What we call progress continues with increasing rapidity, having brought us from the most primitive conditions to advantages that could not have been imagined by our earliest ancestors. Too bad it tends to leave collateral damage in its wake. Even if the trade-off is worth it, the loss of the familiar and the pleasant is a sad surcharge. I think, for example, of the heyday of railroads, when trains were close to the center of our consciousness. They’re still here, but they’ve moved to the periphery of our thinking.
Maybe it was because they represented swiftness and adventure to a citizenry accustomed to traveling at the speed of a horse or a Model T Ford. Maybe it was the noise, or the impression of immense power. For whatever reason, there was a time when railroads and trains held a place in the American psyche similar to that of the cowboy. That hold on the emotions still lingers, embroidered by names and the music.
I was born within distant earshot of the Seaboard Airline Railroad, now known, with its associated entities, by the colorless designation CSX. Among my earliest memories are the distant, mournful wails of a Seaboard steam locomotive’s whistle, much sadder than today’s diesel horns. And the Seaboard, like most railroad companies, had trains with names suggesting speed and power. Among them were the Silver Comet and the Silver Meteor. Southern Railway had the famous Crescent. Central of Georgia had the Man o’ War, hauling countless shoppers between Columbus and Atlanta.
The romance of the rails was embodied in music, then and now. One summer many years ago, I relaxed in the evenings after strenuous construction work by fishing from the banks of the Wabash River in Indiana. As I sat in silence waiting for a bite, I invariably remembered the melody and lyrics of “The Wabash Cannonball.” Years later I learned, much to my disappointment, that the song was fiction. No such train ever existed.
Most railroad songs, though, tell of trains that were real. When Arlo Guthrie, and others, sang about “the train they call the City of New Orleans,” they were singing about an actual train by that name. When Johnny Cash, and others, sang “it’s the Orange Blossom Special, bringing my baby back,” they were singing about the Seaboard’s great passenger train that ran from New York to Miami.
One of the most famous railroad songs describes the wreck of a Southern Railway mail train named “Fast Mail,” known for always being on time. It would run from Washington through Virginia and into North Carolina, heading into the small town of Spencer, where major train maintenance shops were located. In the final years of the last century and the first decade of this one, I made numerous road trips to and from Duke University Medical Center in Durham. Interstate 95 passes near Spencer, and each time I saw the town’s exit sign, going and coming, the melody and lyrics of “Wreck of Old ‘97” would begin running through my mind.
On a day in 1903, the Fast Mail pulled into Monroe, Virginia, already an hour behind schedule, for reasons I don’t know. A new crew climbed aboard, and the engineer, John “Steve” Broady, was allegedly admonished to pour on the coal and get back on schedule. In the words of the song, when the dispatcher handed him his orders, he was told, “Steve, this is not 38, this is old 97, you must put her into Spencer on time.”
Broady did his best, but it was too much for the undulating terrain between Lynchburg and Danville, Virginia. He was unable to reduce his speed sufficiently as he descended a grade and approached a trestle. Old 97 left the track and crashed into the ravine below, killing eleven men, including Steve Broady, and injuring 9. It was a sad outcome for old 97 and the engineer who, with his crew, was trying his best to “put her into Spencer on time.”
I appreciate progress, but I treasure, perhaps even more, the memory of the famous old trains, with their smoke and noise and speed and danger. And songs.
Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of “Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage.”