Never thought trains would disappear

Published 12:00 am Saturday, July 30, 2016

Back when I lived on a red-rock covered road across from a Southern Railway depot, I never dreamed that one day the majestic steam engines that played such a part in my childhood and early teen years would disappear from the scene as the years passed by. I think it began around the early 1960s when diesel locomotives replaced them.

I still have vivid memories of awakening in the dead of night when those monstrous steam locomotives stopped to refuel and release steam close to the depot. A couple of trainmen shoveled coal into the open furnace, illuminating my surroundings. From my bedroom window, it looked like the whole world was on fire. It always set me to trembling until I came awake enough to realize what was happening.

Actually, during the light of day I loved those big, powerful steam engines. Every time I heard the whistle signaling their arrival, I rushed to the porch to watch one pull in or pass on by. The engineers and other trainmen always waved at me. They wore colorful bandanas around their necks and striped or polka-dotted caps on their heads. I sometimes imaged I was riding in the red caboose which signaled the end of the train. Sometimes when I was in the store my parents managed, I joined my mother and a clerk on the porch to watch the boxcars clickety-clack by. We enjoyed the variety of logos painted on the sides.

During my teen years, I boarded a passenger car after school for a ride home. It was a pleasant ride through rolling hills, babbling brooks, over a high trestle that made my stomach flip-flop when I looked down, and even a short passage through a tunnel that shut out all the light in the passenger car. This train ran a daily route from Columbus, Mississippi to Birmingham and back again. It was the mail route for our community and mailbags were tossed from the mail car to someone with waiting arms beside the depot. They were then taken to the little post office where people waited for the postmaster to put up the mail.

During World War II, I watched trains pass with military vehicles strapped to flat cars. Occasionally, a troop train roared by packed with soldiers. As I stood on the stoop waving, some waved back.

One of my favorite amusements was walking the railroad tracks. Some time I did it with bare feet, other times with my shoes. The more I practiced, the better I got staying on the tracks. Along about midsummer when weeds grew tall beside the tracks, the railroad company sent someone to spray poison to eliminate them. I always dreaded that time because I could not walk the tracks for a while afterwards.

The final blow came when I heard that the wonderful Birmingham Terminal Station was to be demolished. It moved me to tears for I had spent many minutes there after school awaiting the call for my train.


Nina Keenam is retired from the newspaper business. Her column appears on Saturdays.