Printer Friendly

Whistlin' through Dixie.

In Alabama, if you're past a certain age, the lonesome, mournful wail of a train whistle is somewhere in your soul, calling up the good old days before five-and-dime became five dollars. Rare is the native who doesn't remember his first train ride or won't relate it in misty-eyed, minute detail to anyone who will listen. Although passenger trains are almost extinct, virtually all of Alabama seems still in love with the rails. Tracks at every whistle stop are dotted with restored depots full of memorabilia. Benches hold old-timers who can recount tales of the legendary feats of railroad men and the Depression days when rail-riding hobos camped out under trestles and marked by secret signs the doorposts of homes with hospitable kitchens. Nostalgia flourished in Alabama last May, as dignitaries, famous natives, and just plain citizens crisscrossed the state for seven hot, bright days on the Alabama Reunion Special. Gov. Guy Hunt, a one-time farm boy, reminisced, "When I was little, we'd go 60 miles just to ride a train, and there's still nothing like it."

Townspeople turned out in force to meet the Special on its 900-mile odyssey, a joint venture of the Norfolk Southern and CSX railroads along with the First Alabama Bank. Every stop was Americana personified: marching bands, performers, festivals, speeches, balloons, parades. Ignoring the sweltering Southern sun, people waited at crossings and lined tracks that hadn't carried passenger trains in more than a decade. In the village of Childersburg, one local historian was moved to observe, "This is the biggest crowd of people to gather in Childersburg since Grover Cleveland came through on a whistle-stop tour in July of 1884!"

Those riding the one-time excursion train had a unique platform from which to glimpse yesterday's set pieces, from opelika's covered bridge to Bay Minette's North Baldwin Quilters. Although the Special pulled into the urban centers of Huntsville, Birmingham, Montgomery, and Mobile with appropriate fanfare, the small towns stole the show. Sheffield gave the Special a rousing send-off at its renovated depot, which is now the Right Track Restaurant/Museum, replete with railroad memorabilia and Southern home cooking. In the green highlands of north Alabama, Decatur, Ft. Payne, Attalla, and Gadsden came into view, as well as larger cities, Huntsville and Birmingham. As the train approached the outskirts of Birmingham, the actress and author Fannie Flagg, honorary trainmaster, excitedly waved to fans waiting at the old Irondale Cafe, the focus of her latest novel, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe. Several covered bridges enhance this scenic area of the state, notably in Blount County around Oneonta and in Gadsden's Pioneer Museum at Noccalula Falls Park.

Further down the line, past the vast cotton and soybean fields of the Black Belt-so named because of its rich soil-more monuments to the stagecoach of modem travel awaited in Tuscaloosa, whose handsome Victorian station still welcomes two passenger trains per day, and Bessemer and Selma, both of which have turned their old landmarks into museums. In Calera, Heart of Dixie Railroad Museum volunteers, who also played host on the Special, are rebuilding 40 pieces of rolling stock for a working railroad and a nine-acre park. Halfway between Birmingham and the capital city, Montgomery, Clanton makes an excellent overnight stop with two motels, and an old caboose and section house housing chamber of commerce offices and a mini-museum. In Montgomery, grand, looming Union Station has new life as Bludau's Restaurant. The station is the focus of extensive riverfront development that includes a historical restoration, Old Alabama Town. Out from town, an extraordinary new cultural park with green and rolling terrain encompasses two imposing edifices housing an art museum and the acclaimed Alabama Shakespeare Festival.

Hustling on down the track, the Special ended its historic journey in azalea-clad Mobile. Along the way, visitors saw Pike Pioneer Museum in Troy; the U.S. Army Aviation Museum at Fort Rucker near Ozark; Landmark Park in Dothan, also known for its National Peanut Festival; the restored depot in Evergreen; and Bay Minette's 1904 train station, used in the filming of Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

The long ride was over, not far from the ancient swamps and cypress forests of Alabama's Gulf Coast. Nearby beckoned the playground of Alabama: Mobile Bay's Eastern Shore and its old-style, gentrified ambience; Dauphin Island, totally unspoiled and connected by ferryboat to Mobile; and Gulf Shores, an upscale beach resort that combines wide beaches and condominiums with an old-time back bayou flavor.

The 1989 Reunion Special is history, but travelers can enjoy Alabama's diverse landscape and lifestyle any time of year. Even in the colder weather of January and February, ice and snow almost never make the scene. But even if they did, that wonderful Alabama hospitality would warm visitors' hearts.*
COPYRIGHT 1990 Saturday Evening Post Society
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1990 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Alabama train tour
Author:Burton, Marda
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Jan 1, 1990
Previous Article:The Canadian Rockies - warmer than you think.
Next Article:The electrician cometh.

Related Articles
Soviet Union will be whistlin' Dixie as beer arrives.
The York Group, Inc. Completes the Acquisition of West Point Casket Company Receives Raves for its Southern Music Chats, News and Reviews
Sony Music Nashville Delivers Knock-Out 1-2 Punch; Dixie Chicks & Billy Gilman Claim Top Spots on Albums Chart.
The State of Alabama and Honda Manufacturing of Alabama, LLC Host Training Center Dedication.
Steppin' Out: John's in the mix.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2016 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters