Via Freight Train, A Travelogue Tragically Truncated

Olon F. Wiggins was at the center of early science fiction fandom in Denver. By August 1940, his seminal amateur publication The Science Fiction Fan (TSFF) had sustained an amazing run of 49 consecutive monthly issues since its founding in July 1936.

Born in 1911, Wiggins was a First Fan of the old guard — but at the turn of the decade, science fiction was also spawning a next-generation of new fans. Lew Martin was thirteen years Wiggins’ junior, and was a high school senior when the second World Science Fiction Convention convened in Chicago.

For Wiggins and Martin, attendance at the Chicago gathering was essential, for they had already hatched a plan to propose that the following WorldCon in 1941 be held in Denver. So — how to get to Chicago?

According to Martin:

“It all began one meeting of the Denver Science Fictioneers when I asked Chairman Wiggins if he planned to attend the Chicago 1940 World’s Science-Fiction Convention. He replied that he was and I told him of my desire and determination to go. He planned to go via bus and I had planned to hitch-hike, picking up Al McKeel at Jefferson City, Missouri. Several meetings elapsed before we had compromised on accompanying each other via freight train.”

From “Via Freight Train” by Lew Martin, TSFF, v5n7, April 1941

Martin provided no further explanation of this odd ‘compromise,’ only adding, “After all, we could have paid our way if we wanted, we chose romance and adventure, and despite the hardships we would gladly do it again.” (Emphasis his.)

This ‘romance and adventure’ is well-known in fan history. In our research for Volume Two of The Visual History of Science Fiction Fandom, we came across a contemporaneous reference.

Wilson “Bob” Tucker in Spaceways, v2n8, October 1940, recounting arrivals of fans in Chicago for the WorldCon

Harry Warner also mentions this trip in All Our Yesterdays:

“Among the first to arrive were Olon Wiggins and Lew Martin, who made the trip from Denver in thirty hours by courtesy of several boxcars. A fellow traveler failed to complete his journey in a bloody manner, but he wasn’t a fan.”

Ted Dikty provided the most graphic anecdote of the fatal mishap:

From “Expedition to Chicago,” IFA Review, v1n2, September-October 1940

Naturally we assumed that one or both of the bold sojourners must have documented this extraordinary expedition. But finding a full, detailed account has been something of an adventure as well — one that’s sadly incomplete.

Indeed, Martin captured the journey in depth. His essay, “Via Freight Train,” began appearing as a serial in TSFF beginning with v5n7, dated February 1941. Additional installments were published in v5n8 (March 1941), v5n9 (April 1941), and v5n10 (April 15 1941).

Martin’s account is rich and engaging, It captures a remarkable experience and paints a picture of life at that time that we found unique and compelling. Though a bit repetitive and uneven, the narrative represents some of the best writing we’ve encountered in early fanzines.

However, as 1941 progressed, the attention of the leading Denver fans was increasingly dominated by preparations for the 1941 WorldCon — the first “Denvention.” The issues of TSFF dated from the Spring of that year weren’t actually published on their cover dates. Material was accumulated, but the issues were produced after the July convention and back-dated. Ardent historians will note that v5n7 is the last issue cited in the Pavlat-Evans Fanzine Index.

Tracking down the trailing issues of TSFF required significant archeology. The February issue was excavated from the Ackerman archives held by Jim Halperin. It wasn’t clear that the March issue existed at all until John L. Coker III was able to surface a copy. The April issue is on file with the Hevelin collection at the University of Iowa, but Alistair Durie was able to provide us with an excellent scan of this very scarce artifact. We were fortunate to acquire the April 15 issue from another collector.

This gave us four installments of Martin’s epic. But on inspection, we were distraught to discover this at the end of Installment Four:

Lew Martin in The Science Fiction Fan, v5n10, April 15 1941

We have no evidence to suggest that a “Next Issue” was ever produced. Nor have we seen any trace of this essay anywhere else, in part or in whole. Equally frustrating, none of the four installments we’ve found contain the account of “one of those horrible accidents so common to boxcar transportation.” Lacking the conclusion, we also don’t have the happy ending of the pair’s arrival in Chicago.

We’re pleased to present Martin’s narrative in its incomplete fullness, likely the first opportunity for contemporary fans to share the ride.

Further, we appeal to any interested parties: Does the missing conclusion exist somewhere? Did Martin ever publish the essay separately? Does anyone who knew Wiggins or Martin recall conversations where they related additional details?

And and all insight will be greatly appreciated!

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