“I’ve got a thing about trains” – Johnny Cash

Oct 17 2013

by Leigh Ann Thornton

Before I go to sleep, I read. In my bed, in the still quiet of the night, with a good book in hand, I hear the sound. I’ve been waiting for it, somewhat distracted from the story. And now I raise my eyes from the page and strain my ears to listen to the whistle of the passing train. The train tracks are a long way off from my house, but through the dark the sound travels to my ears and down into my soul.

I know some folks think the sound of a train whistle at night is lonely. Hank Williams concurred, “That midnight train is whining low, I’m so lonesome I could cry.” And some think the sound bears evil forebodings – “Watch out, brother, for that long black train,” so sayeth Josh Turner. But that wail makes me excited. “Listen, did you hear that? It’s a train!” I’ll say to anyone within earshot as if I’ve identified the call of a rare bird. And to see one – headlight beaming, chugging down the tracks, rushing past, going… somewhere, just thrills me.

I have no explanation for this effect, other than to say that it is in my blood. My maternal grandmother was the daughter of a railroad man. Mack Daniel Thornton, son of a Confederate cavalryman and great-grandson of a Revolutionary War soldier, left Blackshear, Georgia to work for the “steam railroad.” His first wife died, leaving him with four children; the youngest, Talmadge, being just a baby. When he reached Columbia, Tennessee, he boarded at the home of a widow with three daughters. The widow Smith told daughter, Lantie Elizabeth, “You marry that man. He has a good job with the railroad and a solid gold pocket watch.” So, Lantie, age 22, married, Mack, age 39. She called him “Mr. Thornton,” and he called her “Hon.” Babies soon followed. If you view an atlas that shows rail-lines, you can chart the growing family’s progress as they moved along with the tracks running through Tennessee, Mississippi, and Alabama. Little Talmadge died somewhere along the way; his existence known only from family lore; neither birth certificate nor death certificate ever located. Aunt Abby was born in Memphis in 1901. Aunt Edna was born in Horn Lake, Mississippi in 1903. Aunt Louise arrived three years later while the family was living in Potts Camp, Mississippi. Uncle Bud joined the family in 1908 at Pell City, Alabama. Aunt Sol arrived in Ensley, Alabama in 1910. My grandmother, Margaret Frances (Muzzie to me), was born in Bessemer, Alabama on January 31, 1916. And there they stayed. My Mama has a photograph, one of only two we have of Mack, in which he stands with some of the men who worked for him by a handcar. The photo is at the top of this post. You can see his pocket watch chain against his dark suit. After settling in Bessemer, Mack left his job as a track foreman to work for Tennessee Coal & Iron’s Bessemer Rolling Mill until his retirement in 1931. He passed away, at the age of 76, in 1934, long before either I or my mother was born.

So, I never got to hear his stories of trains. But I have my own. As a little girl, my family made a few day trips from our home in Birmingham to Chattanooga, where we dined at the Chattanooga Choo Choo Restaurant. I know every word to the song, by the way. I’m always up for a ride and have ridden trains in amusement parks, zoos, and wildlife parks. In recent years, I’ve taken my children to the Kemah Boardwalk near my home in Houston, where we ride the replica of the famous 1863 C.P. Huntington train. My daughter’s favorite part is when a band of animatronic outlaws attack us as we chug through an Old West town. She seems to have inherited my enthusiasm for the conveyance, though I don’t have to be shot at to enjoy the ride.

My interest in trains also extended into my academic career. While working on my M.A. in History, I penned a paper about the Galveston-Houston Interurban electric railroad. The Interurban’ s 53-foot-long, Pullman green coaches featured art glass transoms, plate glass windows, heavy brass work, leather seats and carpet. Honduran mahogany and semi-empire ceilings finished the interior walls of the cars. Special observation and smoking sections provided early versions of man-caves for the male passengers. At night, passengers enjoyed brilliantly lighted cars. The trains reached top speeds of 55 to 60 miles-per-hour, equal to the fastest express trains of the day, and special wheel placement protected the trains from derailment. The Galveston-Houston Interurban first ran in 1911 but by 1936 became history due to decreased ridership – Americans adore our automobiles.

But I wish train travel was more available in our country today. I love the scene in White Christmas when Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Vera-Ellen, and Rosemary Clooney sit in the dining car on their way from Miami to Vermont and sing. How civilized to have sleeping compartments, booths for dining, and room to walk around (even if there’s no singing)! My trips on commuter and passenger trains have been few. I’ve traveled to Paris twice and enjoyed riding the Metro in the city and the train out to Versailles. We need such conveniences throughout the U.S. I hopped on the Amtrak website today and entered that I wanted to travel from Birmingham, Alabama to Houston, Texas this coming Saturday. The following route was provided: Depart Birmingham at 2:24 pm and ride the Crescent to Washington, D.C. (isn’t that in the opposite direction from where I want to go?) arriving at 9:53 am on Sunday; then wait until 4:05 pm when I can board the Capitol Limited to Chicago arriving at 8:45 am on Monday; then I can hop on the Texas Eagle at 1:45 pm to ride to Longview, Texas arriving at 8:28 am on Tuesday when I get to board a bus(!) at 8:40 am for a four hour and thirty-five minute drive to Houston – an odyssey lasting almost three full days at a cost of $373. A direct flight between the two cities takes only one hour and fifty minutes at a cost of $327. I know there are train tracks running between Birmingham and Houston; I can see them on the map. I could get my own handcar and travel down the rails faster than Amtrak can get me there.

Alas, the ease of train travel is most definitely gone in this country; a shame, since the nation is still crisscrossed by the rail lines laid by our ancestors, my great-grandfather included. I’ve heard foreign visitors to NASA’s Johnson Space Center near my home in Houston express surprise that they can’t stay at a hotel downtown and hop on a train out to the facility. The only trains that run by JSC are freight train, not ones such as the Interurban of days gone by. So, I lie in my bed and hear the sound of the freight train’s whistle born by the stillness of the night. And I think of my great-grandfather. Mack must have had some good tales about trains. I wish I could hear some of his stories. And I wish I knew where that solid gold pocket watch is today.

May your tea be sweet and your cotton high,

Leigh Ann Thornton



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