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A Train for Dad

June 11, 2012


I have always been intrigued by the railroad. I can remember the Christmas I got my first Lionel train set. Dad and I assembled the track in a figure-eight pattern on the living room floor.

Several years later, my three brothers each got an HO scale model train for Christmas. Dad built an elaborate HO gauge railroad layout in our basement. All three trains could run simultaneously over hills, through tunnels, and into a model village without colliding.

Before air conditioning, sleeping porches were common throughout the South. Those screened porches were used like a spare bedroom. As a boy, I often visited my grandparents’ home in the summer. I slept on their back porch, which was cooler than sleeping inside the house.

Several trains, pulled by coal-burning steam locomotives, passed on the tracks behind their house during the night. In the morning my grandmother scrubbed the coal soot from my face.  She made me blow my nose several times to clear it of the black soot.

Clare and I enjoy living by the tracks in the old home place built by my grandfather. Eleven trains rumble down the rails behind our house every single day.

The lumberyard, located next to the house, closed at 12:00 noon on Saturdays. After enjoying a good dinner just past noon, Pappy often took me fishing. But, if the cows were lying down, a sure sign the fish weren’t biting, Dad and I would head uptown, stopping to get a treat at Bluebird Ice Cream.  We would arrive at the Magnolia Street Depot just before 2:00 P.M., when four passenger trains stopped in Spartanburg.

Two Carolina Special trains, one from Cincinnati and the other from Charleston, met each other at 2:00 P.M. Two Piedmont Limited trains, one from New York and the other from New Orleans, met at the same hour. Four of the five available tracks were in use at the same time for a real locomotive traffic jam. Many travelers came to the Magnolia Street Depot to make connections in Spartanburg, but my dad and I came just to see the trains. The arrival and departure – within a matter of minutes – of four steam-powered engines with passenger cars in tow was quite a show!

My family has a long-standing connection with the railroad.

When Dad became a grandfather, he began setting up model railroads in his den. He claimed he did it for the grandchildren. I have always thought the trains were really for Dad.

My great-grandfather, William Morgan Neely, worked as a brakeman on the Nashville, Chattanooga, and St. Louis railroad. Somewhere before Tullahoma, Tennessee, at a bend on the mountain grade, he was jolted from his perch on the caboose and tossed to the double tracks below. Unconscious and unnoticed, he was struck and killed by a speeding train headed toward Murfreesboro traveling on the opposing tracks.

In 1960, when I was sixteen, I attended the National Boy Scout Jamboree in Colorado Springs, Colorado, with 50,000 other Scouts. The troop from Spartanburg rode in a day car on the Carolina Special through Asheville to Cincinnati, where we joined another train. When we reached Chicago, our day car was added to a train called the Jamboree Special.

For the trip home, we traveled a southern route through New Mexico and Texas to New Orleans. There we boarded the Southern Crescent back to Spartanburg.

The bustling railroad service through Spartanburg gave our town the nickname Hub City.

Spartanburg’s rail service began with a train to Union and Columbia in 1859.  In 1873 came the Atlanta & Charlotte Line, now the main track of the Norfolk Southern from Washington to Atlanta and points west.   With the completion of railway down the Saluda Grade in 1885, Spartanburg was connected with Asheville. This route became the Southern Railway Line from Cincinnati via Spartanburg to Charleston.  Also added to Spartanburg in 1885 was the Charleston & Western Carolina, which ran from Port Royal to Augusta.

The Clinchfield Railroad is an engineering marvel. Primarily a coal carrying line, the rail runs from Elkhorn City, Kentucky, passing through more than 450 miles of mountainous terrain and fifty-four tunnels along the way.  In 1909, it reached its southern terminus of Spartanburg.

Until last week the most recent time a steam locomotive passed through Spartanburg was November 14, 1994, my dad’s seventy-fourth birthday.  But last Tuesday Southern Railway Steam Locomotive #630 stopped at the old train depot on Magnolia Street. The engine built in 1904 was traveling from Atlanta on the Norfolk Southern line.

As I stood in the drizzling rain outside the old depot waiting for that antique steam engine, I remembered those Saturdays with my dad. He died about a year ago.  To me it seemed like the arrival of the old locomotive was the perfect Father’s Day gift for Dad.


Kirk H. Neely
© June 2012

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