Wednesday, October 20, 2004

The Lost Railroad and the Land of Salamanders

Under the bridge. Winter, 1972.This was the view under the abandoned railroad bridge at the edge of Cherry Manor in Manlius, NY, probably in the winter of 1971-1972. I know it was when I was hanging out with Tracy M, around eighth grade.

Cherry Manor was more-or-less across the street from my house. Dan Cheney lived there when we were in elementary school together. It was the stone wall behind Dan's house in Cherry Manor that occasioned an explanation from him about the ice age which I didn't fully understand. I told my family at dinner that there had been monsters called glaciers in Cherry Manor, and they'd scratched the rocks.

Perhaps half a block from where that incident took place, this bridge was the unremarked gateway out of Cherry Manor into a bit of semi-wilderness that was my favorite place in Manlius for years and years. I first learned about it in Girl Scouts, on a scavenger hunt. I was afraid to climb the steep path up to the top of the bridge, but other girls did it with no problem. I later went back to the place alone, many times, and I did climb that path occasionally. It was kind of pointless, though, because there were easier ways up. That part of the railroad track, which still had some of the wooden ties but I think no metal track, didn't lead anywhere much. Half of the railroad bridge itself was long gone, as you can see in the picture below, taken in 1971.

Iwinter of 1970-1971. Note the missing part of the bridge.f I walked under or next to the bridge, along this mostly-disused road, I would soon come to what I used to call Bathtub Pond. This was no more than twenty feet across, perhaps less, and no more than two or three feet deep. It had the following features:

1. A rusty, cylindrical tank, suitable for sitting on.
2. An old bathtub.
3. Those little black bugs that skittered along the surface of the water.
4. Frogs.

Over the years the frogs disappeared, and the pond dried up. But it was a neat place while it lasted.

Bathtub Pond was surrounded by fields of weeds, including lots of wild black raspberry vines. These were long and thorny and whip-like, and no fun to brush past. The berries were small compared to commercial blackberries, and quickly turned skin and tongues purple. But they were great. The area just beyond the disused railroad tracks was one of the best places to collect them.

Past the fields and the pond was a small forest of beeches and sugar maples, mostly the latter. If I remember correctly, the road forked and then dead-ended.  The left fork went  past a ravine I called Long Valley. I usually went right.

Maybe fifty feet from the edge of the woods to the right was a large, flat boulder.  Like the rusty tank, it was a good place to hang out, but being in the shade it was a bit cooler. It was mossy and variegated gray in color, probably granite or limestone.  Surrounding it were lots of lesser rocks, small, flat, broken ones like flagstones and rounder, smoother ones. Under many of these, when I was in sixth and seventh and eighth grade, I  could usually find and catch one or more red-backed salamanders. Each of these critters was about  two to five inches long. If you grabbed one by the tail and held it up, its tail would drop off, allowing the salamander to escape. That didn't stop me (sometimes with Tracy M.) from collecting a bunch of them as "pets." One day we caught 23 of them. I even wrote an essay for school, called "Stalking the Dreaded Red-Backed Salamander." Once or twice I also caught one of the big black salamaders with greenish-white spots, about six to eight inches long.

Is it any wonder that by the time I graduated from high school, salamanders were rare in those woods? By the time I got to high school I realized what I had done to that population, but it was already too late.

The bridge dated back to 1917 or earlier. I think there were different dates on different sides of the bridge.Going more than a few hundred feet into the woods was a disappointment. There was a house there, at the edge of some other street, not Cherry Manor but probably somewhere between there and Pleasant Street. I never wanted to trespass or explore enough to find out exactly where the access to that house was. As long as I didn't find the road, I could pretend that the house was all by itself in the woods, reasonably far from civilization. Heck, maybe it was.

But if I followed the railroad tracks south from the missing part of the railroad bridge, I would eventually come out  near Seneca Turnpike, not far from Pleasant Street.  A couple of times, I used that route as a shortcut back from my guitar lessons with Jackie, when my mom would get fed up waiting for me to come out, and leave without me. (I never seemed to finish my guitar lesson at the appointed time!)

Other days, though--on many, many other days--I would ride my bike up to the railroad bridge, calling out, "Bye, Mom! I'm going to the tracks!" on my way out the door. I'd ditch the bike in the trees just short of the bridge, out of sight. Sometimes I'd be up there with Sue or Tracy or Joel or Cindy. Most of the time, I was alone.

Afterwards, if I worked at it and there was no intervening traffic, I could ride my bike down the hill through Cherry Manor, across F-M Road and up my driveway without pedaling once.

It should be obvious by now that the railroad tracks near my old house in Manlius had not carried a locomotive on them in a very long time. I don't remember where the nearest viable tracks were, but they had to be several miles away at least.

But lying in bed, half a mile from the old, broken railroad bridge, I often heard a train whistle blow.


Photos by KFB.


alphawoman1 said...

Great entry.  I had railroad tracks and a tunnel in my childhood too.  I love the sound of the train whistle in the night.

ryanagi said...

No tracks in my past. But a big rock, pond and stream in the woods. :-) -B