The late Talmadge Pless, who served as Lula’s mayor, missed seeing his fellow Norfolk-Southern Railway workers after he retired.
He told Boots Pitts of Mount Airy, another former railroad man, that he’d like to see some of them sometime. Boots contacted T.O. Franklin of Lawrenceville, a railroad retiree, and they got together a few times at Lula’s Corner Café. Those who met decided to contact others, and they met again the next month and eventually formed Yesterday’s Railroad Club.
About 25 or 30 former railroad workers have been meeting now for 10 years for breakfast at the same place every first Tuesday. A plaque in the Corner Café pays tribute to Pless, a former conductor who died in 2002.
The men just get together to reminisce, tell tall tales and get up to date on fellow retirees. They maintain a flower fund to help families of former railroaders during an illness or death.
Retired trainmen come from all over: Toccoa, Alto, Lula, Brookton, Lawrenceville, Gainesville, Waleska. J.R. Shipp, 88, a former conductor, drives all the way from Douglasville and has missed only a couple of times.
Franklin worked on the railroad for 32 years between Greenville, S.C., and Atlanta, retiring as a conductor. “It was one of the best jobs you could have if you like to work outside,” he said, although he experienced tornadoes, snow and Hurricane Hugo.
He was on a train going south toward Atlanta once that stopped for a long freight train going north. “They said we’d be there for about five minutes,” Franklin said. But the train sat for more than three hours, blocking five crossings. The incident made the front page of an Atlanta paper the next day, but gave no reason the train stopped for so long.
“There was a reason, a good reason,” Franklin said. Federal law requires train crews to work no longer than 12 hours. While the train was stopped, the “hours of service” law came into effect, and the crew had to get off the train until another crew arrived. “There was nobody sitting on that train,” Franklin said.
Pitts said once a dispatcher wanted him to get his train around a long freight on the double-track stretch between the Tugalo River and Baldwin. He could pass only on straight track, so he would speed up then and slow down on the curves. His train finally made it around the freight about Cornelia, a rare maneuver for an engineer. Otherwise, the run to Atlanta would have taken 12 hours, Pitts said.
“Boots could talk a dispatcher into anything,” Franklin said.
Fellow former railroaders tease Boots about an incident in the same area when his train was hauling heavy equipment. A dispatcher allowed his train to get around another train, but the bouncing equipment on the speeding train damaged track that caused a derailment and delayed a passenger train.
Tommy Pitchford of Brookton remembers watching a train car being delivered to Gainesville Midland Railroad slowly disappear in the fog after a new employee failed to stop it. The car crossed Industrial Boulevard and ended up in the yard of Gainesville Mill.
Dan McMurray, retired Gainesville trainmaster, recalls the intense tension when President George H.W. Bush was campaigning by train and made stops in Cornelia and Gainesville.
“There was security all over,” he said. “Atlanta to Greenville. FBI with rifles, helicopters flying overhead.” Special trains had to run ahead of and behind the presidential train to ensure the tracks were safe, McMurray said.
He also remembered when a pickup truck broadsided a train in Oakwood. Twenty-seven cars, including one with hazardous materials, derailed, and utility poles were knocked down. The truck driver escaped uninjured, but he was charged with DUI, McMurray said. His insurance didn’t nearly cover the $3 million in damage.
Others told of fatal accidents when drivers would try to beat a train across a crossing. Sometimes drinkers would sit on tracks and not realize a train was coming. Workers recall people committing suicide by standing in front of a speeding train.
There are stories to be told in each of the railroaders’ careers, and they are glad Talmadge Pless and Boots Pitts started getting them together. Besides, “We just got tired of just seeing each other at funerals,” one of them said.
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times and can be reached at 2183 Pinetree Circle NE, Gainesville, GA 30501. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com/johnny.