Mr. Mike Harrison, retired curator at the Little River Railroad and Lumber Co. Museum in Townsend, TN, shares his train recollections with us this month. Thanks for your memories, Mike!
“I never developed an interest in railroads or trains. I was happily and irrevocably born with one. Possibly my earliest recollection of self awareness was as a < 1 year old, traveling with my parents and hearing an N&W conductor on Southern’s Tennessean in 1947 announce our arrival at “Rat-fud! Rat-fud Vaginia!”, a stop on our way from Washington’s Union Station to my Dad’s parents’ home in Knoxville, TN.
Before he graduated Knoxville High School and took a job with the FBI in Washington, DC, my Dad, Joe Harrison, grew up in Knoxville in the 1920’s and ’30’s in a shotgun-style house that backed up to the Louisville & Nashville freight yard (now at the west end of the University of Tennessee campus). His parents’ home was so close to the little freight yard depot, my Dad said that on baseball game days, his Dad would turn their big Phillips console radio around, pointing toward the depot and crank up the volume so the appreciative yardmen could follow the ball game. Dad told us he sold the Sunday Knoxville Journal to train passengers at the depot while the Emmas coaled and took water and let a switcher push the train into the downtown L&N terminal. He said he invariably infuriated the traveling news butches on the train who could not get their copies of the paper to sell until the train reached the terminal.
We would visit Dad’s parents for a few weeks every summer and from the time I could walk, I spent every waking moment in that unfenced freight yard watching the yard steam switchers shuttle freight car cuts around, and occasionally being hoisted into the cab for a a few hours of up-close-and-personal switching. Unthinkable and possibly feloniously illegal today, in the 50’s I could freely roam the entirety of the yard from the wye at the Tennessee River bridge to the Cumberland Avenue overpass without parental or yard worker interference or challenge, other than an occasional, “be careful!” Learning early the key rule was, “you can go anywhere if you stay out of the way,” and occasionally running ice water to yardmen, I got into the roundhouse, rode the turntable, climbed all over bad order cars sidetracked nearest Dad’s house along with hundreds of spare parts and played with the very mobile wheel sets. Even bedtime was memorable. The diesel switchers (FM or ALCO?) had a soothing pitch rise when accelerating and anticipated lowing back to idle when drifting, to the inevitable jarring crash of knuckles reacquainting. With one possible exception, time at the end of Cornell Ave was the most joyful two weeks of the year, especially so if during the Christmas holiday.
The possible exception was equal time spent at my Mother’s parents’ house at Barboursville, VA. Her Dad and all three of her brothers and a cousin worked for Southern Railway in various capacities for varying durations. My grandad, Jessie Strickland, ran the coaling station at Weyburn, VA. I have his 30 year Southern Railway service pin, and one uncle’s Flagman hat badge. Another Uncle, Peyton Strickland, lost his right arm while working as brakeman, but SR took great care of him during his lifetime, and his children until they reached adulthood. Mom’s house was just two miles from the Weyburn coaling tower, but less than 100 feet from Southern’s double tracked main from Orange, VA, to Charlottesville. The outhouse would shake when the long freights passed pulling the grade from Weyburn to Barboursville, moving slowly enough that catching a ride to town was easy. We had standing excuse to leave the supper table to run trackside whenever the Tennessean, Southerner, or Crescent would fly by or even for a long freight. Steam was gone from SR in 1953, but I came to appreciate the EMD E and F’s almost as much, though it always bothered me when the A units all faced forward. Uncle Peyton had retired to Gordonsville, six miles away where SR and C&O met at the wye junction. I’d watch the C&O trains from Richmond to Charlottesville either stop or more often greatly slow for the sweeping wye curve through town.
Mom and Dad met and married in Washington, DC, during WWII and whenever they wanted a little alone time, Mom had only to take my brother and I to Union Station and hand us up to Uncle Lynn (actually Mom’s cousin), a Conductor on the Crescent. Two thrilling, memorable hours later, often having ridden the business/observation car platform, he would give to Aunt Opal in picturesque Orange, VA, for a week or two of continual SR dual main action at the family home in Barboursville. Too often, though at the time I had no idea of the ominous implications, it seemed we had the whole five or six car consist to ourselves, and whether true or not, we always explored the whole length of train at least once during the far too short trip.
Now, I love to get stopped at a grade crossing for a creeping CSX coal drag. Near ecstasy was the 7,000 mile Amtrak trip my Dad and I took in 2005 on the Cardinal, Zephyr, Coast Starlight, Empire Builder and Capitol Limited, and seeing the grandeur of our Creator’s creation from a Superliner’s wide stateroom window, or from the never-to-be-opened-during-motion open lower level Dutch door in the First Class Lounge car. I never got tired of watching or being in or around trains — still don’t; can’t. Like I said at the top, I didn’t become interested in trains. I was born that way, and remain eternally grateful to my parents and theirs for making it thus.”
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