoy

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This past week, I’ve been re-reading Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina–one of my favorite novels. Anna’s and Vronsky’s ill-fated affair is framed by the coming-and-going of trains: they’re a symbol of their love, of ties to the “West” and, ultimately, of the tragedy at the novel’s conclusion. Trains were, in many ways, at the center of my ancestors’ lives; like many others, my ancestors followed the railroad and worked as machinists or boiler makers to connect the east coast and west coast by rail.

Brooks Locomotive Works, established in 1869, was a 20-acre complex on the east side of Dunkirk, New York that employed over 1,000 men from the area, including Thomas Kuznicki, Sr., and Stanley Zielinski. Brooks produced its own electricity via a nearby power plant and used electrically-powered cranes in its shop; to produce steam and electrical power, the company used 400 pounds of coal per week. In 1872, Brooks produced 72 locomotives; by 1882, the company was manufacturing over 200 locomotives per year, and that number continued to grow. The company played a keyed role in producing “Long Tom” artillery during World War II, and it was a popular place to work because it offered vocational training to anyone willing to work a 10-hour shift.

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Trains are associated with tragedy and loss in my family, as well. John and Agnes (Witkowski) Tarnowski, my 3rd great-uncle and 3rd great-aunt, owned a home on 221 Nevins Street that had train tracks in the backyard. On April 16, 1924, two-year-old Janina “Jane” Tarnowski was hit by a train while her mother was gardening a few feet away. Jane was adored by her parents, siblings and cousins, and although they lost her at such a young age, they still continue to keep her memory alive. Everyone in the family takes turns visiting her grave and leaving fresh flowers each week, and stories of Jane have been passed down from generation-to-generation by her siblings–even the siblings who never had the opportunity to meet “darling Janina” themselves.

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On June 6, 1950, almost 26 years later, my great-great-grandmother (and Jane’s Aunt Mary), was struck by a train and died instantly at the age of 65. Mary had a dairy cow that she would walk back-and-forth across the train tracks each day; she’d visit my great-grandmother, Hattie, for lunch and would let the cow graze in the backyard. Mary also had dementia, though, and the family hypothesizes that she woke up in the middle of the night on June 6 and, believing it to be midday, walked across the  train tracks to visit Hattie. She must not have heard the approaching train, and she walked right into its path. Hattie and her husband were the only members of the family with a car at the time, and Hattie had to drive into the city to identify her mother’s body–I cannot imagine how difficult this was for her.

Like Anna and Vronsky, trains have always been at the center of my ancestors’ stories. All of the men in my family worked at Brooks Locomotive Works at one point or another, and everyone was impacted by the tragic and sudden loss of Jane and, later, Mary. This post is different from the other stories I share on the blog; I normally celebrate each ancestor’s life and focus on a favorite memory or photograph. Jane’s and Mary’s stories, though, aren’t stories that our family has hidden or attempted to forget, and sharing these memories–providing a space for them among the other family memories I’ve shared–feels like a way to honor them, too. Just a few random thoughts this week on Tolstoy, trains and honoring family after tragedy; let me know what you think, and thanks for reading each week.

15 thoughts on “On Trains & Tolstoy

  1. It’s amazing how important the trains were even in the early 1900s. My family was very involved with trains back in England, and a few of them were killed as well – so I read this with interest. Sad stories clearly in yours too.

    (FYI – your YouTube video isn’t playing!)

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I’m sorry to hear that, but it seems to me that it was very common back then. And I agree–it’s remarkable how important trains were (the industry kept food on my ancestors’ tables for decades!). I’m glad you enjoyed the post despite the sad ending!

      And thank you! The owner wants viewers to click back to YouTube to watch the video–I considered adding one that would play on my site, but this one’s my favorite so I kept it. The images were just too cool to eliminate from the post, even if you have to go to a different site to see them!

      Liked by 3 people

  2. My heart sank reading about Jane and then Mary. But I was delighted that the memory of Jane has been kept alive by her visitors over the years. Some of my favorite memories are of riding on trains to get to NYC – the double decker car! Thank you for the awesome post that got me looking back.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Jane’s siblings have shared her story over and over again since that day, and it’s wonderful to see the ways they’ve kept her memory alive. I’m really glad the story reminded you of your own story–that’s always my goal! THANK YOU for reading, and I think your NYC train memories would make a great future post on your site…ha! I’d love to read it!!!

      Liked by 3 people

  3. From our vantage point in time, I think we tend to romanticize train travel, when the everyday reality of it was quite different. I was really struck by this in looking for vintage photographs of Vermont recently. I couldn’t believe the number of train derailments.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. We really do–even the novels I loved to read growing up romanticized train travel. And while there is a romantic element to it, sure, hearing these stories from my mom and grandma about our ancestors completely changed my perspective. You make a really great point.

      This week, I’ve been researching an ancestor who was in charge of signaling to conductors when to slow the train, stop the train, etc. with a lantern at night. There are a number of derailments during the time he was working for the railroad–and some directly involved him and are listed in his file. I can imagine how many you’ve found so far–isn’t it sobering?

      Liked by 2 people

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