Over my life I have lived in six towns in two states and of those
six places, I have never lived in a single town, hamlet, or city
that was not served by the NC. I see some irony in this fact; the
NC&St.L certainly has a vast and firm intertwining with my soul!
I was born in a small clinic on the town square of McKenzie TN.
Less than one hundred yards from the point of my birth ran the right-of-way
of the railroad.
About two years later, we moved from McKenzie to Harding Ky. and
again a short distance from our house was the trackage of the NC.
I can't say I consciously remember the steam engines that by this
time must have had only months of service left before they would
be replaces by their new younger brothers, the diesels. There must
have still been a few steam engines still trudging the old P &
M branch near my home, but I was too young to remember. I have always
hated the fact that because the NC. was one of the first railroads
in the nation to completely dieselize, I cannot remember seeing
steam engines in every day service. [On Sunday January 4th, 1953
a steam engine pulling a passenger train on the Bruceton-Union City
branch chugged into Union City. This train was the last run of a
scheduled steam engine on the entire system and the last run of
a passenger train on that branch]
The wanderlust of my father then transferred us to Memphis. Though
my father did not work for the NC., he did work for a railroad.
I remember going to his workplace with my mother. My father was
a freight car painter for the Illinois Central RR.
Next we moved to Dresden Tn., again an NC&St.L Ry. town. Soon,
to my great joy I was now living less than 75 yards from the depot
and all the fun that can be had at a place like that. Mr. Sam A.
Buts was the stationmaster at the Dresden depot. I can only imagine
the hours I must have spent in that old train station talking with
Mr. Butts. What patients he must have had in answering over and
over the endless stream of question I surely fired at him. I remember
him showing me every part of the old station. He showed me how the
telegraph worked and how the "order hoop" was used to
pass up the train orders to a train crew as it sped by. Mr. Butts
even allowed me to stand on his desk and pull the handled cables
that controlled the semaphore signal adjacent to the station.
Dresden was a farming community in the late 1950's. Two of the
primary farming commodities for Dresden and Weakley Co.TN. were
potatoes and cotton and those were two of the items that never seemed
to be in short supply around the depot of my youth. I remember the
cotton gin that sat about 1/8 mile north of the depot and directly
next to the tracks. Since there was not a rail spur to the gin,
all the large cotton bales had to be wrapped at the mill and then
transported to the depot platform for loading into boxcars. I spent
many hours romping and jumping on top of those mammoth steel banded
bundles of cotton.
Directly across the tracks from the depot was a cinder block building
that was used as a sweet potato storage building. My grandfather
at one time worked in that building sorting potatoes for shipment
by truck and rail. These too were brought across the tracks to the
depot for shipment by railcar.
In my minds eye, I can still see shirtless men working late into
the night loading both potatoes and 500 pound cotton bales onto
yellow striped, Dixieland boxes.
To the south of the depot stood a stockyard and next to that was
a coal yard replete with a dump pit and conveyor under the track.
Just south of the coal yard was the foundation of an old icehouse.
During the 1950's the stockyard was still receiving hogs and cattle,
the coal yard still did a small amount of business, but the icehouse
was long gone. Though all three establishments had had access to
the NC&St.L at one time or another, none were by that time doing
any shipping or receiving by rail.
I would hang around the depot even when there was nothing going
on there. One of the greatest remembrances of my youth was one Sunday
afternoon I was playing on the platform of the station when up pulled
one of the 800 series, F units. On this date I could not have been
any older than 8 years old. The engineer who was setting out a car
or two on the station siding looked down and saw me standing on
the platform looking back at him. He must have sensed the fascination
in my face because he invited me to ascend the steps to the cab
of the engine. For the next few minutes I must have been in heaven.
He allowed me to blow the horn and to actually open the throttle
on that beautiful blue and gray unit. I had played engineer of my
Lionel trains but now I was in control of 1500 hp of real NC&St.L
Although I love the yellow stripes of the 40' boxcars and the Geeps,
I must admit that my favorite NC cars are the lowly right of way
maintenance cars and their associates the bunk cars. Just before
I moved from Dresden in 1960, the State of Tennessee built a new
Highway 22 bypass outside of town. The new bypass cut across the
path of the NC. trackage and a new bridge had to be constructed
to form an overpass. The need for a new bridge caused the railroad
to bring to town a work train and crew to build the shoofly track
and to construct the new span. The L&N brought to Dresden a
dilapidated old work train still lettered in NC. reporting marks;
they positioned the train right beside my house. For the entire
summer of 1959 I watched the bridge building crew come and go to
their home upon the rails. Finally near the onset of fall, the bridge
girders themselves arrived on the back of a freight train. I can
recall riding my Western Flyer bike out to the construction on several
occasions to watch the cranes lift the new spans into place.
The bridge is gone now, as is the old depot. Mr. Butts died in
the early 1960's. The cotton mill, the potato house, the stockyards,
the coal yard, the tracks from Dresden to Union City and even the
NC&St.L itself has passed into history, but, if I listen close
enough, the low rumble of a far off NC. GP-9 setting out a car or
two at the Dresden depot late at night, I can still hear in my mind.
Terry L. Coats