Monday, January 11, 2016

THE WHISTLE OF TRAINS

Sketch by Billie Perkins
An artist gave the above sketch to me to accompany a little feature I was writing for The Daily Iberian back in the 70’s. It’s a rendering of the platform and partial front of the train station here in New Iberia, Louisiana, now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The platform and tracks are owned by BNSF and have also been used by the Louisiana and Delta Railroad since 1987.

According to Leo Marx, author of The Machine in the Garden,  the railroad’s development didn’t have any particular meaning for the southern states during pre-Civil War times because the South was enamored of a pre-industrial pastoral ideal which Marx claimed southerners used as a weapon against industrialism. However, the Civil War provided unexpected liberation for southerners to get on the road to modernity, and Georgia led the way in the performance of southern railroads. Railroads were soon established in the post-antebellum South, and by 1890, historian Edward Ayers observed that nine out of every ten southerners lived in a railroad county, “surrounded by an aura of glamour throughout the New South era.”

In Louisiana, depots became the sites of frenetic activity where one northerner related his privileged treatment at a Louisiana depot: “Here we are at the depot and oh, what a collection of porters, cabmen and Car men, Irish, Americans, and Blacks.”* Actually, New Iberia’s first passenger train from New Orleans didn’t arrive until 1879, and a few years later a spur was laid to Avery Island and Abbeville. The railroad became vital to the lumber business and was used to transport cypress from the swamp to landowners who built many of the handsome homes along the Bayou Teche.

In the early 1900’s, my Great-Uncle Ed Greenlaw laid a private railroad track leading from his property in Ramsey, Louisiana to my Grandfather Paul’s lumber mill in Franklinton, Louisiana, transporting long leaf pine logs approximately 28 miles. When he sold the property after he had denuded the forests around Covington, Louisiana, he had the audacity to pick up the rails and take them with him, according to the present owner of the property that is now a bed and breakfast destination.

I have no idea how many trains passed on those first laid rails to New Iberia, but today I look up numerous times during the day when I hear them whooing on the tracks. I also hear them rumbling through at any time I wake during the night. Their long whistles used to sound like lonesome wails to me, but when I wake in the darkness now and hear them, I think of mobility – of going places and having new adventures, of still being able to travel.

In A Lonely Grandmother, one of the books of poetry I published last year, the lead poem is about a train:

The Aging Express

The sound of so many journeys
passes in the whistle of a train
and little wonder
this master of navigation wails,
pushing through sleeplessness
and darkness without news.

Shut-in passengers urge it on
thinking it a boundary-less machine
traveling on an open frontier
carrying them past houses
with open windows
crying ‘welcome aboard'
and rumbling through the night
making connections
in desolate places…
but not stopping for long.

*Most of the information about the history of railroads in this blog was derived from Railroads in the Old South by Aaron W. Marrs, a book I used while doing research for my book, Redeemed by Blood.






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