My Train Recollections: Ronnie Phillips

This month’s train recollections come to us from Mr. Ronnie Phillips as published in the Cleveland Daily Banner in 2012:


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

Rock on Trains © 2020, 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.


Depot Doings: Oliver Springs, TN / Bryson City, NC / Decherd, TN / Chatsworth, GA

Featured Southern Railway depots this month are Oliver Springs, Tennessee (1980), and Bryson City, North Carolina (1978). The Oliver Springs and Bryson City depots have been restored. The Oliver Springs depot houses the Oliver Springs Historical Society, and the Bryson City depot houses the Great Smoky Mountain Railway excursions.

Featured Louisville & Nashville (L&N) Railway depots are Decherd, Tennessee (1978), and Chatsworth, Georgia (1980). The Decherd depot has been removed from service, and the Chatsworth depot was relocated and restored in 1990. It currently houses a museum of railroad and talc industry memorabilia.

Southern Railway Depot: Oliver Springs, TN – 1980 (Credit: Tom Rock)

Southern Railway Depot: Bryson City, NC – 1978 (Credit: Tom Rock)

L&N Railway Depot: Decherd, TN – 1978 (Credit: Tom Rock)

L&N Railway Depot: Chatsworth, GA – 1980 (Credit: Tom Rock)


Rock on Trains © 2020, 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.

“Pardon Me Boy, Is That the Chattanooga Choo-Choo?”

This blog entry features my 1991 painting of the the Southern Railway’s Terminal Station in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The title of this painting, “Pardon Me Boy, Is That the Chattanooga Choo-Choo,” was chosen to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Glenn Miller’s big band era hit song which was recorded May 7, 1941. This painting, which is comprised of two images, shows the majestic building front as viewed from Market Street and the rear where the trains departed, reviving a more tranquil time in railroad history.

By the 1970’s, declining rail traffic to Chattanooga forced Southern Railway to close the doors of Terminal Station. The Birmingham Special, Train No. 18, became the last regular passenger train to pass through Terminal Station. On August 11, 1970, at 11:35PM, the Birmingham Special departed Terminal Station and headed for Washington, DC. The windows of the station were boarded up, as its once immaculate interior began collecting dust. The abandoned station faced the sad prospects of demolition.

Fortunately, a group of two dozen local investors had a much better idea for the old station; the investors obtained the property from Southern Railway, and with an initial investment of 10 million dollars, converted the old Terminal Station into a family vacation complex second to none.

My two images of the Choo-Choo took five (5) months and 325 hours to complete. I’m including several development photos taken during its creation. When my lithographs were released in 1991, I mailed a set to Jonnie Miller Soper (Glenn Miller’s daughter) along with Paula Kelly Turner and Tex Beneke, both singers of Glenn Miller’s famous song. Not long after the prints were mailed, I received very nice thank you notes from all three recipients (see images below). Unfortunately, Paula (d.1992) and Tex (d.2000) have passed away, but Jonnie is still living. This 8-minute video clip on YouTube shows Tex and Paula performing the Chattanooga Choo-Choo song.

“Choo-Choo” rear Preliminary Development Photo

“Choo-Choo” rear at 30 hrs development

“Choo-Choo” rear at 56 hrs development

“Choo-Choo” rear at 122 hrs development

“Choo-Choo” rear at 150 hrs development (complete)

Click here to view/purchase this print at Rock on Trains.

“Choo-Choo” front Preliminary Development Photo

“Choo-Choo” front at 30 hrs development

“Choo-Choo” front at 90 hrs development

“Choo-Choo” front at 175 hrs development (complete)

Click here to view/purchase this print at Rock on Trains.

Paula Kelly Turner thank you letter

Tex Beneke thank you letter

Jonnie Miller Soper thank you letter

Click here to visit Rock on Trains and view/purchase your “Choo-Choo” print set.

Thank you for your interest!


Rock on Trains © 2020, 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.

Depot Doings: Athens, TN / Bryson City, NC / Charleston, TN / Danville, KY / Lexington, KY / Niota, TN / Oliver Springs, TN / Sweetwater, TN

Featured Southern Railway depots on the blog this month are those in Kentucky, North Carolina, and Tennessee:

  • Sou Rwy Depot – Athens, TN – 1978
  • Sou Rwy Depot – Bryson City, NC – 1978
  • Sou Rwy Depot – Charleston, TN – 1978
  • Sou Rwy Depot – Danville, KY – 1980
  • Sou Rwy Depot – Lexington, KY – 1980
  • Sou Rwy Depot – Niota, TN – 1978
  • Sou Rwy Depot – Oliver Springs, TN – 1980
  • Sou Rwy Depot – Sweetwater, TN – 1981

All photos courtesy of Tom Rock.


Rock on Trains © 2019, 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.

Chattanooga Choo-Choo History

TERMINAL STATION – CHATTANOOGA, TENNESSEE

A challenge went out in 1900 by the architectural students at Beaux Arts Institute in Paris, France.  The students offered themselves a prize for the best plans which could be drawn up for a railroad station that would suit the needs of a large city.  The winner of the prize was Mr. Don Barber, an American from New York City.

In 1904, when the president of the Southern Railway decided to build a new passenger terminal in Chattanooga, one architect who offered an entry was none other than the same Mr. Barber.  When Southern Railway’s president saw Barber’s design, he was very much impressed.  He said he felt the exterior plans were perfect but asked Barber if he could possibly alter the interior design.  Upon this request, the Grand Dome was created.  It is completely free standing and rests on four major steel supports 75 feet apart.  The dome’s underside, which covered the 68 by 82 foot general waiting room, was decorated in artistic plaster embellishments of heraldic emblems.  For those nocturnal passengers who would frequent this 24 hour station, illumination was provided by four ornate brass chandeliers, each containing 40 lights and each centered by an 18-inch opal globe.  When these lights were on, the dome was truly lavish in its different prismatic colors.

On a bitterly cold winter morning, December 1, 1909, a crowd of several hundred gathered in the 1400 block of Market Street for the dedication of Chattanooga’s Terminal Station.  After serving Chattanooga for 61 years, the Southern Railway closed the building August 11, 1970.  It was purchased, restored, and reopened to the public in April 1973 and entered on the National Register of Historic Places by the U.S. Dept. of Interior on January 25, 1974.

On March 5, 1880, the first passenger train connecting the north with the south traveled from Cincinnati, Ohio south to Chattanooga, Tennessee on the first municipal railroad, the Cincinnati Southern Line.  A reporter dubbed the train the “Chattanooga Choo-Choo,” and Big Band leader Glenn Miller and the Modernaires immortalized this legendary train in song May 7, 1941.

When the Southern Railway closed this magnificent architectural icon on August 11, 1970, a piece of Chattanooga was forever lost.  Thankfully, it was spared the wrecking ball as so many others were not as fortunate.  These following photos surely tell a story of a more pristine time–a time when traveling by rail was so much more relaxing compared to today.  Hopefully, these photos will stir many a long lost memory.

Photo Credit: Copyright 2009, Justin W. Strickland, “Images of Rail – Chattanooga’s Terminal Station.”

Rock on Trains © 2018, 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.