One time, Steven Hawkins was rounding the curve in the main line west of Charlotte when he saw something he’d never seen on the railroad before. It was a woman. She was sitting, calmly, in the middle of the tracks, reading a book. He blew the horn. She moved.
Hawkins has worked for the railroad for 33 years now, and even that, the strangest thing he’s ever seen from his train, gets only a mild rise out of him. On a Sunday afternoon, he’s the conductor on the 212, an 8,565-foot-long caravan of containers carrying postcards, new cars, and chemicals. It left Atlanta, Georgia, early on Sunday and should be in New Jersey sometime Monday evening. Hawkins is responsible for 160 miles of that journey: the stretch from Greenville, South Carolina, to Linwood, North Carolina. He can’t tell you how many times he’s made the run. “I know every stone, every tree, every doghouse,” he says, chuckling and looking out the window.
He’s seen the worst of what you can see from his perch on a Norfolk Southern engine. People have jumped in front of his train. Some folks play chicken, diving off the tracks with seconds to spare. He knows to turn the lights off at night if a deer is on the rails — otherwise, it’ll never move. Dogs, he says, have this strange urge to sprint between the tracks, thinking they’ll be able to outrun the train barreling down on them. They’re never fast enough.
Hawkins is used to something else: people waving at him. He knows they can’t help it. People at crossings wave. People at rail yards wave. People in other trains wave. The conductor and engineer almost always wave back. The only exception on this Sunday: a guy behind an auto repair shop in Cabarrus County, pulling down on an imaginary whistle, wanting some noise. Nobody sees him.
Hawkins sits on the left side of the engine. The engineer on the other side is Steve Mullis, a 34-year railroad veteran who grew up in Marshville and had a high school class with Randy Travis once. He wears a yellowed Carolina hat. He’s the driver. There are two computer monitors in front of him, along with bulky plastic levers within reach to control the throttle and the brakes. There’s a silvery knob near the top of one panel. Mullis taps it with the same cadence, long-long-short-long, whenever he comes to a crossing. Each tap blows the horn.
In front of Hawkins are only four things: a speedometer, an emergency brake, a horn, and a radio. His eyes are usually on the tracks ahead, looking for something treacherous on the rails. He scans passing trains for damage or open doors. He cranes his neck to see what’s coming around the next corner. When there’s nothing, he simply says, “clear.”
Hawkins is four years away from retirement, at which time the constant four-days-on, one-day-off rhythm of a conductor’s life will end. He’s thinking of going on a cruise with his wife. Brazil, maybe. He’s 52 years old. He looks 46. At the end of his runs to Linwood, when Norfolk Southern puts him up at the Country Hearth Inn in Lexington (the railroad rents the whole third floor for workers), Hawkins hits the gym. Hard. It is a way of killing time before he rides the 213 home to Spartanburg, South Carolina, the next day. His chiseled arms stretch the sleeves on his olive-colored T-shirt. He is powerful, much like the yellow locomotive he sits on, a strong man to match the 4,000-horsepower engine beneath.
Trains are more than mighty. They are time machines. With a glance, they take you back to the era of cabooses, firemen, and coal cars. They are colorful and brash, arriving and departing to a time when getting there was fraught with adventure and hardship. The tracks themselves have their own personality — steel rails and creosote-soaked railroad ties running through Blue Ridge tunnels and across eastern rivers on trestles. The W-Line hugs the Broad River. The A-Line goes straight over hills. On Old Fort Mountain, the rails wind around the slope in such a way that, on your way down, you can look straight up from the locomotive and see the rear of your train above you. Trains don’t just take you to a destination. For some, they are the destination.
Travel used to be terrible, back when it took damn near forever to get anywhere because there were no trains. If you had the misfortune of needing to make it from Wilmington to New York City in 1800, you were doomed to a week of riding a boat or, worse, a stagecoach. North Carolina’s ports were too shallow, its rivers too rapid, and its roads boggy and rutted enough to swallow half a wagon wheel. The biggest cities were once exclusively on the coast because it was just too hard for too many people to make it to the Piedmont, let alone the mountains. Trains changed that.
By 1840, North Carolina had two railroads, which ran north-south, and suddenly the Rip Van Winkle State woke up, and the steam engines started puffing and pulled in all sorts of stuff from factories in the North and sent the Yankees cotton and tobacco in return, exporting our Southernness to faraway places. It was still hard to get from east to west. Some lawmakers decided to fix that and, in the 1850s, paid for a set of tracks from Charlotte to Goldsboro. They called it the North Carolina Railroad, which, even today, is owned by the state, is still used by Norfolk Southern, and runs parallel to Interstate 85 from Charlotte to Durham.
By 1860, the once weeklong Wilmington-to-New York trip took only two days by train. Railroads fanned out, their routes spreading like capillaries across the North while North Carolina was left with a few spider veins. When the Civil War began, Southern factories were much too busy making ammo to make more tracks, and when General Sherman rolled through here after burning Atlanta, he decided to make a mangled mess of the Carolina railroads. In 1865, Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase toured North Carolina, doing so in a train described as “a wheezy little locomotive and an old mail car with the windows smashed and half the seats gone.” Early train tracks were built with strap iron rails, which tended to come loose and bend upward over time, sometimes cutting up into and through the floor of coach cars — a bit unfortunate for you if you happened to be riding in one.
There is Samuel Spencer, namesake of Spencer, a small Rowan County town, who was the first and arguably best president the Southern Railway ever had. In 1906, he died in the most eerily appropriate way. He was hit by a train. There is James B. Duke, the tobacco titan who also became the Duke in Duke University and Duke Energy. He became fond of riding the rails, so much so that in 1917, he bought his own private Pullman passenger car, named it Doris for his daughter, loaded it up with gin and cigars, and took it everywhere from New York to Florida. Once, Duke needed to convince some state lawmakers to stay out of his power company’s affairs. He took the swing votes on a ride in the Doris. They left him alone after that.
Trains were romantic. Stylish. Even sexy. Asheville’s Thomas Wolfe was smitten by the night train. “It is the place,” he wrote in Of Time and The River, “where women with fine legs and silken underwear lie in the Pullman berth below you.” Even today, locomotives have an Art Deco look. Their discordant whistles still echo through the night. You can close your eyes and imagine a streamlined diesel hauling freight, or a steam locomotive pulling passengers. You don’t need to see it. With just a whistle, the possibilities are endless.
Trains aren’t just syrupy-sweet nostalgia. For every quaint story of life in a tiny whistle-stop town, there are stories of mergers and bankruptcies, of dirt and grime and broken rails and lost money. For every romantic story about a locomotive running through the night, there is an annual meeting of worried railroad stockholders.
Take C.E. Spear, who at 87 speaks in that decidedly Southern way, replacing his Rs with uhs and using the word “why” exclusively for emphasis. His train story is both remarkable and unremarkable. He likes trains. Doesn’t love ’em. Just likes ’em. He ended up in Rowan County in 1942 because his brother was already there, already working for the Southern Railway. He took a job as a boilermaker, beating on steel all day in a sooty repair shop in Spencer, sucking smoke into his lungs, losing his hearing.
“Back in those days, why, we didn’t even have earplugs,” Spear says, drawling the word ear into ea-yuh. “We used cotton balls.”
Was it a good job? Why, yes. The old steam engines depended on firemen to shovel coal and gulped down water every 150 miles or so. They belched out smoke and broke down, bad for the railroad companies but good for boilermakers like C.E. Spear. There was nothing romantic about it. “It was just a livin’ for me,” he says.
Dependable diesel engines, like the ones at the head of the 212, replaced the misbehaving steam locomotives. The diesels could go farther (1,000 miles without refueling) and had no need for brakemen, firemen, and the like. In 1960, after 18 years, C.E. Spear found himself looking for a new job. Why pay a boilermaker if there aren’t any boilers to fix?
Today, passing train cars can be eerily silent. The clickety-clack is gone because the rails on Norfolk Southern’s main lines are welded together into one continuous piece of metal. People, largely, do not ride on trains to get anywhere they need to be, unless they have a lot of spare time, which they tend not to. There is no such thing as a runaway train anymore. On the 212, if the engineer doesn’t wiggle a switch or touch a button every 90 seconds, the computer hits the brakes.
There is, then, surprisingly little that really goes on in the cab of a modern train. On the 212, Hawkins and Mullis sit calmly. They make small adjustments to levers. They lightly tap the horn. They glance at the monitors.
Mostly, they look out the windows to see North Carolina roll by. Heading into Bessemer City, Hawkins and Mullis try to guess exactly how hot it is before they pass by the bank with the time and temperature on the sign. In Cramerton, the tracks are so high up, the 212 is at steeple-level with the Riverside Baptist Church. In Belmont, some of the old-timers open up lawn chairs and point them at the tracks, just to watch the trains go by on Sundays. In Charlotte, the railroad passes within yards of the airport tarmac. It sneaks in behind Bank of America Stadium.
There are any number of people walking next to the tracks. One is on a cell phone, walking on the gravel in the woods. Another man in a red T-shirt and jeans doesn’t look back as the 212 comes up behind him. Near uptown Charlotte, a boy walking a black dog crosses one set of rails, sees the locomotive heading toward him, hesitates, then darts across the tracks, maybe a hundred feet in front of the train. That happens a lot, Hawkins says.
The 212 runs across fields and through forests, into small towns and behind buildings. It is not a picturesque journey. People hide their junk out back, out of sight for people in cars but in plain view from a locomotive. There are corroded cars, barbed-wire fences, heaps of trash, and encampments for the homeless. Hawkins looks out the window at the graffiti, garbage, and weeds. “You can see how people are really livin’,” he says.
At a quarter till three, an Amtrak train is heading toward the 212 at 70 miles per hour, and the whole caravan has to stop on a side track. Amtrak gets priority. A half-hour later, the 212 passes a stopped coal train in Salisbury. Near the Yadkin River, a man and his grandson are perched on an outcropping, cameras in hand, getting a shot of the yellow engine as it barrels past.
At 4 p.m., Hawkins and Mullis stop their locomotive in the middle of a green field outside of Linwood. They call this the farmer’s crossing. Their replacements, sitting on the side of an asphalt berm, rise to their feet. There will be five or six more crew changes before the 212 reaches its destination. A hired minivan will take Hawkins off to the hotel after his shift. He’ll work out tonight. He’ll be back home tomorrow. His wife understands. She works for the railroad, too.
The sun is out, and the crew swings the heavy door open at the nose of the locomotive. They climb down in their fluorescent yellow vests, an unnatural color among the green grass and blue sky. They turn back to see the new crew up on the engine. The bells clang. The horn blares.
North Carolina Transportation Museum
411 South Salisbury Avenue
Spencer, N.C. 28159