Chester Martin Remembers The Steam Locomotives

Thursday, December 17, 2015 - by Chester Martin
Chester Martin painting of the Union Station
Chester Martin painting of the Union Station

In my day there were many more railroad crossings than now. Chattanooga was really and truly "Choo Choo City." John Wilson's new book about trains in Chattanooga most likely tells how many passenger trains stopped in Chattanooga each day; there were certainly many. Wilson's book will amaze you at the number of tracks, tunnels, switch-engines, water tanks, signals,  switching devices, and other rail paraphernalia that existed in and near our city. There were trains running north, and trains running south, and a train station was always a pretty lively place. Conductors, two by two, were always going on-duty, or coming off-duty, to or from the nearby hotels that housed them in their off-duty hours.

Porters hand-pushed large-wheeled baggage carts to and from the baggage cars as the fork-lift vehicle had not yet been invented.

They have frequently mentioned on "Talk-radio" how many crossings there were in Chattanooga, and how in the old days automobile traffic was stopped to let a passenger train glide unashamedly by while you fumed in your stopped car! That can and does still happen, to be sure, but not like back in the 1940's and earlier. Reason for such outrageous delays, however, lay in the fact that the railroads got there before the automobile, and the railroads bought up the rights-of-way.

Annoying and polluting train smoke became an early sore spot, as soot became an equal-opportunity pollutant. It got into and onto everything, and so laws were passed, forbidding steam engines to enter town blowing "black" smoke; only "white" smoke was permissible. These laws did not originate in Chattanooga, but they spread fast across America. The diesel locomotive was invented, at least partially, to alleviate the soot problem, but we are still discussing the famed and much-beloved steam engine!

To a small child,  those immense train engines were like monstrous fire-breathing dragons!  While poised for departure from the station,  great clouds of steam would be emitted with a loud hiss. Much of it would be directed straight down and safely disappear between wheel and platform. Or you might be momentarily lost in a gigantic, but harmless, cloud of steam. Then the great driver-wheels would start to roll with bell clanging and whistle sounding, and the train would move slowly out of the station. What a thrill to see all that well-oiled machinery - the giant wheels with their many connecting rods and pistons all working in perfect unison to push the great train forward!  Trains generally backed into the station as it made fewer steps for the passengers, kept the smoke up front, and also allowed for the engine to go forward out of the station, instead of backing.

As the train sat in the station,  its bell never ceased a slow ringing, but the whistle never blew until departure time. Train bells - even as ship bells and fire engine bells - were works of the bell-maker's art. Their clarion sound was very penetrating, and those bells when found today fetch a premium price when you locate them on Ebay. American train whistles were lower in pitch than other trains of the world - the English trains have a much more shrill pitch, and less agreeable to my ears. - but I am not knocking  English trains, as they are quite excellent.

A typical steam-engine passenger train consisted of the engine in the front with the coal car immediately behind it. The engineer, who drove the train, sat on the left, and his fireman on the right; coal had to be easily accessible to the fireman. Behind the coal car there would usually be  one or more baggage cars, and behind that a mail car with  several Railway Mail Clerks who sorted through small mountains of mail for each destination en route. Behind the mail car, you would find the passenger cars with their beautifully elongated hand-lettered identification labels. The word "Pullman" indicated a sleeping car, and I once knew a sign man who made a good living by hand-lettering train cars.

 Boarding began when the train was "called" by the conductor at his gate. Somewhere I have a recording of a conductor calling the vintage"Panama Limited" train from Chicago to New Orleans. It is interesting how he calls the name of every big city and every pig path along the way - never missing a lick, and virtually singing parts of it. I wish I could turn that up on You Tube someday! Other fanciful names of passenger trains include: the "Dixie Flyer", "Wabash Cannonball", "Fireball Mail." There were many others.

Train engineers must have all gone to the same charm school, and their companies must have encouraged them to be courteous, and "wave to the children" along the route. It was a rare engineer who would not wave to the kids. Once, well before 1950, my dad drove us to visit his brother below LaFayette, Ga., and US 27 followed the same route as the Central of Georgia Railroad - at least part way. The tracks were very near the road - and on that day we happened to have our little dog, Brownie, with us in the car. There, near Rock Spring, we drove up on a same-direction train, soon catching up with the engine. Brownie went berserk with his barking and jumping around. The engineer saw what was happening in our car and started laughing - and waving - like he was enjoying the whole episode! Dad was peeved at the dog for jostling him around, so he sped up and "beat the train."

I never knew one thing about the movement of freight-trains. They had their own mysterious routes and stations, and were totally separate from passenger trains. The only passenger stations I knew were "Union Depot" between Broad Street and Chestnut, (my mother once worked as a ticket agent there), and "Terminal Station" which is now the "Chattanooga Choo-Choo" on South Market Street. Union Depot was across 9th Street (MLK) from the Read House. John Wilson's new book, "Trains in and Around Chattanooga," will fill you in on every interesting detail.

 Paul H. Merriman and Robert M. Soule, Jr. should never be forgotten for their work in founding the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum, which helps keep the legend alive.

(Chester Martin is a native Chattanoogan who is a talented painter as well as local historian. He and his wife, Pat, live in Brainerd. Mr. Martin can be reached at )

Chester Martin
Chester Martin

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