Trains have changed

Published 12:00 am Saturday, June 9, 2012

After I reminisced about the Birmingham Terminal Station last week, I thought about the steam engines, freight cars, cabooses, and railroad crewmen that were a familiar sight to me during my childhood.

I lived across the road from a Southern Railway depot. Our house and the coal mining company commissary my parents ran afforded us a view of the daily railroad traffic. It included a passenger train that brought the mail, numerous freight trains, a local work train, and a motorized rail cart that the work crew used in maintaining the tracks.

The highlight of the each day was the arrival of the passenger trains at 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. that loaded and unloaded passengers and brought the mail. Either the postmaster or her helper met the train, exchanged mailbags with the on-board mail clerk, and took them to the post office. It sat next door next door to the commissary. During the summer, I was one of the first in line at the little post office window to call for mail.

Almost daily, a work crew headed to the commissary for a break. They kept my parents busy handing out a variety of icy cold soft drinks from a compartment in the bottom of the meat case. They also bought chunks of hoop cheese, Moon Pies, peanuts, crackers, candy bars, chewing tobacco, and cigarettes. Most hung around in the store, eating and drinking, laughing, talking, and swapping stories. During the winter they hovered around the pot-bellied stove in the middle of the store. My mother complained that she had heard one man’s “same boring tales” so many times she was sick of them.

Sometimes when business was slow, I stood on the front stoop of the store with my mother and watched freight trains lumber by. We counted the freight cars, and read the names on them—Southern RR, GM&O, L&N, Union Pacific…The list was long. I’ve forgotten most of them.

One day I stood in my yard waving as a passenger train with two cars filled with soldiers rolled by. The trainmen in the engines and the cabooses always waved as they rolled by. One time an engineer and another man lifted me into the engine for a look around. It was high, hot and noisy up there. I also got to step inside a caboose for a few minutes.

Now when I see a train, I miss the caboose where the conductor, brakeman, and flagman rode. The brakeman climbed on top of the cars to turn brake wheels on the freight car roofs when a train slowed. The flagman signaled approaching trains that a stopped train was ahead. The conductor did his record keeping in the caboose. It was also their job to make inspections along the rails, keeping an eye out for hot boxes that could cause derailments.

Modern technology took away the caboose. The steam locomotive is gone. A lot of other things have changed since I counted freight cars and waved at passing trainmen.