Riding the Rails
Steam & Cinders
by: Russ Lancaster
A recent poll on our site revealed that most of you that will read this little story are also probably old enough to remember most of what I will describe. For those of you that are too young to remember, I hope my description will be adequate enough to give you a mental picture of a time long gone.
Being born in 1941 had its advantages. Yes, a world war was on its way but I would be too young to realize its full impact until years later. Oh, I remember the rationing of certain staples like sugar, meat, gas and other things but it was my parents that had to deal with it. I remember the ration cards and their discussions only faintly, but remember them, I do. These were tough times for my parents but turned out to be a great era for me.
My dad wasn’t drafted for the war, I never knew the reason for sure. He had married my mom in October 1940 and found a job at Carolina Beach. He had heard of the Seaboard Air Line Railroad hiring men in Hamlet and took a chance that would change all the Lancaster lives by tying them to Hamlet forever.
When he and my mom got to Hamlet he couldn’t immediately get on with the railroad as he had expected and found a job at the old A&P store on the lower end of Main Street where it used to be. He worked there for a short while, then was finally hired by the railroad.
His railroad career came at an opportune time and (maybe because of his education at Louisburg College) he was quickly promoted to Yardmaster. At the time, he may have been the youngest man ever to hold the position.
His job with the railroad came with one gigantic perk. All railroaders had a free “pass” to ride the passenger trains as did their immediate families.
My first trip on a passenger train came in the early 1940’s, probably around 1945 or so. We were taking the train to Wilmington, then by bus to Carolina Beach to stay at my maternal grandparent’s house for a couple of days. I was excited.
We arrived at the Hamlet passenger station which looked much like this in 1945. It was wintertime and the big, round waiting room was full. The wooden benches for passengers were filled with folks going in so many different directions. There were so many passenger trains that stopped daily in Hamlet to take on and let off passengers.
Hamlet was a major hub for the SAL. Trains there ran in all directions. At times, trains ran every hour carrying returning troops home from the war.
The terminal waiting room had a ticket window and the lines were long. The air outside was cold, the windows frosted. But the waiting room was toasty warm heated by a huge coal burning stove. There were spittoons on either side of the ticket window.
The noises from outside filtered into the waiting room. There was the hissing of steam, the chugging of engines, the familiar “choo-choo” sound of the engines on all the tracks.
There were four tracks in front of the station. For passengers’ safety, there was a “Subway” that would let you cross to the farthest tracks safely without worry of being hit by a train. This was a very busy place.
There were all sorts of railroad workers in the crowds going about their business. They were so proficient you only noticed them if you concentrated on them instead of the passengers and trains. There were telegraph operators, train crews, taxi cab drivers, so may people doing so many jobs.
We boarded our train and headed East from Hamlet toward Wilmington. We were not riding one of the luxury trains like the Silver Meteor, Silver Comet or Silver Star. We would be riding aboard a “Local” meaning we would stop at nearly every little town along the 110 mile trip by rail. The same trip by car would be close to 144 miles as it is today but the railroad took the straightest route. At one time (and maybe still today) there was a stretch along that route that was the longest piece of straight line in America.
The coaches had comfortable cloth seats. Smoking was allowed. Windows could be cracked open if a passenger so desired. But opening a window (which we did from time to time) would often bring in smoke from the steam engine pulling us along the tracks and even an occasional cinder or soot would bring tears to one’s eyes.
We passed through a town called Old Hundred but didn’t stop. Our first stop was at Laurel Hill and we saw the name “Z.V. Pate” on nearly every store or business. He must have been an important man.
On to Laurinburg (where Mr. Pate’s name was still visible) for more passengers to get on or off the train. Then to Pembroke where my dad told me there were still Indians around.
My face stayed glued to the window as we rolled from the sandhills out onto the coastal plain and I saw cars and busses on the adjacent highways. I watched the telephone poles pass quickly by then slow down as we approached each town. I saw ditches of water beside the tracks and was fascinated by all I saw. We passed by homes with folks waving at us as we steamed by.
On to Lumberton we rode then the rails took us through a swampy area and we stopped at little places named Clarkton and Bladenboro. Each town and each stop was an adventure as we saw stores and people unknown and wondered who they were, why did they live here, why were they watching us as we were watching them.
My dad kept me entertained by showing me the hand signals railroaders used for slow, stop and other such things. He showed me the line up above the luggage areas that could be pulled in an emergency to make the train stop. He frequently checked his Hamilton railroad pocket watch and looked at his timetable and told me if we were running “on time”.
We passed through the little towns of Acme and Delco without stopping. Then I saw the engine for the first time as we rounded a curve. I could see it up ahead with the smoke belching from the smokestack. I even saw the fireman poke his head out the window.
We slowed to a crawl, then to a stop. My dad asked the conductor if we had a problem. They seemed to know one another and stepped off the train together. I watched from the window as some pointing and talking was done. Off in the distance I saw a sign with the name of the next town. The name sounded intimidating... Navassa. Now there is a name you don’t hear often.
My dad came back to our seat and told my mom that the river was above the rails on the bridge crossing the river (Cape Fear) and that the conductor and engineer were trying to make a decision on whether or not we could cross safely. We were now running behind time according to my dad’s watch and the timetable.
There had been a storm (maybe a tropical system) and the rain had forced the river to rise above the rails on the trestle. The decision was made and the train began to creep across the trestle about 2 miles an hour. Nearly every window in our coach was open by now and people were looking down in amazement as we appeared to be riding on water instead of rails.
These men must have known their business well because I am still here to tell the story. We crossed slowly but safely.
Somewhere around Navassa, the train backed up and the next thing I knew, we were backing into the station at Wilmington. We got out and I saw the entire train for only the second time that day, the first time being when we first boarded. I could have stayed there and watched the goings on forever but my dad said we had a bus to catch for the final 17 miles to Carolina Beach so we left the station and I got to see my Grandma about an hour later. She lived 8 blocks from the bus station in Carolina Beach. We walked those 8 blocks to her house.
I made that same trip many more times and each time saw something I had missed before. We made trips to Washington DC, to Tampa, Raleigh, Richmond, Savannah and many more places I had never been before.
In 1949, I rode the rails with my Grandma from Wilmington to Chicago... the greatest rail trip I had ever made. I saw mountains for the first time as we crossed over and through them. I saw places like Indianapolis. I saw my first observation car and the three day, two night trip found me there at the end of the train looking backwards at the places we passed through. The trips there and back were even better than the two weeks I spent in the Windy City of Chicago.
When I turned 16, I was given my own railroad pass and summertime would find me leaving Hamlet early in the morning to spend a day in Raleigh visiting the museum and other fine places. I would get off the train, walk those brick cobblestone streets to town and have a fine day. I would get back to the station in time to catch another train and be home before midnight. I was a lucky kid.
You can still catch a ride on a train pulled by a steam engine today, but it is usually only a scaled down model or a special excursion train. Amtrak has taken over nearly all the passenger service and uses the mighty diesel or electric locomotives. They are more efficient, faster and probably more reliable. They rely on electronic communication devices more than hand signals and dispatchers make the decisions on whether they can pass a dangerous place or not. That is all for the better.
But, I will still remember those mighty steam engines that pulled our trains. I will remember the sounds they made, the ringing of their bells, the chugging sounds and more. I know I can only ride those trains in the memory that I was given by having been born so many years ago. I know my children and grandchildren will never have those same experiences so I write these stories that they may someday read them and understand why I am obsessed with what happened so long ago and that they may understand why I so often say.... I remember Hamlet
This section is to honor the works of Russ Lancaster who started the “I Remember Hamlet” web site years ago. Without his pioneering the web at that time we might not have gathered all these memories of our Hamlet, NC. We thank you Russ for what you started in 1996, may you Rest in Peace. Russ was kind enough to let me download his web site before he took it down. Thank you Russ.
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