Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Quest: Go Big or Go Home

The expedition just barely made the town of Monticello, Indiana on the shortened day of travel. They had planned on stopping short of it but the horses were pulling strongly and they found themselves looking at the bridge crossing the Tippycanoe River before they expected to see it.

Walt eased on forward and looked it over from up-river for about twenty minutes.

During that time, several pedestrians crossed over the bridge, unmolested.

Sally carried her pistol in the pocket of her parka, finger outside the trigger guard, the way Walt had coached her.

Steve drove. Walt rode shotgun with his 10/22 laying across his lap with the muzzle pointing away from Steve.

The expedition caused quite a stir.

The active part of downtown had compressed down into a kernel of its former glory. But there was clearly still a functioning downtown.

Steve parked in front of what appeared to be a general store.

A man with a pot belly came out and started berating them. “We don’t need any of your kind here.”

“And what kind would that be?” Steve asked, pleasantly.

Sally caught up with the wagon as things were getting tense. The proprietor of the store was not going to tolerate competition. The crowd was following his lead, presumably because they were buying on credit and could not afford to get on his bad side.

It was not the first time Sally had played before hostile crowds.

She started singing. At first, she kept her voice low and you had to be within 20’ to hear her. Then she gradually increased the volume as she approached the crowd.

“God rest ye merry gentlemen, let nothing yea dismay….” It was still three weeks until Christmas but Sally could not think of anything else to sing. Then she launched into “Jingle Bells” and she caught the voice of a child joining her.

Turning toward the child, Sally beckoned with her hands for the child to sing louder. Walking over to the child, Sally put her hand on his shoulder and then beckoned for other children to join them.

“Grandma got Run over by a Reindeer” followed by “Silent Night”.

Then Sally announced in a big, stagey voice “We will be having a concert in the park this evening just after sunset. You are all invited to join us at no cost. Bring a candle, though. It will get dark tonight.”

The store owner was not about to let go of his hostility.

“You can sing, but you can’t do any trading.” His posture was aggressive and he wasn’t going to brook any argument.

Then, an idea that had been percolating in Steve’s subconscious popped out of his mouth without his bidding.

“That would be too bad” Steve said. “We cannot justify reopening the railroad if we cannot document prices along the way.”

The man’s eyebrows shot up so quickly that he almost ran out of forehead.

“What?” the storekeeper asked.

“Hmm. Yes. The railroad” Steve said, thoughtfully. “We are doing a survey and documenting prices along the proposed route to see how far west to reopen.”

“Bullshit!” exclaimed a man who had leaned in to listen. “They won’t reopen anything here before they reopen the railroads going to Chicago.”

Steve shook his head, sadly. “The big cities are all smoking craters. In fact, Ebola is making a comeback in them. The future is in small towns exactly like Monticello. A rail line running east-west crossing a river running north-south.”

“I wouldn’t be surprised if a town like Monticello didn’t pull in business from fifty miles away, what with the ease of floating goods by barge and then shipping by rail” Steve observered.

The merchant was hooked.

“Whaddya mean, ‘documenting prices’?” he asked.

“Don’t make any sense to reopen the railroad if prices are the same all along the line, now would it? Railroads make their money by shipping from where goods are cheap to where they are dear. The merchant pays a shipping fee and both the railroad and the merchant make a profit” Steve explained.

“Where would this rail line run from?” the spectator asked.

Winging it, Steve guessed “The current plan is to start in the coal fields of eastern Ohio and run as far west as it is profitable. Maybe run from one end to the other once a week. Depends on what the market demands.”

“I still think they will restart the big cities first” the spectator argued.

“You would think that, but the underwriters have to make a profit. They looked at the big cities but the political big-wigs all wanted a 25%-to-50% cut of the merchandise carried. Nobody can take a hair-cut like that. Heck, that is at least 75% of the goods confiscated if you look at just Cleveland, Toledo and Chicago” Steve said.

That got heads nodding in agreement. There are greedy people in small towns too, but not with the chutzpah of big city operators.

The merchant was particularly horrified. He understood the huge difference between 25% of profit and 25% of inventory.

The very audacity and sweep of Steve’s story carried the day. Interstates had turned towns like Monticello into minor, historical footnotes. In their day, they had been strategic transportation nodes but inexpensive gasoline and limited access highways negated those strategic advantages and the towns had died on the vine.

Steve knew when to drive his advantage.

“So I need to know the prices of some basic things. The best way to do that is to trade.” Steve said.

Sally, who adored improv, had pulled out a notebook and was assiduously taking notes. That detail tipped the remaining doubters. Paper was not cheap and she had opened the notebook to the middle and immediately started making notes.

Looking over the top of the notebook, Sally said “Steve, you wanted to know the price of ammunition, bacon and cheese.” Those were the first three things that popped into her head that started with A, B and C.



  1. I like it! Visions of the iron horse of the old West come to mind, crossing the plains, fighting off injuns and train robbers.

    1. In retrospect, how hard would it be to hook thirty box cars to a locomotive and drop one off every twenty-five miles. Wait the better part of a week, then pick them up on the return trip. Sort received merchandise into the proper destination cars and repeat.

      Or drop one off, pick one up and do the sort-and-repack on each end of the line.

      Eastern Ohio to central Iowa is about 700 miles, hence the thirty cars to match up to one drop-off every twenty-five miles of track.

    2. In all seriousness, in a post-apocalyptic USA where the infrastructure was still.intact, a regular running railroad enterprise such as you are describing would be doable. And it would almost certainly run through the smaller cities, the ones that originally sprung up along the rail line. Instead of a diesel locomotive, it might need a wood or coal burning steam locomotive, but it would still be doable.

  2. Coming from a railroad family, I can tell you most folks would be surprised at how fast unused tracks deteriorate to the point they are unsafe for traffic. They still look OK, but put a train on them and you will find that looks are deceiving.

    This could be partially accommodated by running lighter trains-smaller engines, cars not fully loaded. You could also, resources available, hire people to repair the tracks, although that requires some specialist knowledge, especially doing it by hand. Unused lines could be scavenged for rails and ballast. Ties, on the other hand, may not be able to be reused.

    Just thinking out loud, I really would look at George's idea of the iron horse. Find the small engines on excursion railroads and strictly limit the number and weight of cars until some revenue could be generated to ensure the tracks could handle heavier trains.

    Don't forget guards. I suspect you'll need them.

  3. Fast thinking. I wouldn't be at all surprised to read that some amateur rail fans were gathering support for a freight startup, possibly using restored steam locomotives to avoid fuel oil difficulties. CB and amateur shortwave being as good as telegraph, word would get back east.

  4. And Sally just 'earned' the round trip... :-)

  5. Now that's my kind of store! We need a T-Shirt for the ABC store!

  6. I worked for AT&SF in 1974 at the tail ends of some branches in Kansas. The rails were embarrassingly bad but they were still able to run a train or two a week of a few cars at 5 mph and ship the wheat.

  7. 25% inventory tax? It's called excise tax in colorado. You write into law by everyone voting on it. The reason for people going along with it is because the tax will go for schools, parks, and helping fund good stuff. The catch about funding good stuff is first the gov excise tax departments have to have expenses met. All the funds get used up and nothing left for schools. Say you're a small wholesale cannabis company and you gross a million. Then you write a 250,000$ check that goes to state, county, and special tax district. That's wholesale. Next your product is sold at retail level. Yup, excise a 2nd time. 40-50% overall tax rate. So the way you get busted for cannabis in colorado is not because it's illegal, but because you violated the tax laws.


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