Thursday, March 7, 2019


Train engine at Chattanooga Choo Choo

As we prepare for an exodus to Sewanee, Tennessee, I realize that one of the sounds I’ll miss when we leave New Iberia, Louisiana is that of the many trains that pass through the town during the night — those long, shrieking whistles that annoy light sleepers. At one time, the sound made me feel lonely, but at 83 it’s a song that tells me all is well; the trains are still running. 

When I was working on a book that called for researching a history of trains in the South, I came across a section in Railroads of the Old South about the many interest groups that tangled with railroad officials during the 19th century. These groups caused a ruckus in small southern towns because the trains ran on Sundays, and railroad workers missed church. The group called itself “The Sabbatarians,” members of which placed high value on Sunday attendance and who wanted to enforce that vision on the then-modern technology. In Richmond, Virginia, a minister complained that the private consumer “couldn’t get wares untouched by the sacrilegious hand of the Sabbath breaker.” 

Word from the pulpit was so effective that a railroad worker in North Carolina resigned his job because he felt he was sinning on Sunday. Most of the petitions to southern railroad officials were advanced by preachers who lambasted stockbrokers as well as governing bodies of railroads. Condemnation included one argument by a Protestant Episcopal Church representative at a stockholders meeting: “The trains traverse great distances (on Sundays)…attracting great attention and exciting curiosity wherever they go…” Further complaints included the “hustle and bustle of business, properly belonging only to the working days of the week…”

Twenty years passed before the Sabbatarians were able to get railroad officials to reduce their Sunday service to a bare minimum; however, officials endured the criticisms and were finally praised for offering reliable and regular transportation. For many years, the Sabbatarians demonstrated that railroad companies weren’t in control of their own time due to the moral pressure from special interest groups.

Today, railway service is available seven days of the week and offers a plethora of schedules and time tables, running through towns like New Iberia throughout the night, and are a part of the social fabric that connects all of us who appreciate their services.

In 2018, I published Destinations, a book of poetry about trains, accompanied by photographs that Victoria Sullivan snapped in various locales of the South and including one poem about the trains that rumble through New Iberia at night:


I miss hearing them at night,
trains carrying grave histories,
doing ghostly runs through New Iberia,
making sounds that once brought melancholy;

As I age, they become gifts
exploring places I don’t know,
good friends holding me close
yet keeping their distance,

their thunder an escape from bad dreams,
voices saying goodbye while I lie in bed,
move toward a world away,
out there in the storm,

bell ringing in an untroubled dawn.

1 comment:

Jo Ann Lordahl said...

Terrific Diane - as usual! Thanks for your insights. Jo Ann Lordahl