YONKERS, NEW YORK – One of our oldest and most beloved icons died today at the age of 109. Surviving emphysema, lung cancer, and numerous heart conditions over the years, The Little Engine that Could passed away today during a tragic accident along the Metro North Harlem Line. Only one of many casualties of the accident, Engine That Could was the oldest.
Born in 1906 to a Swedish reverend, Charles S. Wing, Engine that Could’s mother died soon after giving birth. Her labor took place on a Sunday, and she assured her husband that she would be fine. She was being taken care of in a modern hospital, after all. Reverend Charles was a modern man, a staunch believer in American ideals, and reconciled his beliefs with the progress of technology. That Sunday, his sermon focused on the notion that every person on earth is an engine of God’s goodness, and that each human being could, if they tried hard enough, continue to better the new, turn-of-the-century progress they found themselves witnessing. Hurrying back to the hospital after the service, he found a “dour-faced doctor and a sympathetic midwife.” In his collected diaries and sermons, from which this information was gleaned, he continued: “They told me the light of my life had passed but that I had a child, not as strong as one would wish, but a healthy child with lungs that played ear-piercing tunes. When I was asked what to put on the birth certificate, I remembered my sermon, and I knew exactly what name I would give this child.”
When Engine that Could was ten, Reverend Charles married a schoolteacher named Mabel. Though many at the time believed that she should become Engine that Could’s de facto mother, she “took no credit for originating” the ten-year-old, which earned her trust with the child.
Soon after reaching the age of adulthood, Engine that Could left home in order to travel. Though city-bred through and through, having grown up in a Brooklyn brownstone and reading the Swedish newspaper Nordstjernan as well as the New York Tribune, Engine that Could heard and read so much about America’s purportedly still somewhat “wild” West, and decided to begin a journey to explore the United States from East to South to North to West.
An early outdoors journalist, Engine that Could hiked some of the highest summits in the United States, sending missives back to Nordsjernan who published the pieces. In a kind of journalistic retrospective released by the newspaper in the 1960s of Engine that Could’s best articles and an interview, Engine that Could shared one of the methods for getting through particular rough patches during hikes: “You just tell yourself you can do it, and you keep on telling yourself, and keep going, just to the next rock, then just to the next tree, and suddenly you’re over the hill and walking down faster than you can believe!”
Although Engine that Could was agnostic, Reverend Charles continued to love and support his child until his death in 1957. Engine that Could then took some of Reverend Charles’ congregation on a short hike and gave an unofficial sermon while scattering the reverend’s ashes. The words spoken that day are fitting for The Little Engine that Could’s own death after years of continued writing about nature, hiking, and the importance of the great outdoors, even long after Engine that Could could hike anymore, and so we repeat them here: “My father taught me the mantra I used whenever I was climbing up a hill: I think I can, I think I can, I think I can, I think I can. And then, when I’d cross over, he taught me to allow myself the joyous realization of something well done: I thought I could! I thought I could! I thought I could!”