My Train Recollections: Richard Leonard

Thank you for sharing your fond memories with us, Richard!


My Railfan Story
Richard C. Leonard, Ph.D.

I was born to be a railroad fan. My grandfather, Don M. Leonard, was an official of the Boston & Albany in the early twentieth century, and my father, Richard D. Leonard, grew up with a regular exposure to trains and railroads. It was inevitable that he should pass the interest along to me and my younger brother, David. While other dads took their sons camping, or to baseball games, our dad took us trackside to watch trains. I will never forget, for example, watching beside the busy New York Central main line west of Toledo and seeing the stream of high-speed limiteds hauled by the Central’s famous Hudsons – whistle wailing, rods flailing, smoke trailing as they rushed by our vantage point. Of course the New York Central, which leased the Boston & Albany, was my father’s favorite railroad. (He despised the rival Pennsylvania!)

But until I became a teenager, I was dependent on my father to take us to places where we could observe the world of railroading — for example, to the Michigan Central’s shops in Jackson, Michigan, where I had my first cab ride in a steam locomotive, the NYC’s class H-10 2-8-2 No. 2345. That changed in 1951, when my father transitioned from college teaching at Adrian, Michigan, to become pastor of the Methodist church in the small town of Bellevue, just northeast of Battle Creek on the Grand Trunk Western main line — at that time all steam-powered except for some EMD F7 “A” units on manifest freights. Dad had never been a regular photographer of rail subjects, but seizing the opportunity to record the passage of steam power through our village I borrowed his old Kodak folding cartridge camera that used size 116 film and spent many an hour at trackside. Other ventures through Michigan and environs permitted photography of GTW steam at Durand or Battle Creek, or of NYC locomotives in Detroit or elsewhere.

When Dad became a professor at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington in 1954, our move brought exposure to the trains and facilities of other railroads. At first the Illinois Central was still steam-powered in the area, but when that faded away I was reduced to “fanning” the Gulf, Mobile & Ohio’s all-diesel operations in Bloomington, which featured an important terminal and shop. One trip to the Chicago area took us to the Nickel Plate’s Calumet Yard in Chicago during the last months of the NKP’s famous Berkshires. A family trip to New England via Canada yielded views of Canadian Pacific steam, while a visit to Galesburg with railfan friends permitted photography of some late Burlington Route steam. In 1957 a family trip to Colorado and Wyoming allowed us to see and photograph steam on the Colorado & Southern in Denver and the Union Pacific at Laramie, where we captured views of the earlier gas turbines and the famous “Big Boy” 4-8-8-4s. Returning to Illinois along the UP’s main line we photographed 4-6-6-4 Challengers and a few 4-8-4s as well. By that time I was using a 35mm camera for both black-and-white film and color transparencies, and my brother had a good-quality camera using larger film.

As you might guess, steam was my dominant interest. With the passing of steam my railfan activities waned, supplanted by the responsibilities of graduate study at Boston University (Ph.D. in Biblical Studies, 1972) followed by episodes of college teaching, theological writing, and serving various pastorates, along with a twenty-year career as a transportation data analyst with Rand McNally. I didn’t entirely drop rail photography, but it lacked the urgency of my efforts during the steam era. For almost four decades railfanning, for me, was generally on the “back burner,” although my rail background was put to good use at Rand McNally when I headed a group of analysts coding the entire U.S. rail network into the computer for a product called “Railroad MileMaker.” After a few years Rand McNally, not well positioned to market to the rail industry, leased the product to another firm and returned me to the highway side of transportation.

The rise of the Internet brought me back to serious railfan activities. In 1998, realizing there was an online interest in rail photography, I built the Steam Locomotive Archive web site based on the photos I had taken back in the 1950s, with pages for all the railroads mentioned above. This became the “flagship” site of “Richard Leonard’s Rail Archive” (www.railarchive.net), which eventually incorporated separate sections for my “New York Central Collection,” “GM&O Gallery,” “Random Steam Photo Collection,” “Vintage Diesel Miscellany,” and much more. The Rail Archive now includes photos contributed by many others, especially the work of my late brother David V. Leonard (some of his Canada images, and mine, are in the “Canadian Corner” section of this blog). But many others, including Tom Rock, have happily loaned images from their collections to the Rail Archive, for which I am thoroughly grateful. The Rail Archive now includes twenty-one sections comprising more than 1800 individual pages containing photos and commentary, or reproducing pages from vintage publications.

Today, in retirement, I am a director of the Keokuk Union Depot Foundation, which is restoring this historic 1891 structure. I maintain the Depot’s web site (www.keokukuniondepot.org) and Facebook page. And some years ago, fulfilling a desire to “own” a railroad, I purchased stock in Pioneer Railcorp, parent company of the Keokuk Junction Railway that operates through our town of Hamilton, Illinois.

As a final note, it’s striking how many steam locomotives I photographed in the 1950s still exist in various museums or displays, or even in operable condition. These include my very first steam photo, GTW Pacific 5030, but also GTW 0-8-0 8380, 2-8-2 3734 (renumbered to 4070), 4-8-4s 6323 and 6325; CPR 2-8-2 5361; CB&Q 4-6-4 4000; NKP 2-8-4 765; IC 2-8-2 1518; Rahway Valley 2-8-0 15; CNR 2-6-0 911; UP 4-8-4 814, 4-8-8-4 4023, and, amazingly, 4-6-6-4 (Challenger) 3985! (I also photographed the famous GTW Pacific 5629 and CB&Q 4-8-4 5632, which had careers in the post-steam era but were later scrapped.) If I really wanted to, I could take digital photos today of around fourteen steam locomotives I photographed in the 1950s on size 116 or 35mm film (and have done so in a few cases)!


Richard Leonard’s Rail Archivewww.railarchive.net
Hamilton, Illinois – 800-440-4043

Rock on Trains © 2017, Tom Rock + T.D.R. Productions. All rights reserved. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from Tom Rock is strictly prohibited.

 

My Train Recollections: Mary McPherson

June’s train recollections come to us from Ms. Mary McPherson. Thanks for sharing your fond memories, Mary!


Mary PI’ve been asked how I got interested in railroads. Fair enough question, I suppose. The railfan community is, after all, mostly a male domain.

Mostly, but not exclusively.

In many, if not most, instances, the interest is something passed down from generation to generation. A father, grandfather, uncle or cousin worked for the railroad and the interest was handed off through the experience of being trackside. Not so, in my case. If asked how I came to my interest in railroading, I blame Captain Kangaroo.

“What?” you may ask, “Captain Kangaroo?!?!”

Yup. I got it from a seventies kids’ T.V. show featuring the guy with the big pockets on his jacket. My attention was grabbed by a segment featuring film of a steam locomotive with the musical accompaniment of Albert Hammond’s “I’m A Train.” That was it; the ground zero that planted a seed which quickly sprouted.

Trips to the public library found a supply of railroad photography books. The works or Lucius Beebe and Charles Clegg were in abundance; “Trains In Transition” and “Highball” were frequently checked out. My favorite title was Don Ball Jr.’s classic “Portrait Of The Rails.” His writing of days spent alongside the Kansas Division of the Union Pacific around Lawrence were particularly evocative to me.

The subject matter of the books I read gave me my particular preference for steam power. By the time I was in fourth grade, I could draw up a diagram of just how a steam locomotive functioned. By the time I was in junior high school, terms such as Stephenson, Walschaert, superheater, staybolt and crown sheet were cemented in my vocabulary.

I was lucky enough to grow up near Carbondale, Illinois. Carbondale was split by the mainline of the Illinois Central Gulf, and was only twenty miles from the Crab Orchard & Egyptian Railroad, which at the time was the only steam powered common carrier in the United States. Six Amtrak trains a day called on Carbondale and when Amtrak hired its own operating crews in 1987, Carbondale became home to Amtrak crews.

I became a common sight around downtown Carbondale, pedaling about on a red ten-speed and hanging out along the tracks with a camera and tape recorder. I was ten when I took my first real train ride, and got my first cab ride on a freight hauling 2-8-0 when I was 12.

If one were to ask me why I am interested in trains, I frankly couldn’t say. There is not any way for me to break it down and quantify just what it is about the railroad that is so appealing. Why does anyone do or like the things they do? Stamp collecting, fishing, whatever it is; either you get it, or you don’t. The why, I suppose, isn’t all that important anyway.

The sound of locomotive prime movers shouting in the night as they climb the grade near my home, with the metallic screech of flanges biting into the rail and echoing through the hills brings a smile to my face every time I hear it. The scent of coal smoke from a locomotive stack, mixed with the smell of hot valve oil, smells just as good to me as a hamburger broiling on the grill. The why isn’t important. The thrill of the moment is what it’s all about.

That fourth grader drawing steam locomotives on homework pages has long ago grown up. Since then, I’ve ridden aboard and behind steam locomotives large and small. I’ve paced Union Pacific hotshots along U.S. 30 in Nebraska. I’ve shot BNSF coal trains fighting the grade of Nebraska’s Crawford Hill. I’ve shot a 2-8-4 blasting around Horseshoe Curve, and chased F-Units trundling along a Nebraska short line. I’ve shot the Southwest Chief climbing the grade Raton pass on the Colorado/New Mexico border. I’ve slept on the ground beside my car to be in position to catch a Frisco 4-8-2 or a N&W 2-6-6-4 the next morning, and I’ve slept on the floor of a church rectory when the person working the gift counter at a depot offered the space to a nearly broke college student toting a camera and a couple of microphones.

They are all singular moments; accumulated over the years into a life well spent.

Those moments are best when shared; whether through bringing a friend along on the adventure or through sharing the documentation of the experience through the media of photography, sound and video.

There is such an abundance of things to experience and places to visit along the high iron, that it is plenty to fill a life’s work. I’ve only now begun to scratch the surface.

And those Amtrak crews that watched that kid riding around on the bike way back when? Some of them were the ones that said “they’re hiring; you’d better put in for it!” as I was graduating from college. Glad I did, for it has now been fifteen years and counting since I donned the conductor’s hat myself.

Highball!

Mary McPherson
Dongola, Illinois


Rock on Trains © 2016, Tom Rock + T.D.R. Productions. All rights reserved. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from Tom Rock is strictly prohibited.

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


My Train Recollections: Allan Bishop

January’s train recollections come to us from Mr. Allan Bishop. Thanks for sharing your memories, Allan!


AllanBI was born and raised in eastern Canada near Moncton, NB. I grew up in Albert Mines where the old abandoned rail bed of the Salisbury to Albert branch of the Canadian National Railway ran through our back yard. It actually went all the way to Alma at one time but only briefly. My great grandfather was an Engineer for CNR and drove steam engines right up until he retired in ’52; my grandfather was a Hostler for CN at the Moncton shops up until he retired in the late 80’s, and my great uncle worked in the shops as a machinist, so I guess you could say the railroad was bred into me and running through my veins right from the beginning.

I never knew my great grandfather (he passed away two years before I was born), and I was neither close with my grandfather nor that side of the family, so my personal interests start from memories from the late 60’s and early 70’s, before the railroad started to disappear in the Moncton area. Moncton was known as “The Hub of the Maritimes,” as it didn’t seem to matter where the trains were going to, they had to go through Moncton. My fondest memories are of looking through the car window at all the different cars in the small yard next to the river as my parents would drive to town to go shopping. Even at the age of 5 or 6, I remember seeing the CNR “Maple Leaf” logo on the older cars and thinking I liked it a lot better than the modern “Noodle” style. My other fond recollection is when the branch line was still running to Hillsborough — I recall seeing what I believe was an F unit hitting the snow banks at the Weldon crossing, thinking how cool it was to see the snow exploding into the air.

At around 10 years old, I received my first train set for Christmas and have never lost the love for modeling since then. Teen years spent with a girlfriend and then my wife all kept my interests away from the hobby. On September 5, 1989, I quit my two pack per day cigarette addiction for good; I told my wife I was going to take the money I’d been wasting on cigarettes and spend it on my train hobby. Our first baby came along and a couple years later our second, and the train hobby was once again tucked away. As the years went by and the kids got a little older, I built a small plywood layout, but wanted more. With the help of some of my train friends, my home layout started. I worked on a plan and when the space became available — my oldest graduated and moved out, and my youngest was in his last year of high school — I started building. The build went fast for the first 5 months, but tragedy hit our family on the evening of January 2, 2012: my 17-year old son passed away in a car accident. The passion just isn’t there like it once was for the hobby, and the layout gets worked on as I feel like it, but in the past several months it has been proceeding at a more “regular” pace.

My modeling interest is kept between the 40’s up to the early 70’s as I have very little interest in modern diesel locomotives. My current modeling involves a Maritime based modular group known as UMG and my home layout WVR. The UMG group is an HO Fee-mo type (not exact Free-mo) modular group; we attend and set up at maritime club shows and operate our layout with a bit of a twist. We actually let some of the kids get involved by handing them the “throttle,” showing them how it works, and then we act as the Conductor as the become the engineer. My home layout, Wolf Valley Railroad, is an N scale layout. If you’d like to know more, you can follow my blog: wolfvalleyrr.ca.


Rock on Trains © 2015, Tom Rock + T.D.R. Productions. All rights reserved. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from Tom Rock is strictly prohibited.

 

My Train Recollections: Bob Mitchell

December’s train recollections come to us from Mr. Bob Mitchell. Thanks for sharing your memories, Bob!


Bob Mitchell PhotoWindsor, Ontario, the Canadian city on the south shore of the Detroit River, was (and still is) a major industrial city like its big brother on the north shore. In the 1940’s it was laced with railroad tracks, both Canadian and American, having such names as Canadian National, Canadian Pacific, Chesapeake and Ohio, Wabash, New York Central and Essex Terminal, the latter being the tie that bound all the others together. This was my birthplace and hometown and having come from a railroad family, I was steeped in and passionate for steam locomotives and everything that was associated with them. In fact, I loved all things that traveled on steel rails. The narrow gauge railroad that ran through the Detroit Zoological Park qualified for this. This was reached after a quick trip through the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel and an exciting ride on the old Peter Witt and PCC cars of the Detroit Street Railways. They glided and clanged up Woodward Avenue from Campus Martius towards Royal Oak where the wonders of this great zoo and its superb railroad beckoned.

My love of all things rail began with my grandparents. Granddad was a station agent with the Canadian Pacific Railway at Indian Head, Saskatchewan, way out west. The dreaded disease called Polio was so concentrated in the Detroit-Windsor area in the 1940’s and it affected so very many kids. Because of this, my Mom, who loved trains even more than I did, having been born in the upstairs residence of a CPR station, took me off to western Canada with her every summer for several years for a visit to Indian Head. There the outbreak wasn’t so bad. Did you know that the baggage cars between Windsor and Toronto carried an Iron Lung for transporting polio-stricken kids to Sick Childrens’ Hospital? West from Ontario, we enjoyed the comforts of the splendid heavyweight tuscan red sleepers and diners available to us on the crack Train #7 – The Dominion – pulled by beautiful Royal Hudson steam locomotives unique to the Canadian Pacific. The dining cars of the day were something to behold with their tables clothed in white linens and adorned with flowers in crystal vases, their cherry-wood paneling, brass fixtures, and the heavenly smells from the kitchen that were beyond belief! The service was impeccable with rules of serving having been set down long ago by William C. Van Horne, famous president of the CPR responsible for pushing the railway across Canada and through the Canadian Rockies. The train delivered us right to Granddad’s platform at Indian Head, the station being a regular stop on the transcontinental main line of the CPR. During one of those visits, we arrived at the height of one of those violent prairie storms. The power was out, and there was my rain-soaked Granddad, complete with railroad lantern, greeting all detainees at the step box. I spent many a wonderful day watching the activity around the “prairie skyscraper” grain elevators that lined the track and the comings and goings of the mainline freights from Granddad’s bay window. Mike, Granddad’s Irish Setter, was my pal. He met the dining car of each passenger train in his quest for table scraps and leftover bones. All the crews along the line knew Granddad and Mike.

Back in Windsor, I saw my first diesel locomotive a the Pillette Road crossing of the Wabash. It was a London-built GMD F7, resplendant in the famous blue and silver livery with the Wabash flag on the nose. These engines were manufactured exclusively for use between Windsor and Buffalo.

Over the years, I studied everything I could about North American railroads, specializing in the age of steam. I was a volunteer with the Canadian Railroad Historical Associations’s now-defunct Salem and Hillsborough Railroad in New Brunswick, Canada where we operated a very fine dinner train and a steam excursion train for many years. I also worked with a wonderful group of volunteers, the Southern Ontario Locomotive Restoration Society, that cosmetically restored ex-CNR 5588. This is a 1911 Grand Trunk product that sits on Windsor’s riverfront overlooking the beautiful Detroit skyline. It marks the spot where the first train arrived in Windsor (and to Detroit from the east) in 1854. How fortunate I have been to have had a life-long love of trains. I now share this by teaching Canadian railroad history with ElderCollege, a southwestern Ontario educational enrichment group associated with Canterbury College of the University of Windsor.


Rock on Trains © 2014, Tom Rock + T.D.R. Productions. All rights reserved. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from Tom Rock is strictly prohibited.

My Train Recollections: John Uhelski

Mr. John Uhelski, my friend and fellow train buff, shares his train recollections with us this month. Thanks for your memories, John!


johnuhelskiMy train watching addiction began at and early age; I, too, remember the trains at the Detroit Zoo, but also grew up with Grand Trunk Western steam at places like Brush Street Station and Eastern Market in Detroit. I also recall freight and passenger trains at the classic Birmingham Station with the high platforms.

My dad was a salaried Ford Motor Company employee, so he took my brother and me on a GTW steam-powered trip from Detroit to Pontiac in the late 1950s. Years later, I was at one of the meetings of the AATTW when Emery Gulash was showing his GTW steam slides and I saw the photos he’d taken. I mentioned that I was on this trip, and he replied, “This was a private Ford employees special; how did you get to ride on it?” I told him about my dad and it all made sense. Mr. Gulash and I remained friends for many years and stood side by side along the ROW in future train journeys over the years before his passing.

Not to dismiss the diesel engines that replaced the iron horses of my youth, my Dad often took us to the many junctions in the Detroit area. We spent much time at places like Wayne Jct, Romulus, Carleton, Milan and South Lyon, watching the growlers bounce over the diamonds in the 1960s. Great memories of climbing the tower steps to visit the operators, waiting for the bell announcing an upcoming train, throwing switch and semaphore levers to “help” the operator. All that’s left now are silver boxes trackside and memories.

In the late 50s and early 60s, we vacationed “up north” around the Petoskey, Michigan area of the northern lower peninsula. The C&O and EJ&S got the once-over by my family. I have vivid memories of C&O spotless E-Units on passenger trains and GP-30s on freights. Old #6 on the EJ&S was a treat for us steam-starved train nuts then.

My first real freight ride was in 1967 on the C&O from Petoskey to Central Lake, MI. We were at the Petoskey station and the train was about to depart southbound when a request was made to hitch a ride.  The friendly conductor told me, “You cannot ride in the caboose, but if you find an open box car, I will turn my head while you jump on.” To this day, I cannot believe that my parents allowed this trip. It was a perfect Michigan summer day with blue sky and lakeside breezes. The trip was magical for me and I only wish I had taken my Kodak Instamatic along for the ride. The crew dropped me off at the Drawbridge Road crossing, just north of Central Lake, MI, where I had a short walk back to my grandparents’ cabin on Benway Lake.  I was walking on air, a railfan for life!

I have countless more snapshot memories like this and could go on for days. My first ever train photo was of an eastbound NYC freight at the Henry Ruff Road crossing in Inkster, MI, led by a set of ALCO cab units. The B&W image is speed- and nerve-blurred , but I have it to this day. First color photos were of cigar band NYC E-Units on long passenger trains at the classic depot in Ann Arbor, MI. My aunt and uncle lived in this town , walking distance from the depot. Our tradition was as follows: visit with Ethyl and Rolland, eat dinner at the Old German Restaurant, then head to the depot in the late afternoon/evening for the passenger rush. I can remember the massive waiting room there, foot steps echoing on the tile floors. Then the show began, east and west bound varnish, pulled by sets of big E-Units. The spotless stainless steel cars hinted of exotic far away places and had to be documented with my trusty Instamatic camera — then, the wait for processing soon after.  All quaint memories in this digital age of instant gratification.


Rock on Trains © 2014, Tom Rock + T.D.R. Productions. All rights reserved. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from Tom Rock is strictly prohibited.

My Train Recollections: Mike Harrison

Mr. Mike Harrison, Saturday 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!


mikeharrisonI 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.


Rock on Trains © 2014, Tom Rock + T.D.R. Productions. All rights reserved. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from Tom Rock is strictly prohibited.