You’ve probably noticed that our culture is in the process of renaming things—or de-naming things. It’s a confusing, but concerted effort to erase and eliminate uncomfortable history. That’s, perhaps, an article for another day. But here’s something I can get on board with.
I would like to suggest that we change the name “Grain Valley” to “Train Alley.” I’m a newcomer and only moved here in 2015. Since arriving, I have not seen any grain. Come to think of it, visiting Monkey Mountain, I saw neither monkey or mountain.
However, what I have seen and heard—is the train. In our divided country, we have been united by memes of Bernie Sanders. In Grain Valley we have been united by the train.
Think about it. We argue about roundabouts, masks, political ideology, and people who cut in the drive thru at McDonalds. These are all sources of contention. But, we all hate to get stopped by the train and all love to talk about it!
On Wednesday, January 27 of this year, we were holding our weekly kid’s program at the church. At check out time, several kids had not been picked up. There was some concern until we found out—the train was blocking the road—again!
I’ve always heard it’s hard to stop a train, but apparently not so much in Train Alley. We’re kind of used to it. Not so much fun when you’re just making a Sonic run or have to pick up the kids, but, it does bring us together if only for a moment. And, it is a source of entertainment.
Seeking the latest fodder, I hurried to social media to the Residents of Grain Valley Facebook page. Melissa, an unfortunate newcomer to town, perhaps out looking for grain wrote, “Okay, I’m fairly new here... why the heck does the train always park itself in the middle of GV?”
Thankfully, many residents, concerned about her plight, offered their assistance. At last check, about ninety-one comments. Some of the comments were extremely witty. Some were informational. Some offered sympathy. Some welcomed Melissa to town. Most complained about the train. For a brief moment, we forgot about our differences and, our lives intersected—albeit at a railroad crossing.
My first memory of a railroad was at my grandmother’s house in Hialeah, Florida. My family tried to visit weekly. When I got bored wandering the backyard and throwing mangos at lizards, I wandered off to the train tracks. I was fascinated by their construction and wondered where the trains came from and where they went to. It was fun to think about.
In 1990, my wife and I moved to New Orleans into a one-bedroom apartment at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. Several years later, we decided to buy a trailer in the trailer park on seminary property. Like the Jefferson’s, we were “movin’ on up” and thought we reached the big time. The only drawback, other than living in a metal box in Louisiana’s sweltering heat, was the fact that we lived right next to the train tracks. A small price to pay for luxury.
It was apparent when the train came through. The foundations upon which our metal box rested shook violently, sometimes causing pictures to fall off the wall. Over time, we removed anything breakable, and kind of got used to the train. When friends would visit, and the train would come rumbling through, rattling our world, they would say, “Oh my goodness, doesn’t that train bother you?” Our response was usually, “What train?”
There were really only two times the train bothered us. First, when the train came around a bend and the light faced directly toward our bedroom window. Thankfully, the aluminum foil we put on the windows put an end to that. The second issue was that the train would often stop on the track and just sit.
After some time, it would start again. The roaring locomotive leading the pack chugged on its way, but the cars in tow hadn’t figured it out yet. However, when they were arrested to attention and commanded to move, there was a huge “clang” that sounded like Thor wielding a sledgehammer and striking a large anvil with incredible force right outside our bedroom window.
The aluminum foil didn’t help with that problem. It was enough to make us shoot straight up in bed in the middle of the night. Over time, however, the frequent sound of the train brought a strange comfort and tranquility. It just made me feel like, “all was right in the world.” Trains can do that.
The First Transcontinental Railroad was constructed between 1863 and 1869. It connected the existing eastern U.S. rail network at Council Bluffs, Iowa with the Pacific coast at the Oakland Long Wharf on San Francisco Bay. The railroad officially opened for travel between Sacramento and Omaha on May 10, 1869. That’s when the golden “last spike” was driven in by a silver hammer in Promontory Summit.
According to, “A History of Grain Valley,” by Michael Gillespie, the Kansas City, St. Louis, and Chicago Railroad obtained a state charter to build a line from Mexico, Missouri, to Kansas City. By August of 1878, railroad work was in high gear as more than one-thousand laborers prepared the area for track gangs who laid an average of 1-1/4 miles of rail per day.
The tracks reached our area in January of 1879. In fact, Grain Valley, like neighboring towns, received its name from the C&A who had a say in naming the city. We didn’t name the train. The train named us.
The first passenger trains roared through our city in May of 1879 and, according to Gillespie, after one year of operation, Grain Valley generated over 260 carloads of outbound freight per year — mostly grain and livestock.
Even though we have other forms of mass transit, the trains are still used today. In fact, freight trains are cheaper, more economical, and better for the environment.
The majority of trains in the U.S. are diesel-electric, which means, a diesel engine runs a generator that supplies electric traction motors that turn the wheels. They can also move more cargo more efficiently. On average, freight trains are about 11 times more energy-efficient than trucks.
“Well, maybe so,” you might argue, “but why don’t we just force the trains to stop blocking the intersection? It’s complicated. By law, all passenger and freight rail travel in the U.S. is subject to regulation by the Federal Railroad Administration. Rail travel has been under federal law since 1887.
According to MODOT, it’s “unlawful for a train to prevent the use of any street for purposes of travel for a period of time longer than five minutes. This does not apply to a moving train or to one stopped because of an emergency or for repairs necessary before it can proceed safely.” I’m no legal expert, but there are enough holes in this statement to call it swiss cheese.
So, when all is said and done, the train is good news/bad news. The bad news is, since the train was here before we even existed and is subject to federal legislation that is somewhat nebulous, crossing the track means that we will likely one day get caught by the train. Sorry, Melissa.
As I write this final line, the train whistle is blowing in the background. I can’t help but smile at the impeccable timing. I also have a strange sense of history and nostalgia. I also wonder if the train is just passing through or if he plans to stop and run down to Sonic.
Either way, the passing train passes the time. Its constant rumbling, horn-tootin’, and intermittent stopping on the tracks bring us together—if only for forty minutes.
So, rather than fight the impossible, let’s embrace the inevitable and see the opportunity before us!
To naysayers, it’s 2021. The grain is gone. The train is here to stay and sometimes to stop. Here’s my passionate plug to rename Grain Valley to Train Alley. I would also like to suggest a tagline: “Train Alley: the town where if you’re just passing through, you’re probably on the wrong track.”
Dr. Wayne Geiger Pastor of First Baptist Grain Valley, an Adjunct Professor of Speech, and freelance writer.