I now live in a city featuring the historic Chattanooga Choo Choo Hotel and Conference Center, a popular tourist attraction. I adore trains for many reasons. Train riding from when I was very young until recent years holds a special place in my bank of happy memories.
My first experiences with trains began when I very young. I recall the trips from Mobile, Alabama to visit my mother’s family who lived in Little Rock, Arkansas. Usually Mom and I went in the summer. My father stayed home to work. I don’t remember how many times we went; it seemed to be a yearly ritual. The excitement I felt each time we packed our suitcases and left from the downtown L & N Railway Station has stayed with me. I felt like we were embarking on a magic carpet, on our way to a big adventure. The acrid fuel smell of the depot added to my sense of participating in an escapade, getting out of town.
After hearing “All Aboard”—music to my ears, Mom and I climbed the steps to the Pullman car. We made our way to the assigned seats facing each other. They seemed like mirror couches. After everyone boarded, the clacking sound of the wheels below started slowly— train moving—taking us further from the city streets. Then the engine picked up speed, traveling through the countryside of small towns with their storefronts easily within our sight until darkness took over. “Whoo, whoo, whoo,” the train called to the passing world. Clickity, clack, clickity clack, we’re on our way.
The second half of the trip was an overnight experience. The railroad scheduled the train to arrive in New Orleans, Louisiana in the evening. We always took a taxi from one station to the other depot to change trains. I didn’t like riding in the dark with a stranger driving.
“Momma, are we going to get there in time?”
“Yes, don’t worry. I told the driver we had to catch a train.”
I often felt a little trepidation until we were safely on our way to Little Rock.
Sleeping on a train was a treat for me. I doubt my mother experienced it quite that way. The two Pullman seats converted to a single bed with privacy curtains facing the aisle. After the preparation for the evening in the bathroom at the end of the car, we had to change into our sleeping clothes. I always traveled with my ‘baby’ pillow, the size of today’s travel pillows. That was my comfort companion wherever I laid my head. In the morning we somehow changed back into street clothes in order to make our way to the dining car. There wasn’t room to sit up completely straight. I always hated getting dressed this way—arms and legs in awkward positions—trying not to bump each other. The railway porters were in charge of setting up and restoring the seats. All was back in place when we returned.
Train cars did not roll smoothly across the tracks. Sometimes it was necessary to hold on to the sides of the walls or back of seats to keep steady on our feet with the train’s swaying to and fro. We made our way to the dining car through enclosed platforms attaching each car to the other. Sometimes we had to traverse more than one car.
“Barbara, take my hand.”
“Mom, I’m okay. I won’t fall.”
The dining car was better than a restaurant. To be able to enjoy dinner and breakfast while watching the landscape pass by was my favorite part of the ride. The waiters were very polite and the food was good. I became acquainted with a cracker I will forever associate with the Little Rock trips—Rye Crisp. For some reason I had not seen or tasted this crunchy delicacy before. The crisps were on the dining table when we sat down. Once the butter arrived, I lathered my cracker to enjoy the combination of sweet butter with the salty, nutty taste of my newly found treat. I never saw or ate a Rye Crisp any other place than on the train until I was an adult.
As the train approached Little Rock, I stared out the window in eager anticipation.
“Momma, we’re almost there.”
“Yes, honey. Gather your things.”
I strained to see what was ahead of us. Then the train stopped and I saw my grandmother and my aunt standing there.
It is strange how our memory gradually ebbs as our bodies age. Nonetheless, I have a vivid recollection of the Little Rock trip when I was probably six or seven years old. There were many servicemen on the train. The soldiers sitting in the seats behind us spoke with me. I can still recall their brown uniforms. They made quite an impression. Of course, this was during WWII.
One year when I was in my early teens our return trip from Little Rock was not the usual arrangement. This time Grandma Spitzberg returned with us for an extended stay in Mobile. To make her more comfortable, we traveled in a private room that accommodated sleeping for four people. It also had a private lavatory. I felt like we were royalty and I was a princess.
The next time I rode in a railway car, the trip was not as comfortable, but just as exciting. The youth group to which I belonged, the B’nai B’rith Youth, traveled to Birmingham, AL for a weekend convention in December during the Christmas break for schools. The arrangements made by our advisors kept us separated from the other cars. The connecting doors were locked, probably a wise move. We sang and talked in anticipation of what we expected would be a fun-filled time. It turned out somewhat differently.
The meetings went as scheduled. I participated in a debate, representing my chapter of B’nai B’rith Girls, and won first place.The Aleph Zadek Aleph (AZA) invited young ladies to the formal dance ending the conference. There was one problem. Someone in our group became ill with the flu and before long almost all of us were sick. Our trip home took place at night. We shivered in the snowfall at the Birmingham depot waiting for our train to arrive. None of us was in the mood to talk and certainly not to sing. I felt awful. We boarded and wished this train would get us home as soon as possible. Finally, when I saw my mom and dad waiting at the Mobile station I felt a little better. Like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz said, “There’s no place like home.”
Many years passed before I again traveled by rail. This time it was before my wedding in 1960. I had shopped for bridesmaids’ dresses all over Mobile to no avail. So, I decided to visit Grandma Vogel on my dad’s side and my cousin, Michele, who lived in New Orleans. My cousin was to be one of my attendants and could help me with the selection. New Orleans had a larger shopping area with what I considered more sophisticated stores. That probably wasn’t true, but perception can seem like fact.
I loved the round trip on the Humming Bird, the name of this L & N train. The day I left was clear and sunny. I watched the familiar scenes of previous trips. This time, though, I paid better attention to the portion of the tracks that passed over water. The clear blue liquid was visible on both sides of the car. It was as if the train was hovering over the lake, another magic carpet ride.
The visit was successful. I found the perfect dress for my wedding attendants. The journey home was a little more interesting. My dad had asked me to shop at Schwegmann’s Supermarket for liquor for the rehearsal party before I left New Orleans. The prices were lower in Louisiana. I did as he asked and put several bottles in my single piece of luggage. During the over two hour trip in the lounge car, I kept a watchful eye on that piece of baggage, praying it wouldn’t tip over with a sudden train movement. I envisioned reddish Bourbon or clear Vodka seeping through the sides of my suitcase. Thank goodness, I made it home without incident.
My last rail trip—a faux trip—was here in Chattanooga. The Tennessee Valley Railroad offers short-term excursions in the area. When my two grandsons visited a number of years ago they went with the family on a short ride from the Grand Junction Station.
The TVR Facebook page describes the ride we took:
“Missionary Ridge Local trips begin at the Grand Junction Station and take passengers along one of the original railroad lines in Chattanooga, crossing four bridges and passing through pre-Civil War Missionary Ridge Tunnel, which was completed in 1858.
The train stops at East Chattanooga, allowing riders to see the locomotive rotating on a turntable and participate in a tour into the railroad restoration shop before re-boarding for the return trip. Round trip time is slightly less than an hour. The term “Local” refers to short line trains that were at one time a lifeline to the world from small towns around the nation. As the train rolls to a stop with the ground rumbling under your feet you feel mounting anticipation. The conductor calls the long awaited signal: “All Aboard!” Excitement builds as passengers scurry to their seats. This was a regular occurrence 100 years ago…as it is today!”
I treasured that opportunity to share the experience with the boys. They loved it too—their magic carpet ride!
I’ll always miss the call to board and the sound of the locomotive whistle. After all, as the song goes: Pardon me boys, is this the Chattanooga ChooChoo?