Sunday, May 14, 2006

 

When steam was king on the Clinchfield!

Well, guess I can now bore you with why I find train whistles soothing. As I said earlier, I spent most of my summers during the late 40's at Uncle Ober's and Aunt Mary's farm in Greene county, Tennessee. However, from my birth until we moved to Longview, Texas, I lived in Kingsport, Tennessee. My Dad had a dual engineering degree from Georgia Tech and worked at Tennessee Eastman. We lived in Edgewood Village, literally a company housing project owned by Eastman. Yes, we had indoor plumbing, electricity and a coal fired heater. The chemical plant was maybe a couple of hundred yards to the west. It was close enough that I walked to the plant for the Saturday morning Horse Krickers Club. That was Eastman employee's children movie club, where I saw Song of the South, The Wizard of Oz, along with every Roy Roger, Lash Laroo(?) and Hop-along Cassidy movie ever made. Daddy could walk to work too, weather permitting. The tracks of the Clinchfield Railroad were less than a 100 yards east of our house with nothing but our backyard between the house and the tracks. The Clinchfield was a very short railroad, running about 270 miles from the coal mines in western Virginia and Eastern Kentucky to the terminals in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Erwin, Tennessee was almost exactly halfway between the two and was the headquarters of the Clinchfield. Erwin is about 20 to 25 miles south of Kingsport.

My Grandfather was an engineer for the Clinchfield so he regularly drove his train right by our house. He had seniority, so he was an engineer on freight trains rather than the coal trains. That's important because freight train had priority over coal trains and got the right of way at meets....which means the coal trains had to pull into sidings and wait for the freight train to pass. Passenger trains, of course, had priority over both freight and coal trains. Anyway, the trips for freight trains were faster than coal trains and commanded a higher status symbol. The way a shift worked on the Clinchfield was one day you would leave Erwin, take a string of emptys north to the coal fields or take loaded hoppers south to Spartenburg. If you were hauling freight, you took your cars to interchanges with the B&O, C&O, Southern and other road names. You would then lay over and the next day take a train back to Erwin. The worst jobs went to the most junior engineers who would be gone for a week at a time and do switching duties at the coal fields. Switching meant that you took empty hoppers to the mines and picked up loaded hoppers to build trains for the trip south thru Erwin to the utility plants.

When my grandfather would power his train past our house, he would always blink his lights, ring the bell and blow the whistle. The whistle of steam engines had a lot of character, not so with diesels. The reason is that a burst of steam was used to blow the whistle of a steam engine but diesels have electric horns. I believe. So the engineer can vary the whistle sound by the length of time and volume of the steam he releases to blow the whistle. I don't know this to be a fact, but I'll bet that an engineer of a steam engine could be be identified by the sounds of his whistle. There is nothing like the sound of a distant steam engine's whistle cutting through the night air. I was too young to remember, but Mom told me that once my grandfather stopped his train at our house to unload my first big bed. He thought it was time for me to get out of that baby bed.

The railroad tracks also served as a constant source of amusement when I was growing up. I bet you didn't know that the best tasting strawberries in the world grow wild along the tracks of the Clinchfield. Sometimes I would go on an excursion down the tracks and return with a stray dog; I was hoping Mom would let me keep it. Never did get to keep one of those strays. There was a tunnel about a quarter of a mile south, toward Erwin, from our house. Just beyond the tunnel was a trestle that crossed the Holston River. You could see a long way north toward the Kingsport yards because the roadbed was straight, but south, through the tunnel and just beyond the rivers trestle toward Erwin, the tracks made a sharp bend around a hill so you couldn't see very far. In Texas, that hill would be called a mountain. Trains always traveled faster going north past our house than going south because the upgrade was north to south at that point on the mainline. So, before crossing the trestle, you had to put your ear to the rail to make sure that a train was not coming around that sharp bend.. There was no walkway on the trestle so you had to walk right in the middle of the tracks stepping from tie to tie. You would not want to be halfway across the trestle and see a train coming around that sharp turn. I'll bet everyone that ever lived by railroad tracks has put a penny on the tracks and retrieved the flatten, larger penny after the train has run over it.

There was a problem living next to railroads in the 40's. There were a lot of hobos that used the railroads for free travel and free lodging in empty box cars. I guess that Hobos were about the same as homeless people living on the streets today. I believe there was a bigger criminal element among Hobos than homeless people though. Our house in Edgewood Village was the last house in the project, and beyond our house was an old farm, and there was a small wooded area just southeast of our house, between the old farm and the railroad tracks. We would play and build lingtoos(?) in the woods , I guess to play cowboys and Indians. The Hobos would use these crude shelters to stay in at night. Mom had a scare one night from someone she later thought was probably a hobo. Daddy worked the night shift and got off work sometime after 11:00 PM. Mom heard a noise one night and turned on the porch light, which was unusual, just before opening the door; thinking it was Daddy coming home. There was no one there when she open the door, but she saw footprints in the snow. After that, she borrowed Granddaddy's derringer, went out every night at about 8:00 PM and fired two shots. She just wanted anybody along the tracks to know she had a gun. I don't believe Mom was afraid of the devil himself at that point in her life. That really changed as she got older. Probably had something to do with someone being gunned down on their front porch across the street from her in Longview. I am beginning to understand that change now that I am getting up there; I couldn't outrun a glacier now due to the total deterioration of my abused joints. I no longer have erotic dreams, just dream what it was like to run, get that runner's high and feel the wind in my face. Don't get me wrong, I realize just how lucky I really am. I don't have to look very far to find someone a whole lot worse off than I am. My problems are just an inconvenience.

Well, that about covers why I find the cry of a train whistle at night so peaceful. Late at night or early in the morning, depending on your sleeping habits, the noise of Houston dies down a little and I can hear a Diesel's horn pierce the night air, I love that sound. While a diesel doesn't have the character or the mournful wail of a steam engine, My mind can still picture my grandfather, his head sticking out the side of a coal black steam engine, taking a sting of cars down the Clinchfield mainline as he pulls the cord to release steam into the whistle chamber and making the array of sounds that only he can make. I really miss the days of steam. I would love to see, just one more time, steam units straining, blowing smoke and hissing steam, pulling a sting of loaded hoppers up the grade, thru the tunnel before disappearing around that sharp turn just beyond the Holston River trestle. The last thing you saw before it disappeared was the red caboose dulled by layers of coal soot. The Clinchfield is no more. It is now part of the CSX system. There are only a few road names that have survived the railroad consolidation. Railroads have become a a minor player in transportation. The reason is not too hard to understand. Railroads have to maintain their road beds out own their own pockets, while taxpayers bear the major burden of maintaining the highway structure for the trucking industry. Yea, I know that trucks pay highway use taxes, but their taxes don't even come close to paying for the wear and tear that trucks do to our highway system. Just think, one train from LA to Houston or New York can carry the freight of a hundred or more trucks and use a fraction of the fossil fuel. I, for one, would not miss these trucks on I-10.

I guess that I could make one more post about Erwin, Tennessee in the late 40's, and about the neatest family in that neck of the woods.

Comments:
Beautiful story. It made me tear up a bit.
 
Same here... The mental image of your grandfather coming with his train... Very nostalgic, and a beautiful memory.
 
Hello, I am interesting in know who you are. I just googled Edgewood Village Kingsport, TN and I found your blog. My name was Betsy Taylor and we lived at #9 Edgewood village. I was born in 1947, so I may not have known you. I don't see any posts since 2006 so I hope you read this. Did you know the Richardsons, or Pylants, Morans, Deathridges,Ellis'?? HorseKrickers, yes, I feel the same way about the sound of a train in the night - it soothes me . . .
 
Hi Betsy. My name is Pete Stultz. I do not know what our address was, we lived in the last house before the old farm on the clinchfield side. The Ellis's house was across the street on the plant side. My best friend was Doug Ellis, a little older than me, and his sister, Nancy, was a little younger than me. I was born in 1941 and we moved to Longview, Texas with Eastman Chemical in 1952.

Are you Dad Nelson Taylor's daughter? If so, your parents were very good friends with my Mom and Dad. I know Nelson came to my dad's funeral, in Erwin, at Christmas, 1956. I remember Mom saying "there is Nelson Taylor" at the grave site. I was 15 at the time. Did you live near the traffic circle?

I have tried to find some way of contacting Doug Ellis, or Nancy in the last 5 years...no luck. If you know them, please tell them I have been trying to contact them as a part of my bucket list.

There are a lot of posts after 2006. Look at the archives on the left column. I have not posted in a while. I did it mostly for my grandchildren to read when they get older. It was much different, in my opinion much better, in those days. I was less than 10, roaming up and down the railroad tracks and even walked home from school, St. Domenic's(?), when the weather was good.

I went to school at The University of Texas and have worked and lived in Houston ever since I graduated. Guess they will bury me here.

Hey, it is exciting to hear from you and thanks for the Email/comment. Wouldn't it be something if Nelson Taylor is your Dad.

Pete Stultz
 
Hi Pete, I'm really glad that I finally had the chance to read your blog cardfully. I must say that I am impressed by how well written it is. You make the time and place come alive in a very real and loving way. Your story makes me think of the times Danny, Stephen, Jr. and I would walk the rails from the old railway station in Longview. I guess we all took more chances in those days. Thanks for your memories.
 
Hi Pete, this doesn't seem to be working for me. But I'll try one more time. My name is Betsy and I posted before. Nelson Taylor was my uncle, my father's brother. My daddy was Orville Taylor. We live closer to Eastman Road across from Richardsons and the playground with the swings by the woods. I don't know how you can get in touch with any of the Ellis'. I did know them but they were all older -Elizabeth, Marie, Nancy, Doug, not sure if there were others. Did you know any of the Morans? Sandra, Virginia, Dottie??

Do you have children and grandchildren in TX? I am an only child and I've lived in Ohio for 30yrs now, so it is home. I have 4 children and 15 grandchildren. I am retired, traveled a bit to Jamaica 3 times in the past 2 yrs. I have persian cats and shih tzu dogs. I have a Facebook page with lots of pics. It is listed as Betsy Taylor Bales Powell. I hope we can keep in touch. I haven't been back to Kingsport since 2006 when we buried my 1st husband.
 
Pete,
I may have found Doug Ellis. I googled his name and came up with alumni of Dobyns Bennett HS, graduated in 1957 living in Hermitage, TN with phone number and address, if you want to try it. 615-883=7101
 
Dobyns Bennett is trying to get a full alumni roster together so it may get easier to find people. I am younger than you folks - born in the 50s. My dad worked in Purchasing and I was also a Horse Kricker. And of course the sound of a train in the night is soothing!

My family name is Hattaway - we lived in Cliffside, near the Holston and the John B Dennis bypass, which probably wasn't there in your childhood years. I never had the nerve to cross the trestle. I did explore the caves in the cliff.

My brother and I visited Kingsport briefly a few months ago after a family reunion on Watts Bar Lake. We drove up 11W from Knoxville, which now bypasses Bean Station if you remember that. We went into Bean Station anyway and the restaurant which was always a stopping point on the drive from Kpt to Knoxville is shuttered and dusty. Sad. Kingsport had a lot of empty storefronts. It's not going to get better soon, with Eastman in bankruptcy.

Betsy, my brother was close to your age, just a little older. We all went to D-B. I'm now in California and have been here for 30 years.
 
My name is Lee Stone. We lived at #29 and then #37 for nine years until they torn down Edgewood Village, I hold very fond memories of my childhood growing up there.
John, Jim and Margaret Moran were good friends along with David Taylor, Kenneth Googe, Robbie Camper,the Detherages, the Richsrdsons and the Figgins who cooked pig skins in a big black kettle in their back yard every fall. I remain grateful for the uniqueness of our close little neighborhood and the Horse Crickers. I graduated from DB in 1966, went to Viet Nam finished ETSU in 1976. I moved back to Kingsport in 2009 to retire. I have restored a 193's cottage on Catawbw St. My website is leestone.net.
 
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