The Legend of the Wabash Cannonball

by Mary Murkin

 PREFACE:  One of the most famous train songs of our American folklore is that of the Wabash Cannonball. This song debuted in the late 19th century as anonymous hobos made up verses about this mythical train and shared them with all of their brethren. The geographic run of this train was from St. Louis to Detroit—all along the Rock Island line. It is suggested that this mythical train—the Wabash Cannonball—was a “death coach” that appeared when a hobo died and carried his soul to his reward (aka Gloryland). As a hobo’s life is ending, they hear the train whistle blowing as the Wabash Cannonball approaches for them to board one last time and take their final ride.

Tadpole and Hap

Bob “Tadpole” Garland held his hands close to the open top of the fire barrel.  While warming his cold old bones, his mind wandered back to his early days as a young train-hopping hobo.  He smiled as he remembered his old three-legged dog, Hap.  Hap was a very old dog now and had been missing for several days.  Tadpole suspected that Hap went deep into this hobo jungle to pass away quietly.

Hap was appropriately named for being such a haphazard little dog that liked to chase each train that rumbled through this hobo jungle.  It was during one of these train chases that Hap lost his right rear leg.  He ventured just one inch too close to the tracks on one of his runs.

 In olden days, a hobo jungle was considered to be an outdoor waiting room for any of the train-traveling hobos who needed a break from miles and miles of the steady clickety-clack of the big steel wheels of an old boxcar.  It was also a great layover spot to wait to change trains or directions of travel.

 One evening when Tadpole had hopped off of a train in a hobo jungle in a quiet little town in central Illinois, he decided to take a walk around the town.  What he found would greatly change his life for the better.  As he ambled east along Lincoln Street, he noticed a rustic old sign at the end of a long curvy lane.  The sign said “Anglers’ Pond.”

As Tadpole walked along the lane to the back of the property, he spied what looked like a charred little cabin.  As he got close to the little house, he could tell that it had been burned many years ago—but not burned down!

 Tadpole decided to push the door open and take a look around in the dim little cabin.  It took a few seconds for his eyes to adjust to the darkroom.  Once Tadpole could see around the room, he realized that this was his new “sometimes home.”

 Anglers’ Pond was an old-time fishing club for area folk who liked to fish from the dock or out on the lake with a non-motorized boat.  It was a sleepy little club in a sleepy little town.

Several weeks after Tadpole took up residence in his new “sometimes home,” he heard a sad sound coming from his front stoop.  He opened the door and saw the saddest little pup he’d ever seen.  He lifted up the small dog and carried him into the cabin.  Once he set the dog down, the little fella began dashing about the room.  He was so rambunctious that he knocked over the stack of wood that Tadpole had gathered for keeping warm at night.  It was immediately after this that Tadpole gave his furry new companion the spunky name of Haphazard—Hap for short.

Seldom did a hobo’s accouterments consist of much more than the clothes on his back and a few treasures in his pockets.  However, now that Tadpole had a “sometimes home” and a trusty companion in Hap, he began to acquire some worldly possessions–the same as a man who actually has some roots put down somewhere.  One of the biggest worldly possessions that Tadpole had acquired (besides his “sometimes home”) was a very old, trusty bicycle.  He was so lucky to be walking down Lincoln Street when a kind old gentleman was rolling the bike to the curb on garbage day and leaned it against his garbage can.  Taped to the seat of this old bicycle was a note that read, “To someone who is able to ride this, as I no longer can.”  As the old man walked toward his house, he turned around just in time to see Tadpole read the note and clasp his hands together as if in prayer and then place himself carefully on the bicycle seat. Tadpole tipped his hat to the kind old gentleman, who, in turn, smiled and waved back.

 Days and weeks faded into years as Tadpole and Hap would busy themselves fishing, cooking, visiting with area townsfolk, and riding the rails whenever the urge hit them to see other parts of this fine country.

 People in this little town in central Illinois came to know and like Tadpole and Hap.  Many of the townsfolk wondered what Tadpole’s “story” was and how he came to be a train-hopping hobo.  The rumors and speculations were diverse. They ranged from him being a wounded war veteran to being a millionaire who couldn’t take the rat race of that life anymore and left it all behind. Never did anyone press Tadpole for an explanation. Tadpole was such a part of this little neighborhood that people used to take notice of when he and Hap would be off riding for a couple of weeks at a time.

 As the years went by, Tadpole’s time away became fewer and fewer. Tadpole used to say, “Hopping on and off those boxcars isn’t getting any easier.” But what Tadpole and Hap still enjoyed doing was going down to the nearby hobo jungle at train times to visit with any of the younger fellas who were still riding the rails and would love sharing their adventures with Tadpole as they sat around a campfire and drank hot coffee.

On this particularly cool evening, as Tadpole held his hands over the fire barrel, turning them this way and that, he smiled while listening to three new arrivals tell about what was happening up in Chicago.  It made Tadpole remember the exciting days of hearing about Al Capone and other gangsters who held a lot of influence over the railroads in those early days.

 It was during this storytelling time that Tadpole started to realize that he wasn’t feeling very well.  It was just a shortness of breath he was feeling.  As the three traveling visitors were about to venture into the town to look for something to eat, they asked Tadpole if he’d like to join them.  Tadpole declined their offer and called after them with a smile, “I believe I have a train to catch.”

 Just after this exchange, Tadpole felt his legs give way and he slumped down to the ground and leaned against a tree.  He heard a train whistle blowing and saw the light getting closer.  As the train came into hobo jungle, Tadpole looked up and saw the door on the last boxcar was wide open and he could hear a familiar noise.  He realized that the noise he heard was Hap barking and wagging his tail and welcoming him aboard the Wabash Cannonball.  Tadpole was going for one last train ride. He was going home.

Author’s note:  Back in my hometown of Bloomington, Illinois, I lived about two blocks from a hobo jungle and there really was a hobo of this description named Bob Garland.  The cabin, the bike, the dog, the fishing club are all actual things from my childhood memories.  The rest of these details were just arranged to make for an interesting little story.  Thank you for your time!  ~~Mary

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