Whistlin' through Dixie
Burton, Marda, The Saturday Evening Post
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. …