A Snapshot in Time

Seth Brickley

Spooner, Wisconsin

A friend and I recently took a day trip to the Railroad Memories Museum in Spooner, Wisconsin. This small, north-midwestern town holds a rich history on my father’s side. It’s where my great-grandfather’s home is, and where he worked on the railroad. Now, I never met him. He died in 1984, and I was born in 1986, so when we went to the railroad museum I had no idea the window into the past that I would discover. As we walked into the museum there were two men sitting at the front desk. One man was the President of the museum, and I informed him that my great-grandfather lived in Spooner and had worked in the railroad. He asked me what his name was, and I blanked on his first name, so I said, “Brickley.” He responded, “Bill Brickley?” I said, “Yes, that’s him.” I was amazed at where our conversation went from here. He informed me that the people at the railroad called him, “Mr. Perfect.”

At this point, I realized that this gentleman I was speaking with not only knew of my great-grandfather but knew him personally. This is remarkable considering he’s been gone thirty-nine years. The gentleman before me was in his mid-seventies so he would have known my great-grandfather when he was in his twenties. He said that his fellow railroaders called him, “Mr. Perfect” because my great-grandfather always dressed nicely when he came to the railroad to work. His father was a conductor, and my great-grandfather was an engineer. The conductor captained the train while the engineer drove it. This man informed me that his father would have worked with my great-grandfather from time to time, and said that while some engineers were less than stellar, my grandfather was good at his job. He also told me that my great-grandfather started there in 1929 at the age of twenty-three as a fireman (back when trains ran by steam engine), and over time he worked his way up to the position of engineer. He then showed me a picture of what he looked like. This was a profound experience for me because to my recollection I had never seen a picture of him before. He also showed me a newspaper article from 1976 (when he retired) that told the story about his forty-seven-year railroading career.

A Place Steeped in History

The man continued to tell the story about the richness of this railroad station that few knew about. We learned that several American presidents had come through this location. In the 1920s, while Calvin Coolidge was President, he passed through on his way to a home he built in northern Wisconsin on the Brule River. His home was a from the business of the Presidency, and a place where he loved to fish. President Eisenhower later came to the same house for fishing retreats. John F. Kennedy also came through this station (inside a restaurant in town there’s still a sign reading, “John Kennedy used this restroom”).

But the most memorable event took place in 1948. That was the year President Harry Truman was trailing longtime New York Governor Thomas Dewey in the polls for the election of ’48. To revive his campaign, Truman traveled by railroad across America giving speeches from the back of the train. One of the places he stopped was the station in Spooner, Wisconsin, where thousands gathered to hear him. Truman, in a historic comeback, ended up defeating Dewey. The famous picture that came from this election shows Truman holding a Chicago paper that had too hastily declared Dewey the winner. It was his grassroots railroad campaign that propelled him to victory.

One can see why Truman stopped here. In the middle of the Twentieth Century, Spooner’s Railroad Station was a major Midwestern hub. Back then, a restaurant/hotel was attached to the station, but sadly it shut down in 1992, and all that remains is a museum with only half the buildings that were there long ago, having been torn down decades ago. The location where Truman gave his campaign speech is not even marked – all that remains is an old rail line overgrown with grass. Indeed, what Scripture says is true, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven”… “a time to break down, and a time to build up” (Ecclesiastes 3:1, 3).

“For you are a mist”

As I experienced this once-thriving Midwest Railroad Station, it reminded me that we all live in a snapshot of time. My great-grandfather spent decades living and working in this place. The station was a centerpiece to the locals for employment and social life. People from all around the Midwest enjoyed the liveliness of the restaurant and hotel. Several American Presidents were also familiar with this popular transportation center, but all that liveliness has passed.

As Scripture describes, “What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (James 4:14). Most people who lived through the glory years of this railroad station have passed. So too one day will we who are living now. This is why we need to heed the words of Scripture, “The years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty; yet their span is but toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away…So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:10, 12). For the people of the Spooner Railroad Station – those who worked there, lived there, and all those who passed through, common and famous alike – their time has passed. They have lived their lives and the Lord, “will repay each one according to his deeds” (Romans 2:6). For some it will be hearing the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:21), while others will have wasted their lives away and receive the penalty due their sin (Philippians 3:19). As you are reading this, time still remains to live your life for the Lord’s sake. How will you live in this brief snapshot of time that he has given you?

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