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.

Changing Crews at Cleveland

For the continuation of the behind-the-scenes look at my artwork, I will now focus on my painting of the Southern Railway station in Cleveland, Tennessee. The title of the painting, “Crew Change,” was chosen to reflect on the time old honored tradition of the Tennessee train crews changing with the Georgia crews. Being that Cleveland was the last stop for Knoxville Division trains going through Cohutta, Georgia, on their way to Atlanta, the crews had to change at Cleveland.

In 1990 when I decided to paint the station in Cleveland, I headed for the library hoping to find a photo I could use for the layout. After spending several days searching through the library archives for that ideal photo, I finally came to the conclusion that I was going to have to take my own. This option makes painting an historical scene much more difficult because of the fact that the area has changed considerably over the years.

I first took a photo of the station looking south from the Inman Street overpass, which was then enlarged to the size it had to be for the painting. Next, I had to turn this view from 1990 back to 1940 using onion skin overlays, triangles, air brush, old photos, acrylic paint, local area citizens memories and a little help from the Almighty to produce what you are viewing.  I also received priceless historical information from a number of retired Southern operators and agents that worked out of the station — if it were not for the assistance of the following gentlemen, I do not believe I could have put this scene together:

  • Bill Robinson
  • Ronny Phillips
  • Mitchell Lyle
  • Paul Leach
  • Danny Centers

The Cleveland station was officially opened in the spring of 1911 and closed in 1998. It has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places by the U.S. Department of Interior and is currently being restored. When the restoration is complete, the station should reflect the image shown in my painting. Included here are several photos that were taken throughout the 385 hours it took to complete the work; I’m also including a couple photos of the station that were taken in 1978 and 2010. Hopefully this 100 year old diamond in the rough will be shining again in the not too distant future for all to see.

With the assistance of Dr. William Snell of Lee College and the Cleveland Public Library’s Historical Branch I was able to obtain the following notable information pertaining to the construction of the Cleveland station:

In 1852, the Chattanooga, Harrison, Georgetown and Charleston Railroad Company was given permission to extend its connection from Chattanooga to Charleston in Bradley County. In 1854, the charter of this line was added to the East Tennessee and Georgia Railroad, and by 1858 the line was completed and in operation through Cleveland. Bradley County’s economic fortunes were heightened considerably with the completion of this line, and the line from Dalton, Georgia, to Knoxville.

At the outbreak of the Civil War, the fact that Cleveland was important to the national war effort was made evident by the telegram sent by President Lincoln to General Henry W. Halleck on June 30, 1862: “To take and hold the railroad at or east of Cleveland, Tennessee, I think is as fully as important as the taking and holding of Richmond.”

The fall of 1869 saw the East Tennessee and Georgia Railroad merging with the East Tennessee and Virginia Railroad until July 7, 1894, when these two railroads were absorbed by the Southern Railway System. With passenger and freight traffic through Cleveland and Bradley County on the rise, the decision was made that a larger depot at Cleveland would definitely have to be constructed.

On September 8, 1910, Division Superintendent R.E. Simpson made the announcement in Knoxville to Agent H.L. Davis, that the Southern Railway would be building a fine passenger station in the city within the next 6 months. In the spring of 1911, the depot in Cleveland was officially opened.

Click here to view/purchase this print at T.D.R. Productions.

"Crew Change" Preliminary Layout

"Crew Change" at 80 hrs development

"Crew Change" at 170 hrs development

"Crew Change" at 240 hrs development

"Crew Change" at 302 hrs development

"Crew Change" at 385 hrs development

Click here to view/purchase this print at T.D.R. Productions.

Artist Tom Rock working on "Crew Change" (1990)

The Cleveland Depot in November 1978 (Credit: Tom Rock)

The Cleveland Depot in December 2010 (Credit: Tom Rock)

Click here to view/purchase this print at T.D.R. Productions.


Rock on Trains © 2011, 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.