It's Train Day

Promoted from the diaries by Neil…

Ok, it’s another “Hallmark Holiday,” in this case invented by Amtrak, but I invite your consideration.  The train is one of the fundaments of American culture.  The steam locomotive is the first thing that made man able to move on land faster than he could walk.  Until the steam locomotive, all of human life was constrained by the twelve mile rule; the distance a man could comfortably go and come in a day on horseback.  Go travel the back roads or even the old federal highways of the eastern US and check out the twelve mile towns.  To the extent they haven’t been torn down or re-muddled, they’re a temple of the pre-Interstate world.  But, enough of that, I want to talk about trains.

I love trains!  I like five 5000 horsepower diesel-electric locomotives dragging a hundred coal hoppers up a 2% grade; lots of smoke, noise, sparks off the wheels, and the occassional broken train.  I LOVE a steam locomotive on any grade.  The steam locomotive is a human machine, its drive rods work just like your arms.  When the steam explodes into the cylinder, it drives that rod against the crank on the wheel just like your biceps drive your forearm and fist.  It’s like us and you can see how it works.

My first train memory was some day in maybe ’52 or ’53, the last day of the Wadley Southern Railroad.  I watched the Wadley Southern’s last departure from Swainsboro, Georgia from my grandfather’s shouders.   The WSRR was the last of the roads that were built to serve the early 20th Century timber boom in my region of Georgia.  The little town of Stilmore, near my hometown, in the early 20th Century had five railroads serving it.  There’s a caution light in the middle of Stilmore these days and what’s left of the train station is a welcome center where nice old ladies hope somebody gets off the interstate a few miles away.  The Wadley Southern used to go from Stilmore through Swainsboro, my home town, to Wadley where it connected with the Central of Georgia Railroad.

The Central of Georgia was a BIg Deal!  For those of you who think the South is all about free market conservatism, the Central Railroad was built by the State of Georgia in the 1840s and ’50s.  Sherman followed its route in 1864.  The Central runs from Savannah to Atlanta, via  Macon and with a branch to Columbus.  It was the Heart of Dixie in its day.  When Roosevelt’s coffin came out of Warm Springs, it came on C of G rails to Atlanta.  In my youth, the C of G’s name train was the Nancy Hanks.  You can argue about whether it was named after the race horse or President Lincoln’s grandmother, but it had the race horse painted on the sides of its blue and gray cars.  One of the great social events of the year in the little farm towns between Savannah and Atlanta was the Christmas Specials.  In December, the C of G ran “specials” to Atlanta so that people could go do their Christmas shopping at Rich’s in Atlanta, spend the night in one of Atlanta’s fancy hotels and return to their real world the next day.  As I write this, I struggle to remember the names of the real, live locally owned hotels, each grand and beautiful and based on somebody’s idea of what a hotel should be like.  Places like the DeSoto and the Ponce de Leon and the Dinkler Plaza.  Remember when cities in America really were different?  People don’t even remember the history of the new hotels; I took my wife to the Regency in downtown ATL a few years ago just because it was the Regency.  Back in the day, that revolving lounge on top was a way cool thing.  Nowadays, pretty much all you can see is surrounding taller buildings.  But the story is that I had to tell the kid serving us in the bar is that THIS is where Jimmy Buffet got the inspiration for “Why Don’t We Get Drunk and Screw.”  Now that’s culture!

So, back to trains.  The most sandspurs I’ve ever had in my body was when I jumped off the Nancy in Dover, Georgia to get the conductor some water from the artesian sprng there.  I was maybe ten or twelve and had been down to see my city cousins in Savannah.  The conductor, seeing I was the only kid on the train, told me the train would be going real slow, so all I had to do was hop off and fill up his gallon jug with water.  That train must have been going 30 mph and I went a#$ over tea kettle through the weeds for fifty feet or more, but I got his water – and a few hundred sandspurs.

Anyway, when America went west, it went on the train.  The covered wagon showed the way and we like the romance of it, though if you’ve ever ridden in a wagon, all you can do is admire the stamina and the toughness of our forefathers’ behinds.  The West was settled by the train.  The railroads recruited settlers in the East and in Europe and plunked them down in the middle of nowhere and said, “have a nice life.”  And, well, many of them did; they made it.  They made territories and then states and they formed the modern nation; all because of the train.

And finally, lest you think I’m for Amtrak subsides or something; that day is gone.  I got to see the last days of “the train.”  The Southern Railway was among the last railroads to surrender its passenger service to Amtrak.  When I lived in Atlanta, I had to go to New York frequently.  That involved getting up at about four in the morning, driving to Hartsfield, flying PanAm or Eastern to NYC and getting to your hotel about noon.  I don’t know just what got me to look at it, but I discovered the Southern Crescent, Pullman service from Atlanta to New York.  You could catch the Crescent at Brookwood Station in suburban Atlanta at about five in the evening.  A Pullman bedroom was about the same price as First Class airfare.  You got dinner in the diner with real linen and real silver and real flowers on the table.  You got “Yessir,” “Nosir,” and “may I help you sir.”  You got up in the morning and had breakfast, organized your things and got to New York about noon.  You could take the tunnel from Penn Station to the Statler Hilton (If you remember PA – 6 – 5000, you’re dating yourself) and be out and about in New York just after lunch, just like taking the plane but you’d had a good night’s sleep and a pleasant trip.

If you get the chance, take an excursion behind a steam locomotive; there’s still quite a few of them running.  If you can, take one of the Amtrak trains on the long runs out west; the Empire Builder, the Sunset Limited, the Coast Daylight.  Those are hallowed names of classic trains and the Amtrak versions are hardly a shadow of them, but the trip is still wonderful.

Enjoy Train Day; it is a big part of what made us what we are.