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Column: That train's a comin' whether you like it or not
Shannon Casas high res
Shannon Casas

Trains are a big deal in my family.

I’m not sure exactly when they took such a starring role, but it might have been around the time my parents bought a house right on the tracks.

Any visit — or sometimes just a phone call — with them will usually feature a pause in conversation to let the train blow past.

We’ll be sitting on their wide front porch and hear a train approaching, cover our ears with our hands as it whistles and then one by one drop our hands as the train cars rattle by. Then we try to remember what it was we were talking about. If we’re inside, my little ones usually run toward their front door to watch.

My parents pay attention to the whistles, some low and long, others too loud or lacking in style. They could probably be Olympic judges in train whistling. That one gets a 5 for style, with two quick toots at just the right pitch. This one gets a 1 for volume — a train whistle shouldn’t be quiet but neither does it need to be unduly obnoxious.

They’ve also got a front-row view whenever something goes wrong and the train cars all come to a halt. Sometimes it’s a mechanical breakdown and occasionally a crash with a vehicle.

Their home’s location on the tracks also happens to be directly opposite a downtown area with an array of restaurants and just down the street from a park. So, the location has more perks than drawbacks — we just sometimes have to wait a few minutes before leaving the house to go to the latest downtown festival or go grab a drink at the coffee shop or local brewery. The train noise is worth the convenience, even if I can’t sleep through the night there — they’ve meanwhile gotten used to it.

Earlier in my family’s history, my great-granddad was a conductor for a while somewhere in South Carolina. I don’t remember him well, but I remember he loved trains. 

One of his great-grandchildren later also fell in love with trains and hopped freight trains across the country — it wasn’t me, in case you were wondering.

I’ve considered riding Amtrak south. The railroad through Gainesville is the same that my parents’ can see from their front steps. There’s no Amtrak station there, but you can hop on the train at the station in Gainesville and ride the Crescent line to Atlanta or all the way to New Orleans.

There’s also a line that stretches from Gainesville to Athens that’s now operated by CSX but was once the Midland Railroad.

The iconic Engine 209 took its last trip along that railway in 1959. It wasn’t until 1991 that it was moved to the corner of Jesse Jewell Parkway and West Academy Street, where it has been on display ever since, the words “Gainesville Midland” stenciled across its black side. And now, it’s finding a new home in the more industrial midtown side of Gainesville closer to the train tracks.

Not everyone is happy about that move — in fact most aren’t, if Facebook comments are to be believed. Change is hard. It won’t be as visible to passersby, but city officials think it will be more approachable and easier to maintain at the new site at the corner of Grove and Davis streets.

I’m curious to see whether the new location will catch on, but in any case, by the time you get this print edition, you should be able to check out photos at of the big move.

I can’t say I’ve ever been to visit the train at its current site except to take photos of it for the paper. At the new location, word is there may be a playground, maybe even a splash pad. And Midland Social next door has some enticing plans, too. They’ve already moved the old baggage car from the same Engine 209 park to their site.

I’m excited to see what happens next, and who knows, maybe I can entice my family to come hang out at the new Engine 209 Park by the tracks, and we can pause our conversation for the train to whistle through Gainesville.

Shannon Casas is editor in chief of The Times and a North Hall resident.