By Betty Bolevic
Prior to Kate and Harold Beattie relocating our family to the farm in Danville, and when spending an occasional weekend with Grammy McDonald, I would often sit in her large green wicker rocker on the wraparound porch, contentedly drawing with my first box of crayons on the small blank sheets of paper secretly torn from the backs of books.
Years later, sitting in the same spot, I would now and then become momentarily startled, first by the whistle, then the cloud of smoke, and finally the familiar clickety-clack of the freight train gaining momentum as it wound its way toward St. Johnsbury after a stop at the Danville Station to unload goods – some for Delmer Smith’s Danville Grain Store.
I avidly watched the steam engine maneuvering its loaded cars slowly and effortlessly around the bend from the village and across the swampy field adjacent to the front of our house, always in anticipation that this would be one of the rare times it would squeal to a stop and take on water that ran from the spring in Will Findley’s field (currently Mt View Drive) and was stored in a tank within the gray cylindrical wooden tower to the right of the track – a somewhat raucous and lengthy process.
After hopping down from the side of the train, a crew member would begin the climb up the ladder attached to the side of the tower, scurry to the top, unhinge, release, and unfold the large hollow and rusting metal water pipe. Unmindful of the protesting groans, creaks, and clanging, he would quickly (and with seemingly little exertion) lower and attach it to the appropriate place in the engine.
Once filled, the process would be reversed, and amid the obliterating tendrils of steam, the locomotive continued its journey – the clacking from metal wheels on iron rails eventually ebbing away to stillness as it labored along tracks that snaked up the slope, into the woods, and out of sight.
Kate McDonald Beattie remembers a poignant and moving story connected with creating the railroad, told by her father, Plynn Harvey McDonald, who was a next door neighbor and long time good friend of the hardworking Crane family. It is a story about the time Calista Jane Crane fell in love. The Civil War had ended, and, within a few years, construction of the St. Johnsbury and Lake Champlain Railroad (later renamed St. Johnsbury and Lamoille County Railroad–St J & LC) was in full swing. Sometime during a ten year building period, the tracks were laid through Danville, and the water tower was erected.
The second oldest of Charles and Mary’s eight children, Calista was born in Danville on December 3, 1844, and lived with her family at their Woodside House across Route 2 from the field where much of the building was taking place. In time, she and one of the young men on the work crew, having met and fallen in love, decided to marry and dutifully presented this desire to her parents for their approval and blessing.
Alas, Mary and Charles adamantly forbid it. Clearly distraught, Calista spent the rest of her life mourning the loss, never speaking to anyone or stepping outside the house, except to go to the outhouse that was located close to the back of the house in winter, and further back during the summer. She was called “Step Aside Calista” by other family members, a name derived from the fact they had to maneuver around their silent relative as they went about their daily busy lives. I never heard that story until I returned to Danville to live a few years ago and questioned Kate about what had happened to the water tower.
Kate explained it was dismantled in the late 1950s. Once diesel engines were developed, the tower was no longer needed. The rails eventually were removed, as well, leaving a void in a place that so many locomotive engineers had relied upon for water for their steam engines, and where 100 years of history had taken place.
Today, whenever I see one of the snow machines go racing along the old rail bed, it brings back one of my favorite memories of the old tower. It was during the Korean Conflict when a troop train stopped for water just at twilight. The bored soldiers spied my little sister, Alice, and me as we stood across the road from our house. Laughter, and a few words were exchanged across the distance, and we waved to them. In response, with heads poking out of open windows, they doffed their uniform hats, excitedly waving them back and forth.