By Ray Knapp
My wife and I went on a train ride down the Nantahala Gorge earlier this month aboard one of the Great Smoky Mountain railroad tours that start in Bryson City, North Carolina. It was pulled by a diesel locomotive. Though they do have restored steam locomotives that run on several different routes, it didn’t on this one.
My wife was getting restless before we got back from our 40-mile ride, though our trip down the Nantahala Gorge was entertaining, with a banjo player picking and singing some old mountain tunes and a bearded guide giving a background on the history of the Appalachians.
He made sure everyone knew the correct pronunciation: “Apple-Latch-Un” mountains. The Cherokee from this region, according to the guide, were the hardest Indians to round up for the Indian Removal Act of 1836 as the Elders had never signed the treaty. He pointed out an area where a large stockade held them until the Trail of Tears march to Oklahoma began.
The train ride brought back memories from long ago. I’ve always liked trains, especially the old steam engines, ever since primary school. Train tracks ran within a few hundred feet of the school. The trains running on those tracks were the old steam engines and a high form of entertainment for me and my classmates when we were lucky enough to see one of those fire-breathing behemoths pull into the nearby depot during our lunch hour or recess.
Smoke billowed from its stack and metal wheels screeched against the steel rails as it came to a stop at just the right place to take on water from a large wooden water tower. The engineer would blow the whistle 3 or 4 times as it left the station.
That train was going to … only God knows where; we didn’t know, but imagined many exotic cities. The sound of its whistle was almost pleading to me: “Get on board!” I took many imaginary trips to distant cities on that train.
The First Class seating was a far cry from the fancy dining cars of half a century ago when people could sit and smoke big cigars (like Johnny Cash’s Folsom Prison song) and could also spit tobacco into fancy brass polished spittoons.
I rode coach from Corpus Christi, Texas to Philadelphia in 1959 for $48. A coach seat then was well padded and you could lay down in it with your knees scrunched up a little, which I did on that long trip. Luckily I was the only sailor aboard, and got my meal paid for, by complete strangers, a couple of times in that fancy dining car. They may have known how little we were paid back then, or as a way to thank me for my service – either way I got to Philadelphia without going hungry.
With Erwin being a “Railroad Town” until the recent closing of the CSX yard, I’m sure I wasn’t the only little kid to take those imaginary trips. During our short trip down the scenic Nantahala Gorge, my wife said that was one of her dreams when she was a little girl, to hop aboard one of the frequent trains that ran through Erwin and live the life of a hobo. Getting restless on a 40-mile train ride, I doubt she would have made it long in that profession.
Many of the people from this region worked on the railroad and some made it to the coveted position of engineer. I’ve known three: Tom Garland and “Bobo” Baucom – who have passed on – and Jack Metcalf, a good friend that I see at church every Sunday.
Jack said he told his daddy he wanted to be an engineer of one of those new diesel locomotives, which were taking the place of the old steam engines, when he was just a young boy. One day he finally realized that dream. “There’s not a better feeling than to have a job you like from the first day on the job, to the day of your retirement,” Jack often says.
One of these days when you’re looking for something to do, take that train ride. You’ll enjoy it.