I heard that lonesome whistle blow

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, July 12, 2000

You can't grow up in this part of the world and not become attached to trains. The sounds of whistles and bells and the throb of locomotives pulling endless loads of flatcars filled with pulpwood become ingrained in many of us at an early age. Add to the fact that there's really nowhere in Georgiana that you can't hear the train when it comes through, and you get used to the sound real quick.

The other day I was at Union Station on business. Taking the chance to stop a moment, I lingered as a train passed through on it's way to who knows where. As I leaned against the rail and looked at the track, I thought back to the day 1 watched the last passenger train leave Greenville.

The event that I just mentioned was the last run of the Gulf Breeze. Budget constraints and lack of ridership proved to be the death knell for the passenger train. Gregg Fuller and I waited with a handful of people at what is now the Chamber's home, straining for the first glimpse or sound of the oncoming train. There was no fanfare, no bands, no eagerly cheering masses; just a few cars with the special coaches attached to the end. Walter Cartwright was there, waiting for his son to disembark from his ride up from Evergreen on this last run. I guess the end was fitting: they just loaded up the passengers and headed on toward Montgomery and Birmingham and the annals of railroad history.

That surely wasn't how passenger trains used to be receive. I grew up when the jets were firmly entrenched as the newest and fastest way to travel cross-country. The railroads were beginning their struggle to keep their passengers, but they were still the lead dog in the race for passengers.

The Hummingbird. Just the mention of the name still conjures up the images of the depot in Georgiana, people milling about the station waiting for it's arrival. It truly lived up to it's name: fast and flashy, never dawdling about its business. From the time it would come screeching into the station, brakes squealing and diesel fumes filling the air with the perfume of commerce, until it pulled out with whistle blowing and passengers waving, there was a constant cacophony of motion with the train. Porters and conductors loaded luggage and people, the brakemen made their circuits of the wheels, station agents conducted their business with the engineer, and onlookers from the ramp said their good-byes and wished their travellers well.

The Hurnmingbird. Shiny navy blue and cream, chrome rails, big L & N logo perched for all the world to see. What probably fascinated me most about it was all the people that you could see through the windows. Where were they from? Where were they going? Did they have important business, or were they visiting their parents or kin in some place that they hadn't seen in years? Wc children would make up all kind of fantastic tales about those people. I'm sure that they, too, made up some pretty interesting tales about the group of little boys along the sidings.

The Humniingbird. Probably the most impressive thing that still sticks in my mind is the mail bag. I can't properly describe the fascination that I had about watching them string the bag up on the metal support arm and swing it out by the tracks. Along would come the Hummingbird on it's express run, and, m the blink of an eye, snatch the mail bag into the baggage car and highball off into the gathering gloom of evening.

Now the entire passenger system has disappeared into that same gloom. You can take away the shiny cars, the uniformed conductors, even the trains themselves.

But you'll never take the iron horses out of the hearts of those of us from the Heart of Dixie.