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Amtrak’s “Vermonter”: The Good, The Bad, and The Smelly

September 9th, 2014 Sears Homes 18 comments

Update! Amtrak contacted me and offered me $180 voucher for future travel! I’m not sure how they arrived at the math, but the customer service rep said it was the difference between a coach fare and the business class fare.

In last week’s blog, I mentioned my 10+ hour trip on Amtrak. In this blog, I’d like to tell a little bit about my experience on the The Vermonter between Brattleboro and Washington, DC.

When it comes to trains, I’m a hopeless romantic. I love, love, LOVE the idea of train travel. It’s an adventure, it’s relaxing, it’s environmentally sound, and “riding the rails” is an integral part of our American culture and history.

Plus, it’s a great way to find kit homes. My little pretties were often built right along the rail lines.

However, after my most recent experience on the Vermonter, I’d have to say that this country’s rail system needs some big help.

First, the good parts.

Frequent flyers will have culture shock when they board a train for the first time. The train slows down and stops at the platform, you climb on board, stow your luggage, pick a seat and get comfy.

That’s it.

No full body-cavity searches, no presentation of ID, no long wait to board. A few minutes into the trip, the conductor will walk down the aisle and ask for your ticket. Rarely do they ask for any ID. In my 20+ trips on Amtrak, I’ve been asked to produce ID only twice.

Our seats in “Business Class” were spacious and comfortable, and the long, tinted windows offered a broad and comfortable view of the world outside. There was an abundance of leg-room, and our brown-leather seats had foot rests and cup holders.

If you’re going to go Amtrak, Business Class is the way to travel. It’s been my experience that passengers in this car are usually well-coiffed, quiet, and mature  (35+). The cost to upgrade to Business Class is minimal.

Business Class is typically located within the Cafe Car, and the plus is, you have ready access to all manner of tasty treats (chips, drinks, pizzas, etc.). The downside is, Hubby spent $52 on snack food during our 10-hour ride back to DC. His sub sandwich, with a bag of pretzels and a small bottle of orange juice cost $22.

The other plus is that a train trip offers views that you’re not going to see on our highways and byways. And there’s a little splash of voyeurism too. You get a sneak peak into America’s back yards, as well as abandoned factories, dilapidated buildings and forgotten farm houses.

Train travel can be so very relaxing, and for the most part, fellow passengers are in good spirits. The rhythmic clicking of the wheels against the metal tracks soothes the weary soul. The gentle to and fro rocking can induce a meditative, almost euphoric state of mind.

With every train ticket you buy, you’re supporting an alternative to flying and driving. America desperately needs alternate modes of transportation.

Those are the good things.

Ready for the not-so-good things?

The trip from Brattleboro to DC (the trip home on Sunday) was less pleasant than the outbound trip, because every seat on the train was sold. This meant that the bathrooms saw a lot of use. Within three hours of our departure, the smell from the bathroom (within the cafe car) was horrific. And the bathroom looked worse than it smelled.

There were small puddles of urine on the floor, together with a few wads of used toilet paper. (My husband reported that on an earlier train trip, the bathrooms in coach had much bigger problems than “just” puddles of urine. Yikes.)

The bathroom trash can was filled well past overflowing. I skipped the paper towel portion of my visit so that I could avoid placing my hand into the mass of used debris stuffed into the trash receptacle. Again: Ick.

Fortunately, I had an adequate supply of disposable wipes in my briefcase.

A not-so-well-coiffed woman in Business Class threw her McDonald’s bag and an empty bottle of soda on the floor when she was finished with breakfast. And there it remained for four hours (despite several conductors stepping over it). When I arose to use the facilities, I picked up the bag and carried it to the overflowing trash can in the cafe car.

Admittedly, slobs and litter bugs are not the fault of Amtrak, but Hubby and I were both surprised that the conductors walked right past it repeatedly.

More bad.

As my closest friends know, I’m highly allergic to little children, especially when they scream loudly and jump about and make lots of unexpected, dramatic movements. Less than an hour into the trip, a young father came into Business Class with two children (ages 5 and 7, I’d guess). The children crawled all over the seats and made a fair amount of noise and I don’t think they sat still for more than 20 seconds at a time. That took away a lot of the enjoyment of a “peaceful, quiet ride.”

Whey they got off the train, my husband, who’s far more tolerant of little children than said, “That’s a relief. Those kids were nerve-wracking.”

It was disappointing that the conductor didn’t ask those children to remain seated - especially in Business Class.

Which brings me to the next “Oh Dear” comment.

Some of the staff onboard the train were not pleasant. One conductor came into our car and literally yelled for all  of us to produce our tickets immediately. It was a piercing, strident voice and really not needful for the 20 passengers seated in the small section. Another employee - the cafe car attendant - made no secret of the fact that he was annoyed when someone showed up at the snack bar, and he had to get up out of his seat and wait on them.

On the north-bound journey, the Vermonter is moved onto a track at Palmer, Massachusetts and a new engine is put on. From Palmer to the end of the line (in our case, Brattleboro), the train goes backwards. If you’re in the Coach Section, you can switch seats (if there are openings) and find a backwards-facing seat. If you’re in the Business Class section, you’re kind of stuck.

Both Hubby and I have a bit of a tendency to motion sickness, so going backwards was a no-go for us. We moved to the cafe section and sat at a table, so we could face the right direction.

And there was one really big surprise.

Occasionally, the conductor would tell the passengers that they had “five minutes for a smoke break” at the next stop. Whenever these announcements were made, I’d hop out of my seat and go stand outside for a couple minutes to stretch my legs and get some fresh air. At one such stop, the rear door in the Business Section was opened. I wasn’t sure how long we’d be at that stop, so I stayed inside and admired the view from the safety of the car.

Good thing too, because without warning, that door slammed shut and the train started rolling. In other words, there was no conductor checking for passengers at the back of the train and no one yelling, “All aboard!”

I didn’t realize it until that moment, but those doors can be - and ARE - operated remotely from the front of the train. Had I stepped out of the car, I would have been left on the platform! Let me tell you, that would have taken a lot of fun out of the trip!

Factoring the four-hour drive between DC and Norfolk, the trip from Brattleboro to Norfolk took 14+ hours of travel time. (Not counting parking, and other miscellaneous travel events.) Fortunately, the train was on time both ways. However, this is a trip that takes about 9-1/2 hours by car.

The two round-trip train tickets were $566 and it cost $132 to park at DC’s Union Station.

It was an adventure, and there are some good memories, but I shant be riding The Vermonter again, for all the reasons outlined above.

To Amtrak’s credit, I must add that during the many years I lived in the Midwest, I rode the rails at least a dozen times. I’ve been on The Cardinal (2010) and the Texas Eagle (2004). In 2005, I took the Empire Builder from Chicago to Seattle. That was 48 hours of bliss!  I also rode the commuter train between Alton and Chicago too many times to count.

Those train rides were great fun. The service was good, the cars were clean and the trains were on time 75% of the time. In 2008, Hubby and I took the Silver Star to Orlando, and that was also a pleasant ride.

As I said in the beginning of this blog, I dearly love train travel and our country has great need of ecologically sound alternatives to flying and driving, but Amtrak has some major issues that need to be resolved. And the Vermonter’s run along the Northeast corridor has a lot of room for improvement.

As of 2008 (the last year for which I could find stats), the US taxpayers were subsidizing air travel to the tune of $13 billion per year. Perhaps it’s time to do more for Amtrak, in the hopes that they could find better staff and get the restrooms cleaned up and establish high-speed rail in more areas.

In short, Amtrak needs some re-tooling so it can be a viable contender in the transportation industry.

To read what I found in the Vermont area, click here.

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The trip to Brattleboro was a big annual vacation, and Vermont is a beautiful place, but getting there aint easy.

Vermont is a beautiful place, but getting there ain't easy.

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The Amtrak station was next door to the Latchis Hotel, which was convenient.

The Brattleboro Amtrak station was next door to the Latchis Hotel (where we stayed).

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Amtrak in 1915

The original train depot is a beautiful building in a beautiful setting. It's now a museum.

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Another view of this beautiful old train depot.

Another view of this beautiful old train depot. Kudos to Brattleboro for preserving it.

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The contemporary Amtrak station is carved out of a tiny piece of the original depot, in the back of the building. Pretty modest.

The contemporary Amtrak station is carved out of a tiny piece of the original depot, in the rear. That "does it fit?" frame in the left corner isn't used much apparently.

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New Haven

The Amtrak station in New Haven, Connecticut.

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Sometime

In New Haven, Connecticut, the pretty Amtrak diesel-electric locomotive was replaced with an electric train, which runs on catenary or overhead wire. From New Haven to DC, we were electric. (Photo is from Wikipedia.)

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A photo of our train at Penn Station in New York City.

A photo of our train at Penn Station in New York City. I'd love to know how old this thing is.

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Long view of our train at Penn Station.

Long view of our train at Penn Station.

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Busines

Hubby sitting in the Business Class section. The seats were quite comfy.

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I will always love trains, but from now on, I may stick with excursion trips, such as this one in Elkins, WV.

I will always love trains, but from now on, I may stick with excursion trips, such as this one in Elkins, WV. Ten hours on a train is too much for moi.

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I think these days are gone, but there must be a way that this country can make train travel a viable alternative for the weary traveler. Photo is from Wikipedia, showing a car on the Silver Meteor.

I know these days are gone, but there must be a way that this country can make train travel a viable alternative for the weary traveler. Check out those lamps. Photo is from Wikipedia, showing a car on the Silver Meteor.

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To read about the future of train travel, click here.

Or here.

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The Kit Homes of Raleigh, NC

April 10th, 2012 Sears Homes 4 comments

In May 2012, I gave a talk at the Rialto Theatre (in Raleigh) on Sears Kit Homes, sponsored in part by the Raleigh Historic Development Commission and the Raleigh City Museum.

Raleigh has an abundance of kit homes, which I find fascinating. In addition to Sears, they also have kit homes from Aladdin (based in Bay City), Harris Brothers (Chicago), Sterling Homes (Bay City), and even Montgomery Ward (Chicago).

Scroll on down to see some of the kit homes that I found.

And to read another blog I did on Raleigh, click here.

To read about Raleigh’s museum exhibit on Sears Homes, click here.

To listen to Rose’s interview on WUNC, click here.

First, one of my favorite finds: The Sears Winona (1921 catalog).

First, one of my favorite finds: The Sears Winona (1921 catalog).

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Perfect in every detail. Just perfect. What a treasure.

Perfect in every detail. Just perfect. What a treasure.

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Another wonderful Sears House: The Westly (1919 catalog).

Another wonderful Sears House: The Westly (1919 catalog).

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This Westly in Raleigh is perfect in every detail. Wow.

This Westly in Raleigh is perfect in every detail. Wow. Original railings, too.

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The Sears Whitehall (1916 catalog).

The Sears Whitehall (1916 catalog).

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Another Raleigh Sears House thats been thoughtfully maintained.

Another Raleigh Sears House that's been thoughtfully maintained.

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And theres this oh

And there's this a Harris Brother's kit home, too. Notice the rounded front porch.

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Known as Model 1000, this was one of their most popular homes.

Known as Model 1000, this was one of their most popular homes.

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Another favorite is the Modern Home #163 (1916 catalog).

Another favorite is the Modern Home #163 (1916 catalog).

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Be still my quivering heart - what a match!

Be still my quivering heart - what a match!

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This was a home sold by Sterling Homes in Bay City (1932 catalog).

This was a home sold by "Sterling Homes" in Bay City (1932 catalog).

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Another fine match! What a cutie!

Another fine match! What a cutie!

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Another remarkable find is the Sears Avalone - a classic Arts & Crafts bungalow.

Another remarkable find is the Sears Avalone - a classic Arts & Crafts bungalow.

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And here it is in all its original splendor.

And here it is in all its original splendor. Look at the detail around the porch columns. WOW! And it retains its original siding and casement windows! Double WOW!!!

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Close-up of those wonderful casement windows.

Close-up of those wonderful casement windows on the Avalon.

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And another favorite house found in Raleigh was the Americus (1928).

And another favorite house found in Raleigh was the Americus (1928).

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Again, its in perfectly original condition. Raleigh = Sears House Heaven.

Again, it's in perfectly original condition. Raleigh = Sears House Heaven.

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Sears Argyle (1919 catalog).

Sears Argyle (1919 catalog).

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Sears

This is a classic Sears Argyle with a little bonus: The attic was pitched a little more steeply to create extra space. That was a common "improvement" for these little houses.

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And another Argyle, also in beautiful shape.

And another Argyle, also in beautiful shape. Notice how the porch deck extends a little beyond the exterior wall of the house. This is a classic feature of the Sears Argyle.

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The biggest fanciest house that Sears offered was the Magnolia.

The biggest fanciest house that Sears offered was the Magnolia.

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And theres a *beautiful* Sears Magnolia in Benson, NC (near Raleigh).

And there's a *beautiful* Sears Magnolia in Benson, NC (near Raleigh).

And if you’re near Raleigh, don’t forget to visit nearby Roanoke Rapids. They have a town literally filled with Aladdin (kit homes). Click here to learn more about Roanoke Rapids.

And there’s also Rocky Mount, which has an abundance of kit homes.

To read about Addie Hoyt, click here!

See you on the 19th of May!

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An Honorable Mention of the Honor Bilt “Honor” (in Washington, DC)

March 15th, 2012 Sears Homes 5 comments

Sears offered 370 designs of homes during their 32 years in the kit home business (1908 - 1940), and not surprisingly, some models were more popular than others. One of the more unusual models is the Sears “Honor.”

The only Honor I’ve ever seen was in Washington, DC and that was in 2003. I’ve not seen one since then. And it’s a distinctive house, so they’re easy to spot!

Here are a few photos of the Honor-Bilt “Honor” in DC. And thanks to Catarina Bannier, a Realtor for sending me these wonderful photos. (You can visit Catarina’s website here.)

To learn more about why they’re called “Honor-Bilt” click here.

The Honor, as seen in the 1921 catalog.

The Honor, as seen in the 1921 catalog.

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Floor

Nice spacious floor plan and there's a half bath on the first floor!

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And theres a cubby in the kitchen for the refrigerator!

And there's a cubby in the kitchen (pantry) for the refrigerator!

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Close-up of the Sears Honor (1921).

Close-up of the Sears Honor (1921).

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And here it is, looking absolutely lovely!

And here it is, looking absolutely wonderful! One of the chimneys is missing, but that just means someone opted to not have the living room fireplace. I am puzzled as to why there's a plumbing vent over the dining room, though. Photo is copyright 2011 Catarina Bannier and can not be used or reproduced without written permission.

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And in the basement, Catarina found the model number written on the floor joists!

And in the basement, Catarina found the model number written on the floor joist! This is a very good way to authenticate a Sears Home. The model number was scribbled in blue grease pencil before it left the mill at Cairo, IL. The floor joists were among the first pieces of lumber that'd be placed as the home was built, so they were on top of the bundles that left the Sears mill. Here, you can see the model number "3071." Photo is copyright 2011 Catarina Bannier and can not be used or reproduced without written permission.

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Model

In addition to names, Sears Homes were also given model numbers. The "Honor" was #3071.

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And the Honor still has its old ice box door on the back porch.

And the Honor still has its old "ice box" door on the back porch.

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To learn a lot more about ice box doors, click here.

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Back in the day, better-quality iceboxes had a little service door in the rear. It was called a Service Door. This enabled the the Ice Man to put a 10-pound block of ice into the ice box without traispsing through the house. Sawdust was used in the Ice House to insulate the blocks  of ice, and as the Ice Man walked up to the house, hed brush the sawdust off the ice as he walked. Invariably, some of that sawdust ended up in the kitchen.

Back in the day, better-quality iceboxes had a little service door in the rear. It was called a "Service Door." This enabled the the Ice Man to put a 10-pound block of ice into the ice box without traipsing through the house. Sawdust was used in the Ice House to insulate the blocks of ice, and as the Ice Man walked up to the house, he'd brush the sawdust off the ice as he walked. Invariably, some of that sawdust ended up in the kitchen.

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This

There was a corresponding door built into the house (shown above), that was a little bigger than the corresponding door on the ice box. This little door had another name: "The Jealous Husband's Door." Hauling those 25, 15 and 10 pound blocks of ice around all day really made a fellow fit and tan. I'm sure there were a few "Ice Men" that were real hotties! :)

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Inside the house, the old ice box is still in place!

Inside the house, the old ice box is still in place!

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To learn more about Sears Homes, click here.

To learn more about “The Jealous Husband’s Door,” click here.

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Have you seen this house?

May 19th, 2011 Sears Homes 3 comments

These fine-looking bungalows (see below) are in Dupont, Washington. In fact, there are several of these bungalows (built in the early 1910s) in Dupont, Washington.  Today, I’m trying to figure out where I’ve seen this house before, because if I can figure THAT out, it’ll help me solve some other mysteries I’m working on.

I know I’ve seen this house elsewhere (in places other than Dupont, Washington) and I’m 92% sure I saw it in Boise, IdahoUPDATE:  Having heard back from several people in Boise, I’m now thinking I must have seen it in California (probably near Anaheim).

Dupont, Washington was named for Dupont (which built a factory there before WW1). Dupont (the company) built several of these houses for their workers in Dupont (the city). And Dupont (the company) also built several houses (for workers) in Hopewell, Va.

When comparing this house to others, please notice that this is not just another bungalow. This house has very distinctive details around the eaves and the front porch has massive eave brackets.

These photos (below) are all of the same model but with some variations (such as different dormers), and these houses have had some changes through the years, but that massive oversized eave on the front is one feature that has not been altered in any of these photos.

Have you seen this house? If so, please leave a comment below!

To learn more about the kit homes in Boise, click here.

Thanks to Mark Mckillop for providing the photos!

housie

One of the distinctive features of this house in Dupont is the oversized eave on the front. Notice the four brackets, which are also massive. (Photos are courtesy of Mark Mckillop and can not be reproduced without written permission.)

housie

Those are some big brackets. (Photos are courtesy of Mark Mckillop and can not be reproduced without written permission.)

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This house has a shed dormer (while the house above has a gabled dormer). This house retains its original porch railing. (Photos are courtesy of Mark Mckillop and can not be reproduced without written permission.)

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Another house with original railings. (Photos are courtesy of Mark Mckillop and can not be reproduced without written permission.)

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Different dormer (again), but those four brackets are consistent with the other houses. (Photos are courtesy of Mark Mckillop and can not be reproduced without written permission.)

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Close-up on the front porch. (Photos are courtesy of Mark Mckillop and can not be reproduced without written permission.)

To contact Rose, please leave a comment below.

To read about the kit homes in Boise, click here.

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A&P: The Little Red Schoolhouse of Retailing?

January 28th, 2011 Sears Homes No comments

In the 1960s, A&P dominated the grocery store line-up here in Southeastern Virginia. Do any of them remain? I don’t know of any in Hampton Roads.

Below is an ad from the 1926 Ladies Home Journal for the “Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company.” The “economy rules” line in the advertisement makes sense, but “The Little Red Schoolhouse of Retailing”?

To my further shock, a Google search for the term “Little Red Schoolhouse of Retailing” turned up zero results.

I’d love to know what that’s about. From my 21st Century perspective, I’d say that A&P was striving to be the antithesis of Walmart.

To see more vintage ads, click here.

To learn more about Sears Homes, click here.

Interesting advertisement from a 1926 Ladies Home Journal

Interesting advertisement from a 1926 Ladies' Home Journal

Larger view of the same advertisment

Larger view of the same advertisement

To buy Rose’s book, click here.

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