My Train Recollections: Ronnie Phillips

February’s train recollections come to us from Mr. Ronnie Phillips as published in the Cleveland Daily Banner.


RonniePhillipsCleveland has seen many changes in transportation over the years. Among those was rail service when passenger trains stopped at the Southern Railway Depot.

Seventy-five year old Ronnie Phillips has witnessed many of those changes during the 50 years he and his wife, Beverly, have lived in Cleveland.

He arrived in Cleveland in 1962 after being discharged from the Army to take a job at the local station as the agent on the third shift. During the 36 years that followed, he held several jobs before his retirement in 1998 after 40-plus years with Southern Railway.

Everything was done by telephone, two-way radio or telegraph. There were six telephones on his desk. Two were direct lines to dispatchers in Knoxville and Atlanta; two were dedicated to company business and two were local lines for customers. In addition, there was a two-way radio for communicating with the trains. Also, Cleveland was the division point between Knoxville and Atlanta and it was Phillips’ responsibility to have crews standing by.

“Handling crews efficiently required knowing the location of trains at all times. The most efficient way was for two trains to meet at Cleveland and have the crews make a turnaround back to their respective division, but it didn’t happen that way very often.”

Six passenger trains passed through Cleveland daily when he first arrived and each train’s arrival always brought a little anticipation and excitement.

“There was a flurry of activity for the few minutes the train was stopped. Even if there were no passengers to unload or board, there would be mail to be loaded or unloaded by the Railway Post Office car.

“A contractor carried the mail between the post office and train station in a station wagon that was sometimes loaded to the hilt.

“With the Church of God publishing house and everything else here, Cleveland was a busy post office,” Phillips said. “The contractor would bring the mail over and meet every train.”

But, there was always express, and if Smoky Mountain Kennels was shipping out hunting dogs, the canines might get caught up in the excitement and add their voices to the din, he said.

“We always looked forward to the annual Church of God assembly week,” Phillips recalled. “There would be delegates from all over the country and some from foreign countries arriving by train with loads of luggage.”

Another special day was April 14, when people who put off filing their federal tax returns until the last minute waited for “The Tennessean” to arrive at 11:05 p.m.

“April 14 brought a different crowd,” he said. “People would wait until the last minute and bring their tax returns to hand deliver to the clerk in the RPOI car. Train No. 45, ‘The Tennessean,’ was scheduled to arrive in Cleveland at 11:05 p.m., and that got them postmarked just under the midnight deadline. Some of them would actually finish their tax returns in the depot.”

All of the passenger trains stopped in Cleveland, but there were smaller stations where he worked that trains did not stop. In those cases, he described how mail was transferred to and from the Railway Post Office car.

Phillips said the mailman put the mail in a big, heavy canvas pouch reinforced with leather on both ends. The pouch was hung on a pole. The mail car was equipped with a steel arm that would reach out and snag the pouch on the fly and they’d kick off a pouch of mail at the same time.

“The mail clerk raised the arm into the horizontal position and it would grab the mail pouch as they went by at 60 mph. At the same time, the clear kicked the mail off and hoped it didn’t open up and have the mail go all over the place,” he said.

Phillips said the railroad had a lot of strange rules and signals to move trains, but as can be imagined, moving 16 or 18 trains a day through Cleveland on a single track required coordination and clear-cut rules that spelled out how it was to be accomplished.

“There were three ways a train could move on a track,” he said.

Trains traveled by right, class or direction.

Normally, trains ran on a timetable that listed when each was due at each station along the run. There were only three classes of scheduled trains though Phillips only remembers first- and second-class trains passing through Cleveland.

“That train could run on the scheduled timetable and that was his authority to move on the track,” Phillips said.

Trains traveling east had superiority over westbound trains in this area, but train orders bestowed superiority over either class or direction.

“Trains could also run on orders and that took precedent over anything else. We ran a lot of extra trains. If you had more freight than you had schedules for, they would run an extra.”

Phillips said there was no other job like working for the railroad. It was a good life. They were almost like a big family; working together, playing together and helping each other. They always looked forward to the annual company Christmas dinner party every year for all the families in the area.

“Everyone looked forward to getting together, just as family would. There are so many memories,” he said. “Not all were good, but most were and I prefer to dwell on the good ones.”


Credit: Cleveland Daily Banner | January 20, 2012 | Cleveland Life Article
Author: David Davis


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