|We boarded the train in Nashville and took it north to Gallatin. It was the late 1950's, and we were all too excited to notice that Union Station, the grand old lady that once was the crown jewel of the Louisville and Nashville Railroad, was in decline and fighting for her very life, not to mention the lives of her children, the proud old trains that once brought presidents and future country music stars, as well as the untold masses of everyday people, to our fair city.
Besides carrying class after class of second-graders from McGavock Elementary, that stretch of track between Nashville and Gallatin had seen its share of history. During the Civil War, that track was the main supply line for the Union forces who had unceremoniously captured and occupied Nashville after Fort Donelson fell to U.S. Grant.
However, Confederate General John Hunt Morgan, a folk hero to war-weary Middle Tennessee, never tired of disrupting that supply line, and Gallatin figured into one of his spectacularly successful plots. There were two tunnels on the line, just north of Gallatin, and Morgan and his men captured the tunnels as well as a supply train. They piled logs and explosives deep inside one of the tunnels and loaded the train up with explosives. They then backed the train up several miles, got it headed toward the tunnel with a full throttle and a full head of steam, and stood back and watched the excitement. Not only did it provide them with a great deal of entertainment, it made a terrific mess that the Union troops had to clean up,and shut down their supply line for an extended amount of time.
Morgan's little escapade, however, did little to change the course of the war, or for that matter, the war in Middle Tennessee. Therefore, this account doesn't appear in a lot of history books, or even books specifically about the Civil War. It was handed down generation to generation throughout the region in the Southern oral tradition of story-telling, and was publicized in the Nashville Banner's series, The Civil War in Middle Tennessee, a four-part collection printed in the early 1960's to commemorate the war's centennial years.
My Uncle Ray gave me the book, and it made quite an impression on me. Back then, we lived in suburban Nashville, and running behind our house was what we called the railroad bed. Although the tracks had long been removed, the ground still bore the scars and indentations of years and years of countless trains. It lay in a secret valley that cut through our neighborhood. On one side was a steep slope that met the uppermost end of our neighbors' backyards; on the other side, a forest lay at the top of the steep hill, and beyond it was the pond and lavish grounds of an estate. The railroad bed was the perfect playground for a suburban Nashville kid of the 1950's. Hidden away from the world, it provided a convenient, if adventuresome, shortcut walking home from the elementary school, and on weekends it housed homemade forts and provided endless forest adventures. And, once I received the book from my Uncle Ray, I became convinced it was where Morgan and his men conducted their daring raids on the Union-held rails.
Sometimes at night, as I drifted off to sleep, I would hear a ghostly train whistle screaming through the darkness coming from the direction of the railroad bed. But inevitably when I rushed to the window and peered out, I would only see a dark and distant tree limb waving as if a train had just passed. I later learned that it had been the main eastern train route from Nashville to Lebanon, and Morgan and his men very well could have conducted raids on that very line.
As for the twin tunnels north of Gallatin that Morgan had so handily dispatched, as far as I know, they are still in use. A few years ago I observed them from the outside, after parking my car and walking up the tracks and waiting for a freight train to emerge from the northernmost tunnel. *
But I also observed them from the inside. One Sunday afternoon in the summer of 1975 (before they closed down passenger service), I took an Amtrack train out of Nashville to Chicago on my way to Seattle, and eventually, Portland. The train ran along the same route that we had taken as elementary students twenty years before, although this time, it only slowed down and blew the whistle as it swooped through Gallatin. There were also no roommothers waiting for us with their stationwagons at the depot.
As the sun began going down, we blew through the first tunnel north of town. Where was Morgan? Once we cleared the second tunnel I chewed on a hamburger from the dining car and pretended to be a Union officer trying to figure out exactly how I would deal with Morgan and his crazy rebel-yelling band of banshees once they boarded the Amtrack train.
Who are you and where are your tickets? I would ask. Wait a minute, they would reply, you're one of us!
And that was the joy of riding the rails...just the sheer exercise of dreaming about how it used to be. Also, there was the unique perspective of seeing the countryside from inside out. The train tracks divided pastures and towns, and stopped what seemed to be the busiest of highways. The closer we got to Chicago, the more impatient the drivers appeared to be as they waited at the crossings for us to get out of their way.
All these years later, I'm still obsessed with the history, romance and excitement of railroads and trains. (My only hiatus from this obsession was my two-year stint as Literary Guild Art Director, when I commuted via the Long Island Railroad from my home in Brooklyn Heights to Doubleday in Garden City...the LIRR can suck the life out of any romantic obsession.)
A few weeks ago I took my son to a railroad museum to climb on board, and even ride, some of the aging trains, and I saw the germ of an obsession growing in his young eyes. And, sometimes at night I have cascading dreams. One night I dreamed I was back in the little house of my youth, and once again, I heard the ghost whistle from the train beyond the old railroad bed. I awoke to hear the tail-end of the real enough-sounding train whistle, but there are no train tracks near where I now live. I pulled back the blinds, and in the bright moonlight as I began to wake up, I could almost make out the faded image of the old railroad bed and a dark and distant tree limb waving as if a train had just passed.
David Ray Skinner
*For a musical account of Morgan's raids on the L&N you can download the 5MB MP3. "Black Clouds Above the L&N" by David Ray Skinner by clicking on BlackCloudsL&N.mp3
|Freight Train to Winder William Brotherton recalls the Saturday afternoon in 1961 when, as an eleven-year-old, he, his brother and his friend got more than they bargained for when they hopped a freight in Atlanta.
Bacon and Egg Pas De Deux In this short story by Penny Dyer, two recurring characters at a small cafe find that love can be over easy.
Drive Time Joseph Schild explains why life after retirement is a job unto itself.
What I Believe Georgia writer/musician David Clark explains some of his fundamental beliefs, how he came to discover them, and what they mean to the rest of us.
The Real McCoy Writer Ron Burch uncovers the Real McCoy, and how it relates to moonshine, hillbillies, and fast, fast cars.
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