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Photograph by ŠJohn W. Coniglio

The last train and the ghost train

By ŠJohn W. Coniglio, 2011

Forty years ago today, the city that truck drivers call Choo-Choo saw it's last passenger train leave. The next day Amtrak, a national rail passenger service took over, but there was no train through Chattanooga on the new schedule.

Chattanooga, April 30, 1971 9:55 p.m.

Hand-written words on the backside of a manila-colored 3x5 card read, "Received from holder, April 30, 1971, the amount of $6.17 fare from Chattanooga, Tenn. to Nashville, Tenn. Last trip North from Chattanooga." It was signed- F.A. Albright, Jr., Condr. (Conductor) Train #604. There was no mention of the name, "Georgian," as the train was known for most of its years of service.

The front of the card, A Louisville & Nashville Railroad Co. (L&N) form for recording basic information about a train showed the number as 604, the engine as 788, was dated 4/30 1971, with departure from Chattanooga listed at 9:55 p.m., about 90 minutes behind schedule according to the Company timetable for December, 1970. The card records a 3-car train and was signed by F.A. Albright, Jr., Conductor and R. T. Baker, Engineman.

A small group of people, mostly men, gathered on the platform as arrival-time approached. Some were members of the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum, and a few were reporters. Most had drifted away before the train finally departed. At least one newsman stayed long enough to photograph the locomotive for the next day's paper. The departing train had two baggage cars, both empty, according to Conductor Albright. Most of the seats in the single passenger coach were also empty. Among the half-dozen passengers was a couple who were surprised to learn that they would have to return by bus. Even the last run could not attract 15 riders, but the words to Steve Goodman's "City of New Orleans," ran like an endless loop of tape in the mind of at least one passenger. It was not difficult to understand why the L&N wanted to be rid of the train, and why Amtrak had shunned it. No one got on at the scheduled stops.

Nashville, May 1

Two hours late and no longer on any timetable, No. 604 rumbled into Union Station in Nashville. The pigeons that normally went flapping when a train disturbed them roosted complacently. The building was about to belong to them. The train crew assured the Chattanooga bound passengers that the Southbound train, No. 603, already an hour late, would be along shortly. Then 604, slipped away in the thick early morning air leaving the two passengers, and the pigeons holding an uneasy truce.

The first day of May was more than 3 hours old when a headlight finally appeared from the North. Amtrak was now in charge, and there was no Nashville-Atlanta train on their schedule. There was a question as to whether the train, now a non-entity, would continue. That matter was settled when the conductor called out, for the last time, a sharp "All Aboard!" The train pulled away from the platform and paused at a red signal near Fogg Street. The crew didn't bother to collect a fare. Train 603 may as well have been a ghost. We stayed there at least half an hour, then the signal cleared up and our train lurched into the night, caromed through the yard and out on to the main line. The swaying coach prompted a crewman who had the snack and coffee dispenser to comment, "Just because it's the last trip, he don't have to turn the train over!" Not to worry. The next signal was amber and there was no more hurrying. Scheduled arrival in Tullahoma, Tenn. was 3:24 a.m. We arrived after daybreak.

There were no more stops for passengers. Estill Springs, Cowan, the Cumberland Mountain tunnel, Tantallon and Sherwood went by the windows at a dizzying, but pedestrian pace. No amount of will-powering back the hands of time could slow the throbbing dragon's mad race into history.

Chattanooga, May 1

The sun was up when Engine No. 781 led the short train across the Tennessee River drawbridge at Bridgeport. Then came Whiteside, Ladds, Tiftonia, and the almost ceremonial skirting of Lookout Mountain, alongside Interstate 24 that was bustling with Chattanooga- Nashville traffic. Finally, the train nosed into Chattanooga's Union Depot and the L&N's last passenger reluctantly stepped to the platform. A way of life that had ended years ago was officially over.

The last passenger was not the last person to ride an L&N train to or from Union Depot, however. Just before the train departed for Atlanta, and oblivion, Depot Superintendent Mark Womack climbed aboard and rode through the yards to a point near Central Avenue, making him the last Chattanoogan to ride an L&N passenger train.

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ŠJohn W. Coniglio