Monthly Archives: June 2011

Riding the rails in Boone, Iowa

(The photos above, taken by Phil Roberts, are related to the following story.)

As a semi-retired freelance and part-time news reporter for four media sources, I receive lots of news releases and an occasional invitation to one sort of event or another.

One that caught my eye recently was from a railroad-related attraction in central Iowa that’s been on my bucket list.

It was an invitation to attend the ground-breaking for the attraction’s new museum addition, followed by a 45-minute train ride.

I’m a train nut. It’s in my blood. My grandfather on my mother’s side, Ben Miller, worked on the railroad all his life, starting as the water boy for a section gang and ending up a conductor on the Burlington Route’s Mark Twain Zephyr.

I checked our calendar. It was clear the day of the event, so my wife Sherry and I headed to Boone, Iowa, located about 12 miles west of Ames.

If you like the sound of the lonesome train whistle and the clickety-clack of steel wheels rolling down the rails, you’ll love the Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad (, located on land near downtown that once housed some railroad car shops.

For its sightseeing and dinner train rides in the countryside from its present combination depot/museum, the railroad uses some of the track from a now-defunct Fort Dodge to Des Moines inter-urban train. More on the ride in a moment.

The attraction will soon be bigger and better.

Ground was ceremoniously broken for the James H. Andrew Railroad Museum and History Center.

The $1.5 million project is named for an elderly farmer from Jefferson, Iowa, who made a significant financial contribution to it and whose extensive railroad collection it will house.

It’s a large project for an organization staffed mostly by volunteers but most of it has already been paid for.

The new museum is expected to open in May.

The ride in the old passenger cars into rural Iowa was lots of fun. One section of track is on a high trestle over a valley. The view is breathtaking.

Our conductor even let us punch our own tickets. That’s a thrill for a railroad buff like me.

Copyright 2011 by Phil Roberts, Creative Enterprises.

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Posted by on June 22, 2011 in Uncategorized


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Whew! That was a close call!

We were all smiles after a ride to the top of the Arch on June 8. Not everyone was smiling June 16. Arch photo.

My wife Sherry and I were gone on a sightseeing trip much of Friday, June 17. When we arrived home, there was a message on our answering machine from my friend John.

He told me he had heard on the news that a tram that had been taking visitors to the top of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis had malfunctioned a day earlier, trapping the passengers for a time.

Was he joking?

I jumped on the Internet and saw it was no joke. There they were several stories about the frightening incident. John knew the news stories would strike a chord with me; that’s why he had called.

My wife, three grandsons and I had visited the 630-foot monument on the St. Louis riverfront on Wednesday, June 8, a humid, 97-degree Missouri day. Despite my better judgment and my fear of heights and confined spaces, I decided to join Sherry and two of the boys (the third one declined to go) inside one of the small tram capsules for the four-minute ride up the inside of one of the monument’s legs to the top.

All the way up, I kept thinking to myself, “You’re taking a chance; this thing was built by the low bidder.” But the trip went off without a hitch for us, the view from the top was great and I wrote about the experience in a North Scott Press column published Wednesday, June 15.

According to news accounts regarding the June 16 tram malfunction, a power outage brought the north leg tram, the same one we had taken, to an abrupt halt about 430 feet from the ground and two minutes into the ascent to the arch’s observation deck at its apex.

Forty or so riders were trapped. The small, windowless tram cars went dark, and the air-conditioning stopped. The temperature in them built to more than 100 degrees.

The anxious passengers had an hour-long wait while Arch workers and firefighters manually pulled the tram the rest of the way to the top. I can only imagine what the visitors were going through emotionally and physically during that time.

One passenger reportedly passed out after suffering a panic attack. Some workers also received minor injuries. The cause of the power failure was under investigation.

When the little tram car we were riding in descended on June 8, I breathed a sigh of relief. I had survived what, for me, was probably a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Now I can guarantee that — it was, indeed, a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Copyright 2011 by Phil Roberts, Creative Enterprises. Submitted as a column to The North Scott Press, Eldridge, Iowa

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Posted by on June 18, 2011 in Uncategorized


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Dashing my demons at the Gateway Arch

The majestic Arch from a highway. Phil Roberts photo.

Pierce, Sherry, Harrison and Cade before heading inside. Phil Roberts photo.

Waiting to board a tram car. Phil Roberts photo.

(Note: There are additional photos posted at the end.)

A “Bucket List” is a listing of those things you want to do and those places you want to see before you die.

One of the items on my Bucket List is traveling what’s left of America’s highway, Route 66.

There should also be a “No Way List” (that’s my term) for things you don’t want to do and places you don’t want to see before you cash it in.

One of the items that’s been on my No Way List was riding up the inside of a leg of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis aboard a tiny tram – supplied by the lower bidder — all the way to the top.

But that experience is no longer on my No Way List because recently, in a moment of extreme bravery, or perhaps weakness, I decided to take that high-rise ride with some other family members.

The Gateway Arch is America’s tallest manmade monument. My first trip to the breathtaking, 630-foot attraction on the St. Louis riverfront was, I think, in the 1980s when Sherry and I took our then-young four children to St. Louis for a short vacation.

I fear heights (the word for people like me is acrophobia), and that was true even before I fell off a roof many years ago. I also don’t like being in confined spaces (that’s claustrophobia).

So when our children asked if we could all ride to the top of the Arch during our visit, I cringed and my heart skipped a few beats. A normal rhythm returned, and I breathed a sigh of relief, when we learned the tram was out of service that day.

That wasn’t the only time our kids were disappointed when it came to tall structures. When we visited Chicago and walked by what then was called the Sears Tower, we did just that. We walked by.

Most people go up to the top and look down. We stayed outside and looked up. I wish I had been braver then, but I wasn’t. You never know, after all, when an earthquake might strike and cause the whole works to tumble to the ground.

Beginning in the 1990s, though, I began meeting at least one of my two demons — the fear of heights — head-on as Sherry and I traveled.

When we were in Florida, I climbed 203 stairs in a mostly open circular staircase all the way to the top of the 175-foot lighthouse at Ponce Inlet near Daytona Beach just to prove to myself that I could do it.

Sherry started up, too, bless her heart. But her legs were shaking so badly she turned around and went back down. My legs were weak, too, but I just forged on out of determination, I guess.

Since then we’ve gone to the top of New York City’s 1,250-foot Empire State Building, Seattle’s 605-foot Space Needle and San Antonio’s 750-foot-tall Tower of the Americas.

I wasn’t comfortable in any those high places, but the views made the ascents worthwhile. And, when the trips to the top were over, I did feel like I had accomplished something worthwhile.

That brings me back to the Gateway Arch.

We recently found ourselves in St. Louis enjoying a day on the town with three grandsons, Cade, Harrison and Pierce.

Harrison wanted to see the Arch, so we drove by it and I took a couple of photographs, hoping that would be adequate. But no, he wanted to see the Arch up close and personal, so all of us journeyed there.

After walking through a museum at the Arch, it was time for a ride to the top for those who wanted to go.

Cade wasn’t interested. I could certainly relate to that. Sherry, Harrison and Pierce did want to go. And I was on the fence. Riding to the top, you see, meant I’d be battling both my acrophobia and claustrophobia.

But as Sherry neared the head of the line to buy the tickets, I mustered what courage I had and said I’d go too.

Little cars on the tram launch from both the north and south legs of the Arch. As I recall, there are eight cars in each leg. The cars interiors are all white. They seat five and are air-conditioned. Thank God for that because it was a record-setting 97 degrees and quite humid in St. Louis the day we were there.

A door slides open and you enter your tram car through what looks like a hatch on a ship. A recorded voice on a loudspeaker tells you to be sure not to bump your head, which is what I promptly did. Then the door slides shut, and there’s no turning back for cowards.

The ride to the top takes only four minutes. (Going back down it takes just three minutes.)

When your little cocoon is near the top of the Arch, the tram stops and the door slides open so you can depart. You walk up a short flight of steps and into a long, narrow viewing room. The curved floor leaves no doubt that you’re at the top of the Arch, the section that holds it all together.

The carpeted room — it’s like a long hallway — is quite bright because of the many viewing windows on each side of it. On the east side your view is of the Mississippi River and Illinois. On the west side, you can see downtown St. Louis, including Busch Stadium.

You can see 30 miles on a clear day.

Even on a hazy day, the view is spectacular and makes for some wonderful photos. You can stay at the top of the Arch as long as you wish, then you catch the next available ride back down.

It’s a wonderful experience. But, if you’re claustrophobic like me, do make sure you ride in a tram car with people who know and love you.
There are two reasons for this.

First, if you go berserk because of your claustrophobia and start whimpering uncontrollably, you certainly don’t want to be among strangers.

Second, if you’re with people you know, you won’t imagine that the stranger seated across from you is a serial killer with four minutes alone with you in a confined space.

I know, I’ve been watching too many movies.

Happy travels, everyone.

Copyright 2011 by Phil Roberts, Creative Enterprises. This piece has been provided as an Everyday People to The North Scott Press, Eldridge, Iowa.

In the tram nearly ready to go. Phil Roberts photo.

Pierce going up. Phil Roberts photo.

Harrison and Sherry going up. Phil Roberts photo.

Phil going up. Sherry Roberts photo.

In the viewing room. Sherry Roberts photo.

The room at the top. Phil Roberts photo.

What a view! Phil Roberts photo.


Posted by on June 13, 2011 in Uncategorized


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