Railroad tracks run right through the center of Sylacauga, and most of us have grown up waving at the man in the caboose and hearing our parents complain about having to wait for the train to clear the crossing. If you were a student at Sylacauga High School in the 1950’s and lived on the south side of town, you pretty much knew how early you had to be to miss the train and thus avoid Tardy Hall in the afternoon. “The train was across the track,” was not an excuse until parents got involved in the late 50’s. This was called responsibility, and only an extraordinary event like a wreck or derailment came under the excused tardy category. As a child, I could hardly wait for the little red caboose to pass, because the man standing on what I called the “porch” always made it a point to wave back to me as the train disappeared down the track. Pam Duvall recalls that her Uncle Clyde Walker worked for Central of Georgia, and when that train came through Childersburg from Columbus, she would wait expectantly by the track so that she could wave to him.
The caboose, an American icon, was actually an office, where the conductor or boss of the train could keep the waybill (a paper that accompanied every shipment from its point of origin to its destination). It was also a place where the brakemen and the flagman could locate as the train moved down the tracks. The brakemen were very necessary before automatic air brakes were invented. The engineer of the train would signal the brakemen with his whistle when he wanted to slow down or stop. Brakemen had to twist the brake-wheels atop the cars with a stout club to slow the train to a stop. Usually there was a brakeman in the engine and one in the caboose who worked together and met in the middle of the train. The man with the lantern, the flag man, had the job to signal any approaching trains. The caboose was a home away from home for the conductor who was away from his home terminal for an extended time. Always I have had a vivid imagination, and I could imagine the inside of that caboose with a single bed, a stove and pictures on the wall. History supports that I wasn’t far off; some conductors did have their own caboose and made it very cozy and homey.
My Dad worked for the railroad in Mobile as a sheet metal worker, and I wish now that I knew more about that job. I do have 3 passes that he secured from the railroad for his mother’s rail trips from Miami to Jacksonville, Florida. All three were in 1929. I wish I knew the reason for her trips. I think Daddy left the railroad for the same reason Ruth Bentley Deason said her husband Paul Bentley did. Her husband worked for the railroad eleven years, but did not want to transfer to Atlanta. So he took another job here. Daddy and mother tried Louisville for a while, but wanted to come home when Chicago was to be the next stop.
Wayne Rogers remembers that his dad worked for Central of Georgia, and Wayne frequently got free rides from Sylacauga to Columbus, Georgia. He would board the train at 9:00 a.m. and would disembark in Columbus and walk about 7 blocks to his uncle’s café where he would eat lunch with him. He would walk back to the station and catch the afternoon train home and be back in Sylacauga by 5 p.m. Wayne describes it in three little words, “Great summer fun! “Theron Kelley’s Dad worked for L&N , and ship got passes for train rides including a memorable one to New Orleans.
Janet Jones Vawter well remembers train rides with her Mom Judson Stewart Jones to see Mrs. Jones’ parents in Birmingham when she wanted to go home for a visit and her husband was working. They would travel on the train because Mrs. Jones did not drive, and she would get lonely to see her parents and sister who lived with them. Janet remembers these trips when she was about 4 or 5. The street car line ran close to the bus stop in Norwood where her grandparents lived so they would ride the streetcar back to catch the train when it was time to come home. Sometimes they stayed several days especially near Christmas when they took shopping excursions downtown, ate at the Kress lunch counter, and looked in all the beautiful windows at Loveman’s and Pizitz’s. What great memories, a little girl shopping with her Mom, grandmother, and aunt!
John M. Brooks remembers riding the North bound at 10 a.m. to Rendalia where his uncle and aunt lived, and the post office was in the front room of their house. He would visit until the South bound left about 2 p.m. for Sycamore, and he would ride it back. He remembers how he became such friends with the railroad men that they let him ride in in the engine, tying him in the seat so that he could see out. Such stories really make us realize how times have changed, how children were once so self-reliant, and how people as a group have changed in the ways they treated, trusted, and looked after each other.
Barbara Kelley remembers as a child the train that came all the way to Talladega Springs. There was a depot in Fayetteville then, and her family would go to Sylacauga on the bus, but always ride the train back home in the afternoon. Barbara remembers what a special treat that was! Shirley Williams remembers catching the train in Sylacauga at the old depot and going to visit her Uncle A.C. Hobbs, a former Sylacauga policeman. Shirley rode to Waycross, Georgia, and Jacksonville, Florida, but also remembers making shorter trips to Clay County with her mother to visit relatives there.
These small trips were ways relatives could stay connected when cars were few and far between. Marsha Miller Ellis’ Mom, Carrie Miller, lived in Bon Air, but would ride to Sylacauga, spend the day and ride the train back home in the afternoon, and it cost very little. She remembers that women from Avondale Mills, Birmingham, would come to the mill hospital, Drummond Frazier, in Sylacauga to have their babies. They would ride the taxi over to the hospital from the train station, and most of them made it; occasionally a baby would be born in a cab.
It was fun receiving input from many of you in our small town who have train stories. Our stories ARE our Sylacauga history; and until you try to write one, you forget how many of them are already lost and how many will be lost unless we share them. The recalling of these very special stories help us to recall people, many now gone, and the memories we made with them all because of a train experience. Next week, I will share more train stories. Meanwhile enjoy the wonderful train pictures shared by Robert Pearson, Jr. All aboard for a trip down memory lane! Remember long ago when kindness and caring made the world such a better place! You can make a difference!