Trains take him back to childhood

Published 8:24 am Saturday, January 14, 2012

by James D. ‘Archie’ Howell

Beyond the fence line at the backfields on our farm, through the woods and across a swampy area, are railroad tracks.

Beyond the railroad tracks is the country club. The tracks seem to be a line of demarcation, of sorts, that separates our rural farm life from that of city dwellers who visit the country. I’ve hiked through the woods many times, as a diversion from farm life, and followed paths around and through the short, well manicured carpet of the greens.

I also witness, close up, the passing of trains. I wonder about the golf course; I am in awe of the trains.

Railroads hold a strong allure for me. I don’t know if it’s wanderlust or the raw mechanical power of the beast on wheels. Steam trains run through Franklin regularly. The Norfolk and Western runs downtown and the Atlantic and Danville runs across the north end.

I’m downtown standing beside the train station at the Main Street crossing. The massive engine is parked adjacent to the station with passenger cars behind the tender. Most steam trains have been converted to oil for their boilers so they can go much farther without refueling or re-supplying the water. Shoveling coal has mostly disappeared from steam engines.

The wonderful monster is idling, steam vented to the atmosphere instead of through its pistons. It breathes a steady hissing sound as it waits, impatiently, to be on its way.

A flurry of activity alongside the track moves people, baggage and cargo off and then boards the departing load — mail to the mail car, baggage and packages to a baggage car, passengers to the cars with large windows. The engineer and others check around the engine and tender for abnormalities.

Westbound passenger trains park with their engines just before the crossing. Eastbound passenger trains park the caboose adjacent to the station house.

Traffic can move on Main Street that way. Freight trains are different. Sometimes they have to shuffle cars to or from sidings and the train blocks the intersection for a while.

No one complains; it’s a joy to watch the train work, and people sometimes get out of their vehicles just to see better. If they are really in a hurry, they can go around to the High Street crossing or Mechanic Street crossing, but it’s a toss up that it will be faster.

I hear the conductor give the “all aboard” call and I hear the smokestack belch a torrent of smoke from the boilers. The steam changes from a steady hiss to an intermittent, powerful, sigh as hot gas is vented to pistons. Huff……chuff…..huff…..chuff, chuff, chuff, chuff. Then huff….chuff….huff….chuff, chuff, chuff, chuff.

Piston rods slowly move the great driving wheels. Engine, tender, passengers, baggage, mail car and caboose move as one westbound. I feel a sense of loss, a sense of being left behind, a yearning to climb aboard and follow the tracks. I watch it shrink and disappear into the distance toward Delaware.

Sometimes when we’re out in the truck, waiting at a country railroad crossing, we turn the engine off and wait for the caboose to signal an end to the train. My siblings and I always count the cars, if it’s a freight train.

Coal trains always have the largest number, many times well over a hundred. A hundred seems to be the magic number to indicate greatness; lesser numbers are quickly forgotten. We rank almost everything’s relative importance by some quantitative value.

Highway vehicles wait patiently at the crossing; there’s not a lot of traffic in Southampton County. Most of the time, engines are shut down until the caboose becomes visible.

All rural railroad crossings have a posted maximum crossing speed of five miles per hour. The crossings are sometimes rough and there’s a small hill where the tracks are laid.

Some of my relatives think it’s fun to speed across railroad tracks and go bouncing along on the other side. There is some danger in that behavior, never mind the legality.

We’ve waited at Isaacs, Newsoms, Sedley, Walters, Windsor, Holland, Courtland, Franklin and many other crossings, whose names I can’t recall. I know the clunk, clunk of tires hitting each rail in turn.

I look down each track with expectations of seeing a mighty engine in the distance, chugging along in the backwoods or open fields, smoke and steam marking its progress. I’m thrilled if we actually see one.

I’ve seen the other end of railroad tracks in distant places. I’ve hiked along many with a backpack and camera and recorded the experience. The spectacle of steam trains is a photograph burned into my spirit, never adequately recorded on paper. My heart rides the rails, spiritually and literally; the rails bring me home.

JAMES D. “ARCHIE” HOWELL is a Southampton County native and 1955 graduate of Franklin High School. He can be reached at