My Train Recollections: Mike Harrison

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!


mikeharrison“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.”


Rock on Trains © 2021, 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: 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 © 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.

Southern Railway Steam Feature for November 2020

Featured Southern Railway steam subjects this month include various locations in Illinois, South Carolina & Georgia:

  • SR #1202 – Centralia, IL – 9/5/47 (Credit: Unknown)
  • SR #1205 – E. St. Louis, IL – 7/38 (Credit: Dennis Schmidt)
  • SR #1315 – E. St. Louis, IL – 9/49 (Credit: Sam Shumaker)
  • SR #1347 – Inman, SC – 4/4/48 (Credit: Gary Everhart)
  • SR #1451 – Date & location unknown (Credit: Gary Everhart)
  • SR #1453 – Date & location unknown (Credit: Gary Everhart)
  • SR #1481 – Date & location unknown (Credit: Gary Everhart)
  • SR #1483 – Atlanta, GA – 5/12/40 (Credit: Gary Everhart)

All photos courtesy of www.rr-fallenflags.org.


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.

Southern Railway Steam Feature for September 2020

southern-railway-logoFeatured Southern Railway steam subjects for this September post are of PS-4 locomotives at various Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, and North Carolina locations. The history of the Southern PS-4 class can be viewed in the enclosed link, courtesy of Wikipedia.

All photos courtesy of SOUTHERN Railfan.


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: Bessemer, AL / Knoxville, TN / Leeds, AL / Toccoa, GA

southern-railway-logoFeatured Southern Railway depots this month are those in Alabama, Tennessee, and Georgia:

The Alabama Great Southern Railroad Company completed construction of the Bessemer passenger terminal in March 1916 at a cost of $30,000. The structure is 170 ft long and 50 ft with exterior walls of pressed brown brick. The ticket office was located in the center of the building and today contains original cabinets and desks. Today the depot is home to the Bessemer Hall of History.

The depot at Knoxville was built in 1903. The Southern Terminal is a former railway complex to include a passenger terminal and express depot adjacent to a large railyard. During the 1850’s the arrival of the East Tennessee, Virginia and Georgia Railroad and its predecessor lines transformed Knoxville into one of the southeast’s major wholesaling centers. In 1894 the ETV&G was absorbed by the Southern Railway, which in turn became part of the Norfolk Southern Railway in 1982.

The depot at Leeds, AL was built in 1883-84, following the completion of the Georgia & Pacific RR between Birmingham and Atlanta. The G&P remained until it was taken over by the Richmond & Danville RR in 1885, succeeded by the Southern Railway in 1894. Efforts to save the building were in 1980 after the Southern merger with Norfolk Southern. The depot was added to the National Register of Historic Places prior to the restoration completion in 1984. In 1999, the City of Leeds turned the old baggage room into a public meeting room. Two other rooms in the depot are a museum featuring railroad history, records and artifacts.

The depot at Toccoa, GA was built in 1915. Much, however, is known about the adjacent railroad line. Built originally as the Atlanta & Richmond Air-Line in 1873. In 1877, the railroad was renamed Atlanta and Charlotte Air-Line Railway and in 1894 became part of the Southern Railway, which in turn became the Norfolk Southern. Today the Amtrak Crescent (old Southern Crescent) makes regular stops there. The depot has been restored to its appearance in 1940 and houses the Toccoa-Stephens Chamber of Commerce, the Welcome Center, the Stephens County Historical Society and Currahee Military Museum.


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.