Riding the Train

Daddy was a hard worker.  For about a dollar a day, Nathan Wright, worked as a “Watchman” for the Southern Railroad to support his large family.  For 30 years he went to work for the railroad.

watchman_watch-stationPhoto of a Railroad Watchman and crossing watchman shack (Unidentified Man)

There was a benefit to daddy working for the railroad.  The entire family was able to ride the train for free, mostly traveling to visit relatives.  They were able to ride as often as they wanted.   It was a lot of fun.  But then, the Wrights always had fun no matter what they did.


Buntyn Station was a suburban Southern station located at Southern Avenue and Semmes Street. The view below shows Buntyn Station, Circa 1949, looking west, SRR Forrest Yard and coal chute in distance (coal chute demolished 1950), Crossing watchman shack on left, Memphis Country Club entrance on right.

southern_buntyn-station-21Buntyn Station, Memphis, TN  (Photo property of Bill Strong)

Southern Railroad (Presently Norfolk Southern), the Southern Railway, forever remembered by its famous slogan, “The Southern Serves the South – Look Ahead, Look South” (it was also known for the slogan “The Southern Gives a Green Light To Innovation”), was created from a number of smaller railroads, which merged over the years to form the Southern Railway. Perhaps the railroad’s famous green paint scheme was fitting for the railroad as it became the most respected and arguably the best managed railroad of its day before it disappeared into a merger with the Norfolk & Western Railway (N&W) in 1982 to form today’s Norfolk Southern Railway (NS).


The modern Southern Railway system was formed in 1894 when the Richmond & Danville and East Tennessee, Virginia & Georgia railroads merged. After this initial merger the new Southern Railway began to grow through consolidations with other smaller railroads. During the Southern Railway’s final form the railroad stretched from Richmond to Florida and west to Memphis and New Orleans and would be made up of some 125 smaller railroads. The Southern Railway’s most important main line stretched from Atlanta to Washington, D.C. and was entirely double-tracked.

On July 1, 1894, the East Tennessee, Virginia, and Georgia Railroad merged with the Richmond and Danville Railroad to form the new Southern Railway. Southern later acquired many more companies and within a decade was one of the most extensive railway systems in the nation. Of the three railway companies serving Johnson City, the Southern was the largest and offered more connections. At full build out the Southern, Clinchfield, and ET & WNC lines brought a combined 20 passenger trains daily into Johnson City. As the railroads brought prosperity to East Tennessee, the areas largest cities – Johnson City and Bristol – became rivals of sorts for new industry and business from the Southern Railway and other smaller railway lines.

Southern Railway suspended passenger service to Johnson City in 1970 and the brick depot originally constructed in 1912 was dismantled in 1973. The main line of the Northfolk Southern Railway presently operates along the original route of the East Tennessee and Virginia Railroad through downtown Johnson City and westward to Jonesborough and Knoxville.

Sid Davies Photo, Louis A. Marre Collection

Southern Railway Forrest Yard

Southern Railway Improvements at Memphis Railway Age Gazette, June 19, 1914, page 1554

Southern Railway has begun construction of a large classification yard and engine terminal at Buntyn, six miles east of Memphis, and the contract for grading the grounds has been let to C.W. Lane & Co., of Atlanta, GA. The new terminal will be named Forrest. Two groups of tracks will be laid, a receiving yard and a distributing yard, with an aggregate length of track of about 15 miles. The eastbound classification yard and the westbound receiving yard will have 12 tracks with a capacity of 60-65 cars each, while the eastbound receiving and the westbound classification yards will be of about the same extent. The roundhouse will have 18 stalls and a 90-foot turntable, to be worked by power. The coal plant will be of reinforced concrete and have a capacity of 1,000 tons. There will be a small machine shop and a shed for freight car repairs. A two-story office building and a track scale of large capacity will complete the plant.

southern_buntyn-mps-10-14-491(Property of Bill Busler, one of the kids in the photo)

southern_arrival_departure-board1Southern Railway Train Arrival and Departure Bulletin

unionstathroatUnion Station

southern_head-end_no461Southern Railroad Head End #46

Southern Railway is the product of nearly 150 predecessor lines that were combined, reorganized and recombined since the 1830s.

The nine-mile South Carolina Canal & Rail Road Co., Southern’s earliest predecessor line, was chartered in December 1827 and ran the nation’s first scheduled passenger service to be pulled regularly by a steam locomotive — the wood-burning “Best Friend of Charleston” — out of Charleston, S.C., on Christmas Day 1830. When its 136-mile line to Hamburg, S.C. was completed in October 1833, it was the longest continuous line of railroad in the world.

As railroad fever struck other Southern states, networks gradually spread across the South and even across the Allegheny Mountains. Charleston and Memphis, Tenn., were linked by 1857, although rail expansion halted with the start of the Civil War.

Known as the “first railroad war,” the Civil War left the South’s railroads and economy devastated. Most of the railroads, however, were repaired, reorganized and operated again. In the area along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, construction of new railroads continued throughout Reconstruction.

Southern Railway was created in 1894, largely from the financially-stressed Richmond & Danville system and the East Tennessee, Virginia & Georgia Railroad. The company owned two-thirds of the 4,400 miles of line it operated, and the rest was held through leases, operating agreements and stock ownership.

Southern also subsequently controlled the Queen & Crescent Route (Alabama Great Southern; New Orleans & Northeastern; Cincinnati, New Orleans & Texas Pacific; and for a time the Alabama & Vicksburg), and the Georgia Southern & Florida, which were operated separately.

Samuel Spencer

Southern’s first president, Samuel Spencer, drew more lines into Southern’s core system. During his 12-year term, the railway built new shops at Knoxville, Tenn., and Atlanta, and purchased more equipment. He moved the company’s service away from an agricultural dependence on tobacco and cotton and centered its efforts on diversifying traffic and industrial development.

By the time the New Orleans & Northeastern (Meridian-New Orleans) was acquired in 1916 under Southern’s president Fairfax Harrison, the railroad had attained the 8,000-mile, 13-state system that marked its territorial limits for almost half a century.

The Central of Georgia became part of the system in 1963, and the former Norfolk Southern Railway Co. (Norfolk-Charlotte) was acquired in 1974.

Southern and its predecessors were responsible for many firsts in the industry. Its predecessor, the South Carolina Canal & Rail Road Co., was the first to carry passengers, U.S. troops and mail on regularly-scheduled steam-powered trains, and it was the first to operate at night. In 1953, Southern Railway became the first major railroad in the United States to convert totally to diesel-powered locomotives, ending its rich history in the golden age of steam.

From dieselization and shop and yard modernization, to computers and the development of special cars and the unit coal train, Southern often was on the cutting edge of change, earning the company its catch phrase, “The Railway System that Gives a Green Light to Innovations.”

Southern Railway HospitalitySouthern Railway Hospitality

memphis-railroaders Memphis Railroaders

friscobridge2Frisco Bridge

memphis-train-centsta-overhead-sOverhead View of Memphis Central Train Station

memphis_train_kcmbt1w_ticketRailway Ticket

A major reason why the Southern Railway became so successful was because its innovative nature and sound business practices (and the company very much lived up to another slogan it used, “The Southern Gives A Green Light To Innovation”), especially in the railroad’s later years. The Southern was quick to adopt new technologies that improved efficiencies such as Centralized Traffic Control (CTC) and began double-tracking lines to improve operations (it would eventually finish double-tracking its entire main line between Atlanta and Washington, D.C.). Because of its innovative nature it probably comes as no surprise that the Southern was quick to make the switch from steam to diesel locomotives as well, completely dieselizing its locomotive fleet by 1953.

Regarding the railroad’s steam fleet it rostered a wide range of wheel arrangements, from large to small. While the Southern rostered impressive power such as 2-8-8-2s to haul coal out of the mountains in western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee (known as the Appalachia Division), the railroad is perhaps best known for its fleet of Ps4-class Pacifics, which were built by the American Locomotive Company (Alco) in 1926 and used to carry the very best passenger trains the company had to offer. The Ps4s are best remembered for their days hauling the Southern’s finest passenger train, the Crescent. They were adorned to match their trains in the company’s beautiful green, white, and gold-trimmed livery and are argued to be the most beautiful (from an aesthetic standpoint) steam locomotives ever built. Fortunately one has been saved, #1401, which today resides at the Smithsonian and is proudly on display in her original green, white, and gold-trim.

The Southern Railway employed an efficient use of passenger locomotives on their trains into Memphis. The longer trains were Numbers 45-46 “The Tennessean” and normally operated with two locomotives.

The secondary train on the line were numbers 35-36, oddly named “The Birmingham Special”, since you could not go to that city on this train. At Chattanooga a Memphis section used to split off the New York to Birmingham train, however, by this juncture the only through cars were one or two express cars. Passengers had to make an across the platform change at Chattanooga. This train carried a smaller number of cars into Memphis, therefore only one locomotive was required into Memphis.

After train 45 “The Tennessean” backed into MUS, in the morning, the two locomotives were quickly uncoupled and sent to the Engine House. The lead unit was uncoupled, fueled and serviced and then became the lone unit on outbound train 36, the eastbound “Birmingham Special”. Likewise, in the afternoon, the procedure was reversed. The lone unit from inbound 35 was fueled and quickly serviced and then added to the “lay over” engine which was sitting all day at the Engine House. Together, they now formed the outbound power for train 46 that evening.

 A view of the head end of the last No. 46 to depart Memphis Union Station (Lyle Key Photo)

View of “the head end of the last No. 46” to depart Memphis Union Station.  This unit had arrived earlier that afternoon on train 35, “The Birmingham Special.” “The last Tennessean” left Memphis with the 4139 and 2914 on the head end on that day.  (Lyle Key Photo)


Above  is a view of the train crew of the last Missouri Pacific train 37 to Little Rock, Ark. on March 31, 1964. By this date, no through passenger or mail cars operated beyond Little Rock. The passengers had to make a change of platforms and the mail and express had to be trans loaded onto the other connecting trains in the Arkansas capital city.  (Lyle Key Photo)

southern_conductor_waving1The Conductor gives one last wave before he and his brakeman board train 108 for the last time at Union Station. This train still carried a heavy volume of mail and express on its leisurely overnight trip to Nashville. The train operated over the old “Nashville, Chattanooga & St.Louis” line out of Memphis via Jackson and Bruceton, TN.  (Lyle Key Photo)

The conductor is pulling the cord" to give the engineer the Highball to leave Union Station for the last time. He is residing on the Pullman car named "Wauhatchie Valley", a 14 Roomette 4 Double Bedroom car. Also note the red kerosene lantern near his foot and the elaborate train sign listing the major cities along this route. Memphis Union Station No. 10, and SW-1, is parked on Track 8.

The conductor is “pulling the cord” to give the engineer the Highball to leave Union Station for the last time. He is residing on the Pullman car named “Wauhatchie Valley”, a 14 Roomette 4 Double Bedroom car. Also note the red kerosene lantern near his foot and the elaborate train sign listing the major cities along this route. Memphis Union Station No. 10, and SW-1, is parked on Track 8.(Lyle Key Photo)


While the company is no longer with us it will forever be remembered its famous slogans, “The Southern Serves The South” and “The Southern Gives A Green Light To Innovation,” both of which the railroad very much lived up to.  For an excellent pictorial history of the Southern and a general history of the railroad consider the book, Southern Railway, from Tom Murray.


The L & N train 108 has left Union Station on its overnight trek to Nashville.  Not one, but a pair of kerosene marker lamps are lit on the rear of the lone coach. How railroading has changed over the years.

Wouldn’t you love to turn the clock back…  to ride aboard this local train into the night… to hear that whistle blow “just one more time!”

railroad-stationPeople waiting at a train station to board.




Memphis Station Evolution



Last Day of Memphis Union Station



Other Memphis Passenger Stations




1 Comment

  1. Ralph M Duncan Jr. said,

    November 16, 2010 at 11:41 PM

    I came across your site by searching for a picture of the railroad house that use to stand at semmes and Southern ave. My Grandfather and father spent their entire lives working for the SR. As an infant I lived in that house a few yrs. with mom and dad and my grandparents. My grandparents held the lease on the place. If anyone has a photo of that house whether primary object or just in the background I would love to have a copy please. You may contact me @ rvduncan@bellsouth.net.
    Thanks, Ralph Duncan

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: