by Skip “Groundhog” Hansberry
For breakfast I was seated with two ladies from Philadelphia. We solved all the world’s problems as I enjoyed my omelet, grits, and raisin toast at a leisurely pace.
We departed Atlanta on time and after passing Howell Yard Wye we entered what could arguably be called the heart of the Norfolk Southern, a fifteen mile stretch of track between Atlanta and Austell where the CNO & TP joins the “main line”. At Austell traffic from the industrial North joins interchange traffic from the western roads at St. Louis and Memphis to funnel into Atlanta. Accordingly, we met six trains in the first half hour out of Atlanta –in this brief period I saw power representing all the North American Class I roads except CP.
By now it had started to rain…I returned to my room where Patrick had left the USA Today. So what if it was two days old, the crossword puzzle was still new to me. As we entered Alabama I spent a minute changing the time zone on my Nikon; this was a task I certainly didn’t have to do forty-five years ago with my Argus C3.
Next stop: Anniston. As we slowed for the station I spotted a sign on an auto shop proclaiming it to be “Cooter’s Detail” – the only other time I ever heard that name was on “The Dukes of Hazard”. The architecture of the brick station here was Southern through and through. It even still sported the silver letters spelling out “Southern Railway System” over the entrance. I had never been here before, but had a personal interest in this town. My parents got married here only months before my father shipped off to Europe in 1944.
The Amtrak pamphlet refers to the Anniston Army Depot located near here – this facility is the only one in the U.S. for the repair of tracked military vehicles. For years it was also a site where chemical weapons were stored before being destroyed. Sure enough, a few minutes out of the station we began to pass a huge, sprawling group of buildings. I don’t know how fast we were going, but this installation stretched on and on and on. Finally, I spotted a number of tanks – some appeared to be quite old – perhaps there is a museum here one could visit.
We were now passing through rural country filled with pine trees and limestone cuts. This was mostly single track, certainly not to be confused with high speed rail. I know there is some padding in the schedule, but the timetable allows 1:50 to traverse the sixty-four miles between Anniston and Birmingham, roughly thirty-five mph. I consulted my 1967 OAG – this was almost identical to the pace of the “Southerner” in that era.
At milepost 771, a bit west of Anniston, we passed through a short tunnel – it’s the only tunnel on the Southern main line south of Lynchburg. There certainly wasn’t much that needed to be done here when the double stacks started rolling.
At Lincoln a pair of BNSF GE’s were working the Honda plant there. A few miles east of Birmingham I spotted my first “Retro Belle” – KCS 4690, a very handsome ES44AC.
As we were entering Birmingham I looked up and was quite surprised to see Frisco Mike 4019 behind a chain link fence. This was a USRA locomotive built in 1919, then sold to the Frisco in 1923. It toiled for its owner for thirty years until its retirement in 1952, after which it was placed on display. In 2009 it was cosmetically restored and moved to its current location.
Just beyond this locomotive I saw another relic from the past: the Sloss Blast furnaces seemed to rise forever toward the sky. If there was one symbol representing both Birmingham and the Industrial Age, this was it. For over ninety years it turned out tons of pig iron before our changing economy rendered it obsolete in 1971. It was saved by the city of Birmingham and designated a National Historic Landmark. It is the only one of its kind in the U.S. where one can take a tour of such a facility. Huge. Impressive. Iconic. Definitely worth a visit! Hiding nearby in some trees was what appeared to be a Baldwin switcher.
Our double track merged with two more at Woodlawn Junction where the track layout would make any modeler proud. By now we were creeping along…I saw a pair of NS units in the distance. Closer to us was a pair of BNSF units: 1557, a rare SD38P, still in green, and 1596, an SD40-2 in Heritage I paint.
The Birmingham station was a rather depressing place…decrepit was the word that came to mind. The cold, damp air didn’t help to change my opinion. Patrick did say that plans were in place for the construction of a new facility. There was a large contingent boarding here; many appeared to be students returning to the University. I saw a number of individuals wearing apparel adorned with red “A’s”, crimson, I presume, not scarlet.
Nearby in the station sat a very forlorn-looking baggage car lettered for Civil Defense. Perhaps in the 1950’s it was used for some type of preparedness training. Barely discernible were the letters “CAGY”, i.e., Columbus and Greenville. Patrick told me this car had been sitting here in the station the entire time he had been working for Amtrak. I read somewhere that it was originally built for the IC in 1911, then “modernized” at some point. Briefly after our departure from the SteelCity I saw the next harbinger of spring – red buds in bloom – progress was being made as we made our way farther south.
About an hour from Birmingham we eased to a stop in Tuscaloosa and were soon met by our northbound counterpart. We then proceeded to back out of what must’ve been a stub end siding. I caught a glimpse of Bryant-Denny Stadium where many a gridiron foe has left in disappointment. The very appealing Southern brick station had a rounded turret which made one think “castle”. This facility appeared to be both well maintained and well utilized, as there was a sizable crowd awaiting our arrival. Just a general observation: most college/university communities seem to be dependable supporters of rail travel, not just vocally, but with their wallets.
My watch said it was just after 1:00 CDT, but my stomach was still on EDT, so I joined two ladies from the suburbs of Boston for lunch. It’s not often that I use the words “healthful” and “delicious” in the same sentence, but both adjectives accurately described my salad of chicken served on a bed of spinach with blue cheese crumbles. And, it was very attractively presented. If we’d only had bone china and a genuine tablecloth I would’ve truly been transported back to the 50’s. Only one downside…it could’ve been a bit more generous, so I guiltily ordered the cheesecake for dessert. With blueberries on the side and a plump red strawberry riding on top, it was both a visual and gustatory delight.
A bit east of Meridian we met a Herzog ballast train with two gray KCSSD’s bracketing a “Retro-Belle”. At Meridian there was a nice-looking Meridian and Bigbee caboose on display along with a heavyweight car lettered for L&N and an ex-Southern streamlined coach, both in a badly deteriorated state.
At some point I learned that dinner would be an abbreviated event. I wasn’t surprised because I had had a similar experience two years ago on the Texas Eagle. Serving hours were from 5:00-5:45 and the menu was labeled “Amtrak Express Menu” – the express was the meal, not the train. My tablemates at this meal were a young military man and a couple returning home to Houston via tomorrow’s “Sunset”. The wife worked at a Hobby Lobby in Houston and the man spent his money there – turns out he was an avid modeler in both N and G. We ended up exchanging e-mail addresses so I could send him some pix from my journey. So many times I have noted the vast difference in the sense of camaraderie on the train versus that on an airplane.
The express menu choices were limited to sandwiches, burgers, salads, and a pasta special. I opted for the pasta and was told it was the last one. Big mistake; cold and tough, far beyond al dente, and rather tasteless as well.
By now the clouds had disappeared and I was content to watch the sun set over Lake Pontchartrain. At one point I was confident we would arrive considerably ahead of schedule, but after some very slow running followed by a back-up move into the station, we arrived almost exactly on the advertised. Three tracks over sat a string of Superliners. I was told this was the “Sunset”, but I was confident it was l Arlo Guthrie’s favorite train. There was still just enough light in the sky to silhouette the tops of the gleaming stainless steel. I tipped Patrick and thanked him for his patient conversation, then made my way into the station. I had learned that Patrick works the extra board, sometimes sleeping car attendant, sometimes coach attendant, sometimes in the diner. He really didn’t care what…he just wanted to work as much as possible.
The station was certainly no grand masterpiece – other than some attractive murals depicting the history of New Orleans, I found it a bit institutional. It was built a few years post-WW2 when things began to be designed more for their functionality rather than overwhelming beauty. There was a considerable wait for the checked baggage; it was done “cruise ship style”, i.e., all placed in an enclosed area where each individual retrieves his bag and shows his claim check stub before being allowed to leave.
Outside there was a long line waiting for the taxis which showed up only sporadically. Finally, it was my turn to be whisked off to Kenner where I would spend the night before renting a car in the morning to continue my odyssey. As I mentioned at the beginning, I planned to visit my cousins and elderly uncle in Alexandria, then drive to Houston and pick up my wife the following evening.
At this juncture I had no way of knowing how hard Mother Nature would strive to discombobulate our plans. On March 25 an intense snowstorm hit the mid-Atlantic, dumping six inches of snow on Lynchburg in a short time. My wife’s regional jet flight was de-iced in preparation for departure, but the time window expired before they got off the ground. So they came out to de-ice again and the equipment malfunctioned. The flight was cancelled, and in today’s world of full flights my wife was not able to get to Houston until more than twenty-four hours later. We did finally reach San Antonio and I was subsequently able to get my much anticipated railfanning in at Corsicana, Big Sandy, and Marshall.
P.S. Our local NRHS Chapter (Blue Ridge) swaps newsletters with many other chapters via e-mail. I try to at least look at each and find many of the articles both entertaining and informative, especially the travelogues. If you happen to come across this and find it enjoyable, I would very much appreciate hearing from you at my e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Skip Hansberry
NOTE: Skip writes for the Blue Ridge “Telegraph” near Lynchburg, VA, occasionally and is an active member of the National Railroad Historical Society (Blue Ridge Chapter)