Riding the Iron Horse to Florida: Travel Writer Dave Hunter Regresses to His Youth

Winter 2010 CSANews Issue 77  |  Posted date : Dec 06, 2010.Back to list

Several years ago, I visited Britain's huge National Railway Museum in York and my heart skipped a beat. For there, among the locomotives and other railway equipment, stood green 2-BIL Electric number 1293... the very same 1930s Southern Railway passenger unit I used to ride 60 years ago as a young British schoolboy, between Portslade and Brighton stations in Sussex. Who knew that the coach in which I used to go to school would now be classified as an antique and turn up in a museum!

How did I recognize 1293? Every British school boy of my era collected engine numbers. We knew the difference between a 4-6-2 Pacific (the Flying Scotsman) and a lowly 0-6-0T saddle tanker used for shunting coal trucks (wagons) across the many points (switches) of the goods (marshalling) yard. To the chagrin of our school's first form Latin master, none of us set our sights on classical studies at Oxford or Cambridge - we all wanted to be engine drivers!
Best of all, we loved steam; its smell was intoxicating. Often, we parked our bikes on a nearby railway bridge and waited for the local express to come barrelling down the line belching thick smoke and steam from its stack. We looked over the parapet on the "down" side, so the pungent blast shot up into our young faces as the locomotive cleared the bridge. It was exhilarating - a rite of passage.

So as I stood beside 1293 lost in nostalgia, I rediscovered my passion for trains. I had never thought about it before, but now realized that our annual drive down Interstate 75 to Florida is a ride surrounded by railway lore and historic iron horses. So, all aboard, wave the green flag and let's get started.

As we cross Cincinnati's Brent-Spence Bridge spanning the great Ohio, we are following the real route of the 1880s locomotive, the Chattanooga Choo Choo. Contrary to the famous song, it didn't visit Pennsylvania, Baltimore or the Carolinas. The train was owned by the Cincinnati Railroad Company and the old track followed the route of today's '75 through Kentucky to the Tennessee/Georgia border. Its legacy lives on in the former Chattanooga railroad terminus - now the Choo Choo Hotel - where one of the actual 2-6-0 wood-burning Choo Choo locomotives sits quietly at the end of its long, historic run.

Just a few miles west of Tennessee's I-75 at exit 2 you can visit the Choo Choo. The hotel is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is operated by the Historic Hotels of America; it provides a wonderful experience for the railroad buff and an overnight stay is reasonably priced. The restored Victorian station is surrounded by rose gardens, goldfish ponds, gift shops, restaurants and a model railroad museum. A working New Orleans trolley provides free tours of the property and there's even a free shuttle bus to take you to Chattanooga's downtown restaurants and other delights. But the part of the visit which we enjoy most is the overnight stay in one of the hotel's private Victorian parlourcars standing at the terminus platforms. Want to see what's inside? Here's a typical layout:

While in Chattanooga, how about a ride in the cab of a steam locomotive? With a bit of planning, it's quite possible. The city is blessed with the Tennessee Valley Railroad, a private company of volunteer railroad enthusiasts which owns several stations, a railroad track, an old 19th-century tunnel and a river bridge. At the end of its railway there's a turntable, so you can watch your engine being turned around for the return trip. The typical six-mile round trip is a "must" for railroad fanatics; the volunteers love their work and enjoy chatting with passengers and showing how things work. 

Now here's a little-known local secret. When you phone to book your tickets, ask about the "ride in the cab" program. It costs a bit extra but, if you have grandchildren with you, it's worth every penny. What could be more exciting than standing on the cab's iron footplate of TVR's main coal-burning locomotive - number 610 - and watching the fireman shovel coal into the flame box. You can even pull the whistle lever as we head into the blackness of the old Civil War tunnel.

Let's leave Chattanooga and head south into north Georgia, where modern I-75 crisscrosses the route of one of the most famous railroad adventures in history - the Great Locomotive Chase. Here's the story:

During the Civil War, the railroad between Atlanta (in those days, Terminus) and Chattanooga was crucial as a supply line for the Confederate Army. It was a single track with several short double sections so that locomotives could be switched to pass each other.

In April, 1862, at Marietta (I-75, exit 265), Andrews' Raiders - a group of Union soldiers disguised as civilians - boarded a northbound passenger train pulled by the locomotive, General. Their goal was to hijack it (which they did a few miles further north at Big Shanty - Kennesaw, while the crew was at breakfast) and drive it northward through Chattanooga, burning bridges and destroying the railroad right-of-way behind them.

But they did not reckon with the tenacity of the train's conductor, William Fuller. He took the theft of his locomotive very personally and chased it, first on foot and then on a push-car. Meanwhile, the General was attempting to escape by cutting telegraph lines, removing rails and disconnecting its coaches to block Fuller's progress. 

To get past damaged track sections, Fuller commandeered three locomotives during the chase, the last being the southbound Texas, which Fuller drove in reverse chasing the General northward. The race ended at Ringgold (I-75, exit 348), when the General finally ran out of fuel and steam. Today, a large roadside stone marks the spot. Andrews' Raiders scattered, but were captured by Confederate troops. Many were hanged. 

The chase route still exists with several landmarks which can still be seen on either side of Interstate 75. The most famous is Tunnel Hill (I-75, exit 341), where you can visit the Civil War era tunnel through which both locomotives rushed at full speed.

Where are the Texas and the General today? Ironically, the General is a feature exhibit at the Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History (I-75, exit 273), just a few yards away from where Andrews captured her in 1862. Affiliated with the Smithsonian, this world-class museum includes a Civil War-era locomotive repair shop (a must for steam train fans) and an excellent collection of Civil War artifacts. The Texas is a permanent exhibit at the Cyclorama in Atlanta.

Enough of war and high-speed chases - let's visit a peaceful steam locomotive in the southern rural setting of the Agrirama in Tifton, Georgia (I-75, exit 63B). Here you can visit a 19th-century station and ride on a steam train of the same vintage. Watch how they fill the water tanks of the locomotive from the overhead hose gantry. As a youngster, I remember being fascinated by similar operations at our local railway station in Sussex, England... but that's another story.

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