Our thanks to reader Jeremy Thompson for the article suggestion!
By Tim Bean
Whether it’s a tall tale, a ghostly apparition, or a tourist trap, there’s nothing like the Wabash Cannonball. Much like the term “Hoosier”, folklorists have attached a variety of origin myths to the Wabash Cannonball, each more fantastic than the last, and that’s how the train began its fictional life: as a myth. First a Hoosier/Midwestern myth, then a song, and finally a real-life train.
The Wabash Cannonball Legend
The legend of the Wabash Cannonball is one of the most well-known Midwestern folk tale. While half a dozen tall tales concerning this legendary locomotive have chugged around our American mythology, two stories are of particular note.
Probably the most prominent is the Wabash Cannonball’s place as a “Flying Dutchman” in hobo culture of the early 1900s. Like the Dutchman, the Cannonball was supposedly a cursed train forever doomed to ride the rails for eternity. Hobos (hobo = migrant or traveling worker) would only see the Cannonball at their time of dying. Such a story seems ridiculous, but imagine being told the tale in the dark of night, over a dying campfire. In that context, the Wabash Cannonball story would become downright ominous.
Another variation worth mentioning is the absorption of the Wabash Cannonball tale into one of the most American of American Tall Tales: the legend of Paul Bunyan. Bunyan began as a French-Canadian tale circulated in the bunkhouses of the Midwest in the late 1800s, decades before anyone put his story to paper.
By the early 1900s, Bunyan and his blue ox, Babe had collected a menagerie of family members. Paul’s family included his wife, Carrie, and his two children Teeny and Little Jean. His extended family also made an appearance, including his younger brother Cal Bunyan. According to versions of the Paul Bunyan folk tale, Cal created a locomotive engine so fast and long that it arrived at its destination before it left, dragging over 700 freight cars behind it. Once, on a speed run, Cal Bunyan’s Wabash Cannonball thundered along its track so fast that it rocketed straight off into space, never to be seen again.
The Wabash Cannonball Song
“Listen to the jingle the rumble and the roar As she glides along the woodland through the hills and by the shore Hear the mighty rush of the engine hear the lonesome hobos call You’re traveling through the jungle on the Wabash Cannonball…”
~Lyrics by A.P. Carter, Song by Roy Acuff
The Wabash Cannonball (Or Cannon Ball) first made its song appearance over 120 years ago in the tune “The Great Rock Island Route.” Since then, it has gone through several manifestations. The most historically significant is 1936’s “The Wabash Cannonball” by Roy Acuff and the Smoky Mountain Boys. Dubbed the “King of Country Music” Roy Acuff’s influence and style built a bridge between blue, jazz, and country to form the new-fangled rock n’ roll, and “Cannonball” became Acuff’s signature song. In 2004, James Henke, curator of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, compiled a list of the “500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll“, giving Acuff’s “The Wabash Cannonball” a place of distinction as the oldest song on the list.
The Wabash Cannonball Train
The real-life Wabash Railroad, named after the Wabash River, formed just after the Civil War to serve and supply the Midwest and Mid-Central United States. In its century long history, this railroad would become an artery of industry and business, fueling America’s Second Industrial Revolution. It extended as far east as Missouri and as far north as Ontario, with thousands of miles of tracks carrying the lifeblood of American economy; in 1960 alone, it carried almost 6 1/2 billion ton-miles of freight (ton-mile = one ton of freight carried one mile).
In 1949, to acknowledge the beloved song and folktale, the Wabash Railroad named a passenger train on its Detroit-St. Louis line the Wabash Cannonball, the first train in the country to actually carry the famous name. For two decades, this train became a popular tourist attraction for fans of railroading history and remained in commission until 1971, when Amtrak took over the passenger train niche.
As varied as these manifestations might be, there are elements of uniformity in the Wabash Cannonball’s story that are undeniably American. A love of travel, a love of speed, a love engineering and mechanization—these all contribute to an appreciation for the American landscape and outdoors. As the Cannonball legend suggests, most Americans find real happiness when we see the country streaking by a window.
Don’t forget, there’s also Wabash Cannonball the roller coaster, the bridge, the trail, the specialty goat cheese, the motorcycle club, the B-17 bomber, the Stratotanker…