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I hear the train a comin'

From the archives, this beautiful write up from Linda Sanders during her experience on a passenger excursion aboard Southern 4501 paints a picture of what we are missing out on. It was incredible to see that both the Engineer and Fireman were Meridian natives. Someday we hope that Meridian can once more experience passenger excursions again, but this time on board the 116.

‘I hear The Train A Comin’, It’s Moving Round The Bend…’

By Linda Sanders 07 NOV 1976 - The Clarion Ledger

From railroad crossings, school yards, sagging back porches, neat brick homes, a Picayune flower shop to small New Orleans yards and crowded streets, they wave at the passing green and gold steam locomotive.

And the train’s passengers – school children, railroad buffs, a sprinkling of old railroad men – and crew wave back.

In fact, engineer Red Jones of Meridian, dressed in traditional railroad ticking and wearing a jaunty cap, says he waves so much on these trips his arm is sore to the elbow.

At the urging of people along the way, like the fat man signaling vigorously with a white handkerchief, he also blows the piercing whist a lot, too.

A railroad man since October 1940, he says it’s an insult to a steam engine to speak of a horn – that device is left to the upstairs diesel locomotive.

Jones is a Southern Railroad engineer who pilots this steam excursion every year from Meridian to New Orleans. In his element today, he even drinks a paper cup full of water in the moving engine without spilling a drop, a feat old railroad men say is nearly impossible.

The train is going between 40 and 45 miles per hour. Steam used to go as fast as 80 to 90 miles per hour on straight track, he says.

As Jones adjusts brakes and levers, fireman James Thomas also of Meridian shovels coal into the searing furnace hot enough three feet away to make anyone fear Hell.

Thomas steps on a foot petal and the door opens a second before the coal slides in.

The coal shovel was once used to cook on. Jones had reminisced during the Hattiesburg stop with retired engineer Pete Gunther. They say the crew would hear the shovel in the furnace to clean it, then cook bacon, eggs and even toast. Using hot coals from the furnace, they would make coffee in an old can as they traveled.

The journey began for the crew, running a ferry service to New Orleans at 9am Friday in Meridian. It ended about 5:30pm near the Superdome. The hours between with stops at Hattiesburg, Slidell, LA and several small Mississippi towns were from railroads’ golden days.

The Train runs on Southern Railways track and is piloted by a Southern crew. Mrs. Sarah Purdie, wife of the master mechanic Bill Purdie, who is working in the engine, says the train runs from April to November in an area bordered by New Orleans to Jacksonville, Fla., then north to Alexandria, Va. – Washington, D.C. and east to Cincinnati, Ohio – St. Louis. But railroad buffs come from as far as Canada and the West Coast to ride it, she adds.

The steam locomotive her husband keeps running has been on loan by Southern since 1968 from the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum.

Purdie says it was built in 1911 and the 130,000-ton locomotive has worked ever since – perhaps the oldest locomotive in continuous service, he adds.

Mrs. Purdie says the train trips bring back “nostalgia for older people and wonderment for younger’.

Today is a ferry trip, she says. These trips are to get the train from one excursion point to the next where the round trips are sponsored by local railway societies. This weekend and next the New Orleans chapter of the National Railways Historical Society is sponsoring excursions from New Orleans to Hattiesburg.

The railroad tries to make the ferry trips educational and invites schools to participate by letting children ride a stop or two along the way. Mrs. Purdue says so far this year, 62,000 persons have ridden the train, not counting Mississippi.

The children, including a Brownie troop or two, are excited but none seem to be enjoying the trip more than old railroad men like Lee Hembry, Hattiesburg who is talking with Dan Dupre, Meridian also retired from the railroad.

Hembry, 84, wears a Mississippi Central cap and his bright blue eyes are young as he speaks.

He was with the Mississippi central (later part of the Illinois Central) for 47 years, working his way up to conductor.

When he began on Christmas, 1912 his wages were $1.90 for 12 hours work and later he was paid $2.40 for the 300-mile round trip between Hattiesburg and Natchez.

Hembry has been taking the steam excursion since it began five years ago. “You get smoke and valve oil in your blood and can’t get it out of your system. I have whistle recordings out of all parts of the United States. Sometimes I sit down and play them.”

Close to sunset, the train crosses marshes, then slows over Lake Pontchartrain. Next to an expressway clogged with rush hour traffic the train moves on finally to the station near the Superdome.

Across the countryside of Southwest Mississippi and the Louisiana swamplands, it was easier to imagine the steam locomotive was new and perhaps it wasn’t so long as after 1911.

But at the Superdome, with a mortuary advertising half price funeral on the huge neon parking sign, it’s 1976 again.

Only the whistle sounds recorded on the train and played back on the bus ride to Hattiesburg, reminded the buffs of the days most everyone rode the rails and steam was more than nostalgia.

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