Atmore's railroad has long, rich history

Published 8:46 am Wednesday, August 29, 2007

By By Lowell McGill
Back in the days of the steam locomotives many area and local residents used these passenger trains for trips into and out of Atmore. It was known then as the L&N (Louisville &Nashville) Railroad. In fact, I hear some people today still referring to it as the L&N, a stigma that has remained over the years. (Similar to a statement I heard at the post office last week when an elderly man asked the clerk for some "penny post cards").
Those passenger trains, which huffed and puffed streams of dark smoke, also spewed tiny particles of "cinders" which often got into the eyes. Parents would often tell their children to cover their eyes with their hands when the train was passing through or had stopped at a station. Many times when the train resumed its forward motion, after having come to a stop, sand had to be released unto the tracks. The sand provided better traction and prevented the wheels from spinning.
Only those who lived in or near a railroad town appreciate the lore of those trains of "yesterday." You see, there were countless small stations along the L&N route. In our particular area those trains made stops not only here in Atmore but at other locations as well. Stations could be found at Perdido, Dyas, Old Morrison and Crossroads (in Baldwin County). Going north on the L&N Railroad there were Canoe, Wawbeek and countless stations all the way to Montgomery. Stationmasters sold tickets to passengers who would board the train and ride it sometimes only a few miles. Most of the area passengers would "catch the train," stay at Canoe or Perdido and ride it to Atmore, as this was the largest town along the route.
I was a boy when steam locomotive passenger trains were at the height of their popularity. The passenger trains were identified by the number on the engine. I can remember some of the numbers. There was No. 4, No. 8, No. l and several other numbers. There was a No. 37, which traveled through Atmore around 10 p.m. The trains with even numbers traveled north, if I remember correctly, and odd numbered trains traveled south. (I may stand corrected as I am writing this aspect from memory without notes).
When many young men of that time period went off to World War II they were transported to their initial military assignment stations on these L&N passenger trains. Sadly, I watched two of my cousins, Arthur McGill Jr. and Ernest Duffy board the train where they embarked on their journey "off to war" which led them to Pearl Harbor. The train was packed with hundreds of new recruits, whose waving arms were seen in the open windows as if to say "we are doing this for you." Hundreds of residents were there handing out flowers, fruit and small Bibles. I also remember a few years later when these two cousins came home on the train after safely spending their "service time" overseas. Our families waited with open arms as they arrived in Atmore.
But, I remember another solemn occasion when a family member, who at only 19 years of age boarded the train at Perdido and would never return alive. Aubrey Vaughan, my mother's brother was killed in action while fighting overseas. His body was transported back on the train. Military men, family and a chaplain were among those who were there to meet the train.
Aubrey had ambitions to play baseball. He was a "southpaw," (left handed pitcher). He loved the game and others told me he threw a curve ball using that high kick similar to Bob Feller, his idol.
There was a woman, as I was told by family and friends, who was a "fireman"(fire lady if you will) who worked inside the cab of the engine. She worked because there was a scarcity of men who had been called into military service. Known as "Firelady Fran," she shoveled coal into the engine firebox. Normally a man's job, they say Fran could perform her duties as well as any man. This firebox kept the water hot and created the steam, which was the source of the train's power. Fran could sometimes be seen waving to onlookers as the train made it's daily travels through our area.
There were many station agents in those days. Some of them who come to mind are John Weekley (father of Eulene Cargill), Mr. White (Pauline and "Tarzan's father), Mr. Reynolds of Atmore, Freddie Centinni, Clyde Weekley, J. C. Wright, Dewitt Parker, Mr. Ryals and my two uncles Bert and Albert McGill. (Forgive me if I have inadvertently failed to include all those agents).
Charles Lowery and Robert Hill were friends with the Albert McGill sons in Canoe prior to that family transferring to Georgiana. Charles said he got a thrill of listening to stories and conversations told at the Canoe depot. Many remember Mr. Spicer, who was a "cargo agent" in Atmore. He and his wife were well regarded. Other railroad employees with great careers were Hugo Rogers and his son Tolbert. Another man, Perry Wright, brother to J C, lost his life in a railroad bridge accident near Biloxi, Miss. many years ago.
There were rail maintenance crews who kept the rails in good condition. I can hear, even today, the rhythmic chants of "Sweet Martin" leading this hard working group of men as they removed and replaced rails and crossties and spiked the rails to the crossties. They traveled on a "pump handle" type railcar and worked primarily between Atmore and Bay Minette.
There were not always bright days for trains along our area tracks. I remember several times over the years when trains would jump the track and cars would overturn. Most of the "rail jumps" were not major events and were cleared up in a day or so. But there was that eventful day several years ago when a train (not a steam train) failed to negotiate that tremendous "bad curve in Perdido" and sent dozens of rail cars into the countryside and onto public roads parallel to the tracks. Contaminants spilled everywhere and sources stated that some residents alleged that drinking water located below ground level had become unsafe to drink in a few identified areas of the wreck. I have a friend who is furnishing me actual photos of that wreck which I will be showing you in the near future.
There was another railroad in Atmore in those day-The Frisco. I am preparing a column about this rail line, which also includes many interesting stories about the residents and stations along this route. Roy Burkette and Jettie Everette, two very good friends of mine who were raised in Monroe County, have informed me they will furnish me about life along the Frisco back in the 1950s.
Thanks for the phone calls this week. Let me answer "yes" to those who called about the nature, diversity and content of my columns. These are, indeed, Atmore "trade area" columns, not just about Atmore alone. I write about all our surrounding communities. Most of my columns are written in advance, stored and saved on my computer for future publication. I try to keep a dozen or so columns stored in the event I have to be away a few days doing "leg" work adjusting flood claims. All claims paper work is brought back to my office for completion.
Names, places and events of the entire trade area provide interesting reading. As I stated earlier, my notes, photos, my experiences and experiences given me by others assembled over a 50-year time frame will continue to be the source of all my columns. I have very few "old heads" to call on for verification and facts any more. Most of them have passed on. However, due to my inquisitive nature through the years I was able to gather and save valuable bits of information and photos that are a tremendous help to me today. (Thanks to tips and advice on keeping notes given to me back in 1954 by my very good friend, the late Hugh Rozelle). I guess you can say I have now become that "old head." Also, let me again thank those who have just recently furnished me stories and photos. I assure you they will be used in future columns.
Lowell McGill is a historical columnist for The Atmore Advance. He can be reached at

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