Bruce Springsteen and a Train Ride into the Night

January 15, 2016 Early Afternoon
Marysville, Pennsylvania

“Tonight there’s fallen angels and they’re waiting for us down in the street”
– Bruce Springsteen, “Drive All Night”

Westbound Amtrak train #43, The Pennsylvanian, is a rather nondescript conveyance as far as passenger trains go — just a few coaches, a single business class car and a cafe — and the train is more crowded than I expected. Prime seats have been occupied since Philadelphia and the train fills quickly at each small town as more people board than disembark. #43 has just left Harrisburg, PA on this winter afternoon bound for Pittsburgh, where my family and I will attend the opening night of Bruce Springsteen’s tour commemorating his 1980 workingman’s opus The River.

We’re traveling from Monmouth County, NJ where we live several miles from Springsteen’s home and farm. For many Bruce fans, shows in New Jersey are the holy grail of concert experiences. I’ve been fortunate enough to see him in bars, theaters, arenas and stadiums across our home state, but I’ve always had an itch to see him in Pittsburgh. He’s had a history of playing great shows there with both the E Street Band and his local friends Joe Grushecky and the House Rockers, but there’s more to it than that.

When considering geographic references in the Springsteen song catalog, the steel cities of western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio figure prominently in his later work but for me it was The River that first made the connection. While perhaps not overtly about the region (aside from a nod to “the Johnstown Company”), many of the songs on the The River conjure scenes more akin to the Monongahela Valley than our hometowns on the Jersey Shore.

I was 12 years old when The River was released. Industrial America was down on its knees, but the knockout punch had yet to be delivered. The crippling shift away from the American worker was beginning, but through the lens of the day it looked more like hard times than end times. Springsteen sang in the voice of hard times. He gave people hope.

We would soon know the truth: The River should have been a tribute to rebirth. Instead it was a eulogy for a way of life.

Our country had received a few blows to the gut in the 1970’s, from Vietnam and the domestic fuel shortage to the Iranian hostage situation. The red, white and blue cheering from celebrating the nation’s Bicentennial in 1976 had faded quickly. The River was released at a time when Americans were looking for a break.

The great “Miracle on Ice” Olympic hockey victory of Team USA over Russia kicked off 1980 with patriotic fervor. Presidential candidate Ronald Reagan’s landmark television campaign “Morning in America” electrified a middle class looking for messages of hope to counterbalance the economic pallor of the ’70’s. Into this world, at the same time teams from both President Carter and candidate Reagan were preparing different versions of an “October Surprise” to release the Iran hostages and secure an emotion-driven election day win, came The River on October 17… just 18 days before Reagan defeated Carter and America’s attitude towards the working middle class started to rapidly shift.

This trip across Pennsylvania is a chance to reconnect with the vision of the American dream I grew up with and revisit the seemingly antiquated notions Springsteen often sings about; the belief that hard work and honesty are the essential tools for middle class success.

The way out of the darkness is faith, hope and hard work.

It’s a very American ideal, but sometimes it is not enough.

January 15, 2016 Early Evening
Altoona, Pennsylvania

“In the end it was something more I guess
That tore us apart and made us weep”
– Bruce Springsteen, “Stolen Car”

Train #43 is close to schedule as we watch drizzling rain drops dance across the windows of the Amfleet business coach we are riding in. Our crew has negotiated the tightest parts of the Juniata River valley and has us rolling through broad farmlands into Altoona, one of America’s great railroad cities.

The health and vigor of a country’s economy can easily be measured through observation of its transportation infrastructure. Full rail yards and truck terminals bode well, while empty tracks and shuttered transfer warehouses are harbingers of downturns. The situation in Altoona is not that easy to read.

On the right side of the train, the massive Juniata Locomotive Shops of the Pennsylvania Railroad hum with activity as a key facility in the massive Norfolk Southern transportation system. In the Pennsy’s days, Juniata turned out some of the most efficient and effective steam locomotives ever built. Today the shop forces continue that work, building and rebuilding diesel locomotives to meet the most stringent fuel consumption and pollution standards. Behind the paint shop rests a set of classic passenger diesels from the 1950’s, now fully restored and modernized for use by the president of NS. Surrounding them are hulks of diesels waiting to be reconditioned or fully rebuilt into new units. With a “waste not, want not” mentality and some of the best talent in the business, Juniata is still a powerful asset. Things are great on the right hand side of the train.

Across the aisle and out the left side windows, a different story unfolds. The massive freight yards that stretched for miles east of Altoona are predominately barren. Some remain as fields of empty tracks ready if needed again, while others are acres of jungle-like growth which belie their past as essential tools of American commerce.

Why the juxtaposition between the left and right views from our train?

Altoona’s railroad infrastructure was built for a country that manufactured, not one that primarily consumed. The rail yards were marshaling points for the commodities required for industry and its finished products. A country that doesn’t make much doesn’t need rail yards.

The locomotives over at the Juniata shops are still needed, for today they earn their keep moving imported goods across America. Where there were once trains of a 100 boxcars loaded with American products there are now mile-long trains of cars carrying ocean-going containers full of imports. Trains still pass through the great manufacturing cities of America’s past, but they don’t originate in them much any more.

The one character from The River who may still have a job in modern times is the eager young man of “Out in the Street” who works five days a week “loading crates down on the dock.” Chances are his crates today are shrink wrapped, palletized bundles of imports and not the product of his own country, but we still consume so he still loads.

January 15, 2016 Early Evening
Horseshoe Curve
Altoona, Pennsylvania

“Well Papa go to bed now it’s getting late
Nothing we can say is gonna change anything now”
– Bruce Springsteen, “Independence Day”

What can be written about Horseshoe Curve that hasn’t? The engineering marvel that twists trains up and over the Allegheny Mountains has been a part of American folklore since it opened in 1854. A sign of commerce and prosperity that even drew the interest of Nazi sympathizers planning attacks on American infrastructure, it remains — above all — the single greatest place to watch trains. Anywhere.

The Curve has played an important role in the relationship between my son and I. We’ve made many pilgrimages over his first 13 years. Sometimes we went to ride (behind restored Pennsylvania Railroad streamlined diesels of the 1940’s and once in a dome car pulled by a vintage steam locomotive) and sometimes we went to watch.

The park at the apex of The Curve provides the perfect vantage point to watch trains in a most spectacular natural theater which enhances both the sights and sounds of modern American railroading. Here in the park my son and I spent many hours playing catch, watching trains, flying foam gliders and eating picnic lunches picked up from the Sheetz in town. It was here, the day after Osama Bin Laden was captured, that we watched a freight train head up The Curve with the engineer proudly waving a full-sized American flag while leaning out his window and smiling at the train watchers in the park. Unforgettable.

Yet, as #43 rounds the curve in the dark, I am thinking of Springsteen’s The River track “Independence Day.” I fully expect to cry when he plays it tomorrow (spoiler alert: I did). Few other songs have stuck by my side for four decades with different meanings at each turning point in my life.

When I first heard the tale of a young man growing up, and growing apart, from his father it was through the filter of a 12 year old who couldn’t conceive of the idea of ever leaving home. Six years later, it became a mantra… though one unfulfilled for quite awhile. Now, with a son of my own who has given me measures of love and friendship I never expected, it is a song of both dread and promise. Up ahead, there’s likely a period of time where hanging out at Horseshoe Curve with Dad will be a tertiary thought behind girls and friends. And I am OK with that. I want it. I want my son to grow up to be the compassionate, capable adult that I know he can be. But that doesn’t mean I won’t shed a tear.

“Well say goodbye it’s Independence Day
It’s Independence Day all boys must run away
So say goodbye it’s Independence Day
All men must make their way come Independence Day”
– Bruce Springsteen, “Independence Day”

January 15, 2016 Early Evening
Gallitzin, Pennsylvania

“You make up your mind, you choose the chance you take”
– Bruce Springsteen, “The Price You Pay”

I suspect most of the riders on Amtrak #43 are unaware that the looming dark forest our train is snaking through abuts Prince Gallitzin State Park.

Prince who?

Prince Demetrius Augustine Gallitzin.

Gallitzin was a Russian aristocrat, born into the great age of the Russian Czars, held as a babe in the arms of Catherine the Great and destined for life as a great Russian leader to journey to the wilds of America where he would establish the Catholic church in the great mountains of the Alleghenies.

Pennsylvania has a great Catholic tradition, especially in her historic centers of manufacturing and commerce. Some of that tradition came through Ellis Island, but the roots of it came via pioneers like Prince Gallitzin who forsook a rich inheritance for the chance to bring the word of God to those most distant from the formality of the church.

January 15, 2016 Evening
South Fork, Pennsylvania

“Now rooms that once were so bright are filled with the coming night”
– Bruce Springsteen, “Fade Away”

The River resonates with the melancholy of dreams abandoned in the face of inevitable change. Despite acknowledging that things happen to us which are out of our control there’s a sense of self-responsibility driving an underlying notion that we are the products of the decisions we make.

Springsteen confronts the consequences of free will on “The Price You Pay.” Even though this cut from the haunting Side 4 of The River has long been a fan favorite, Bruce hardly ever performs it in concert. With the entire album to be played in order tomorrow night, I am excited to know I will finally hear the song live.

A couple of the lines from the song are on my mind as the train winds through the mountains.

“You make up your mind, you choose the chance you take…”
“You learn to sleep at night with the price you pay”
– Bruce Springsteen, “The Price You Pay”

We’ve crested the Alleghenies, and #43’s route now hugs the banks of the Conemaugh River while passing the village lights of South Fork. The next few miles of river are sacred ground where prices were paid many times over.

The Great Flood of 1889, otherwise known as the Johnstown Flood, could very well have been called the South Fork Flood. It was here, just outside of town that a group of wealthy industrialists built the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club. The private retreat boasted a man-made lake, formed by rebuilding the remains of a damn once used on the regional canal system. Unfortunately, despite the riches of the club members, shortcuts were taken in constructing the dam. Even though the flaws were known, they were not repaired. The weaknesses resulted in a series of events that lead to the dam’s collapse during a heavy storm. The deluge from the private lake filled the storm-swollen Conemaugh with a wall of water and debris headed down the valley towards the industrial hub of Johnstown. The city didn’t stand a chance. In the aftermath, 2,209 deaths were attributed to the flood. 99 entire families were wiped out. While the companies of the valley took the financial hit of rebuilding, it was the people of the valley who paid the ultimate price for the hubris of the men of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club.

Johnstown rebuilt and once again trusted its fate to industrialists. By 1980 it wasn’t just flooding that threatened the city, but its abandonment by American industry.

January 15, 2016 Evening
Johnstown, Pennsylvania

“Now all them things that seemed so important
Well mister they vanished right into the air”
– Bruce Springsteen, “The River”

In the title song of The River, Springsteen sings of a young man who gets his girlfriend pregnant and immediately takes on all the trappings of adulthood. He celebrates his nineteenth birthday by getting “a union card and a wedding coat” and finds “a job working construction for the Johnstown Company” where he learns that “lately there ain’t been much work on account of the economy.”

That’s what we believed in 1980, that the “economy” was the root of the problems suffocating the working middle class. Turn the economy around and the fortunes of workers would turn around. It would have been great, except that’s not what happened.

Rather than mark a turnaround, the arrival of the 1980’s brought the beginning of the end of a way of life to Johnstown and scores of towns like it. Labor unions, which had laid the foundations of the middle class, were under fire from the government. The tables had turned. Rather than working with industrial corporations to keep good paying jobs in the United States and stay competitive domestically, the government turned its sights on the workers themselves. On August 5, 1981 then-President Ronald Reagan fired over 11,000 unionized air traffic controllers two days into a strike. The aftershocks of that decision still rattle the country 35 years later.

Anti-labor forces moved swiftly, demonizing union workers for demanding decent pay and fair treatment. It was a masterful marketing move with devastating effects on the United States. For the first time in our history, the common person, the worker achieving the American dream, found themselves the target of blame for the country’s woes.

The devious genius of the plan centered around convincing middle class Americans to act against their own best interests, all in the name of ending the “greed” of unions and the “choke-hold” of regulation. To be fair, changes were needed. But we didn’t get changes, we got a wholesale attack on our way of life.

And it worked.

The latest woes of American labor echo across the mountains of western Pennsylvania. It is now the coal industry that is crumbling. Much like the steel mills that refused to modernize and face competition, coal companies have found themselves caught flatfooted and unprepared for the combination of increased gas drilling, shale oil production and environmental demands that have shaken the energy industry. Taking the brunt, once again, is the laborer. What can easily misconstrued as a political issue has proven to be a societal one, as leadership from both parties have presided over the decline of the American worker.

January 15, 2016 Night
Braddock, PA

“Just waiting to see some sun
Never knowing if that day will ever come
Left alone standing out on the street
Till you become the hand that turns the key”
– Bruce Springsteen, “Jackson Cage”

We’re just outside of the village of Braddock, approaching the southeastern edge of Pittsburgh. To our left, the glow of hot metal at the Edgar Thomson steel works is a welcome sign of enterprise. A part of the US Steel operation, the Thomson works has benefitted from modernization and accounts for as much as quarter of all the steel still produced in the United States today. It is sentinel standing in a valley of fields and urban renewal which mark the sites of other mills. Within Pittsburgh itself, the city of steel, not one mill remains.

Yet, the darkness of rust belt depression that has engulfed our train since Altoona starts to fade as Pittsburgh nears. The city has been reborn as a hub of technology, with Google and Facebook both investing in new offices. Headlines have called it the “next Portland,” comparing it to Oregon’s home of tech success.

It is a story being played to one extent or another in Rochester, Buffalo, Chicago and countless other former cities of industry. The tech-based consumer economy has brought a rebirth of sorts, but one that hasn’t stretched into the valleys and hollows.

The dichotomy between the economic futures of Pittsburgh and Johnstown is astounding. The lines of have and have-not areas are being drawn tighter.

It is harder than ever to make it on the in-betweens.

“Well Papa go to bed now it’s getting late
Nothing we can say can change anything now
Because there’s just different people coming down here now
and they see things in different ways
And soon everything we’ve known will just be swept away”
– Bruce Springsteen, “Independence Day”

— — — —
Robert John Davis is co-author of “The Digital Social Contract” (available as a free ebook here: and is employed as Executive Director of Content & Social at the venerable global creative advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather.

This article was originally published in January, 2016 at