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Magic Carpets

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Magic Carpets Made of Steel

by Malcolm Campbell

On a typical January day in 1914, the Atlanta, Birmingham & Coast, Atlanta & West Point, Central of Georgia, Georgia Railroad, Louisville & Nashville, Seaboard Air Line, Southern, and Western & Atlantic moved 152 passenger and 459 freight trains to and from Atlanta from meaningful points of the compass. Daily passenger service included 228 sleepers; January freight totaled 148,000 cars. These were days of growth. Between 1900 and 1920, Atlanta's population soared from 90,000 to 200,000. The city pushed outward from its center and began flexing its muscles as a transportation hub and as a destination for the providers of commerce and culture.

Union Station, the "great iron shed," had been built in 1871 between Central Avenue and Pryor Street. Terminal Station was built on Spring Street in 1905. The street car lines, which gave up their mule-powered "hayburner" engines for the electric motor in 1894, were, by the turn of the century, providing efficient city center and interurban service.

Soon after the automobile came to town in 1901, Pierce-Arrows and Hudsons and Maxwells were wreaking havoc on Pryor and Peachtree. A Ford Motor plant--since moved to Hapeville--assembled Model Ts on Ponce de Leon. The automobile would change the face of Atlanta forever, beginning with early appeals to bridge the dangerous tracks and intersections of railroad gulch near Union Station. The buildings and streets below bridges and viaducts were the nucleus of today's Underground Atlanta.

Marching down the century--from the 1904 formation of the Atlanta Freight Bureau to equalize rates, to the 300-acre downtown fire in 1917, to the 1930 inauguration of Eastern Air Transport Service's 8.5-hour flights to New York, to the 1939 premier of Gone With the Wind, to the 1970's restoration of the Fox Theatre--arrogant and aggressive Atlanta grew by great vision and great myopia, and the expanding railroads grew with it, around it, and through it. Then, as now, freight was king and it raised up the city's infrastructure and fueled the industry of the region.

Southern, which grew out of the Richmond & Danville in 1894, championed fast freights, the Comet from East St. Louis, the Southern Flash from Alexandria, the Eastern Rocket from New Orleans. Serving the textile mills were the Spinning Wheel and the Cottoncade.

The A&WP ran to West Point to connect with the Western Railway of Alabama. GARR served Athens and Augusta. L&N out of Tilford had routes to Knoxville and Chattanooga, and the Hook & Eye to Etowah, TN. From Howell, Seaboard served Manchester, Birmingham, and Monroe. Southern, which operated the CofG after 1963, served Macon, Birmingham, Chattanooga, and Greenville.

Giving a green light to innovations, Southern was first to mechanize track maintenance, build an electronic classification yard in the south, convert to diesel, operate coal unit trains, and offer computerized billing. The 100-ton capacity Big John covered-hoppers reduced freight rates for grain. By 1970, Southern hauled 40 billion ton-miles of freight annually. Southern Serves the South was more than a slogan: it was an unassailable fact.

If freight was king of the railroads, passenger service was its gleaming crown. It would tarnish in time before it was cast off altogether; but while that crown remained, announcements of new trains and new train sets, postings of faster schedules, descriptions of amenities in coaches and diners, and colorful photographs of exotic destinations in advertisements splashed through Life and National Geographic were presented to the public with a pomp and pageantry befitting royalty.

When Seaboard announced its new Silver Comet in 1947, actress Jean Parker christened the train. Flagship of the east-west route from NYC to Birmingham, the Silver Comet featured lightweight equipment including the unique ACF 6DbrBLng cars Kennesaw Mountain, Red Mountain and Stone Mountain.

Slogans filled the trains and followed the passengers home after the trip: The Most Interesting Transcontinental Route through the Deep South and Romantic Southwest. Serving with Dependable Trains Between the North, West and Florida. Gateways to Safe and Pleasant Journeys. 125 Years Old and Still Growing. Better Trains Follow Better Locomotives. The Route of Courteous Service. The Route of the Silver Fleet. Thanks for Using Coast Line.

Terminal Station, focus of NYC to New Orleans traffic, served the Central of Georgia, Atlanta & West Point, Seaboard, and Southern. Union Station, the stopover point for most of the midwestern trains, served the Atlantic Coast Line, Louisville & Nashville, Nashville, Chattanooga and St. Louis, and the Georgia Railroad. Brookwood Station began serving Southern's suburban customers in 1918.

Years ago, the Fast Mail was Southern's best known Atlanta train. The fame stemmed from a song, "The Wreck of Old 97," about a disastrous 1903 accident in Virginia. But through service and longevity, the Crescent Limited eventually became Georgia's sentimental champion. Originally called the Washington and Southwestern Limited, it became the Crescent Limited in 1926 and the Crescent in 1939. Behind a powerful Ps-4 Pacific, the sleepers in forest green and gold livery on this all-Pullman train were a magnificent vision.

Southern stubbornly kept the Crescent out of AMTRAK until February 1, 1979. TRAINS called out to its readers to circle that day on the calendar in black while local media speculated about the route's ultimate closure.

But it was in the 1980s that Atlanta's last private passenger service ended with far less fanfare. This was the Georgia Railroad (CSXT) mixed train to Augusta. A provision in its charter required the railroad to maintain the service to keep its tax exempt status.

Except for MARTA, rail has retreated from the consciousness of most Atlantans. The trolley tracks were torn out in 1949. Union Station is gone. Though you can see a few butterfly sheds, Terminal Station is gone. These were by no means Atlanta's only structures to meet the wrecking ball in the name of "progress." In an earlier age, Scarlett O'Hara reasoned in Gone With the Wind that the city's "old often came off second best in its conflicts with the self-willed and vigorous new."

Gone are the tracks that passed beneath the huge, iron-spoked fan light into the great shed of Union Station. Gone are the twin towers and the balconies and arches of Terminal Station. Imagination brings the past to light: a small child, alone with a small teddy bear and a large suitcase on a long wooden bench; the row of ticket windows, some with long lines and some with short; signs showing track numbers, train numbers, departure times and lists of towns; crowds poised at gates, waiting to descend the long stairway down to track level; Redcaps and passengers racing along platforms; crews working mail and express; switchers making up trains; and the ever-present voice echoing through the overpowering hugeness of the station, announcing the arriving and departing trains. . .

Crescent, Sou Ry #37, Streamlined train, arriving @ 8:00 a.m. from Toccoa.

Dixie Flyer, L&N #95, Flagship of the "Dixie Way" from Chicago to Florida, arriving from Chattanooga @ 7:35 p.m.

Flamingo, L&N #17, arriving from Cincinnati, Knoxville and Chattanooga @ 8:10 a.m. Northbound #18 departs @ 7:50 p.m.

Man o' War, CofG #20, Coach streamliner named after the famous thoroughbred, departing Atlanta for Columbus @ 10:25 a.m., but waits up to 15 minutes for Southern #47, The Southerner, due at 10:20 a.m.

Nancy Hanks II, CofG #108, Coach streamliner named after the famous trotter, departing Atlanta for Savannah @ 6:00 p.m.

Peach Queen, Sou Ry #29, arriving daily from Charlotte, Greensboro, Washington, Baltimore and New York @ 4:05 p.m.

Ponce de Leon, Sou Ry #1, arriving in Atlanta @ 10:45 a.m. from Rome.

Royal Palm, Sou Ry #3, departing Atlanta @ 9:40 p.m. for Jacksonville via Valdosta.

Silver Comet, SAL #33, featuring "Dependable Streamliner Service," arriving in Atlanta @ 7:20 a.m. from the northeast.

Southerner, Sou Ry #47, the fast New York to New Orleans streamlined train, arriving in Atlanta @ 10:20 a.m., departing 10 minutes later for Anniston and Birmingham.

As the sleek MARTA train arrives at Chamblee, one can--twice daily--look past the electrically powered, four-motor aluminum cars with their orange, yellow and blue striping and see the AMTRAK Crescent running the Norfolk Southern mainline behind double-headed AMD103s. Watching the well-lighted windows flow by like a bright wave, one speculates about the future of passenger rail.

Later that day at the same station, one might see GP60s heading up the Piedmont Division with a consist of hoppers. Enveloped by the roar of engines and the smell of fumes, one applauds the on-going resurgence of freight.

Looking south down the empty tracks between trains, one leans outward almost expecting a Ps-4 or an E8 to materialize from the heat mirages of the middle distance powering a passenger express through the golden age. Those old trains took one far away and took one home, and they carried magic, certainty, explorers, fast horses, flowering trees, sunny destinations and an old Southern song in their names.

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Last updated June 13, 2006