When Gertrude “Tut” McFarland was younger, there was no television or Internet for entertainment.
But “there was great excitement on Sunday afternoons,” McFarland recalled Sunday.
Two passenger trains — one on the Norfolk Southern line and one on the CSX line — that would stop on Dalton would race each other near Abutment Road where the tracks run parallel, she said.
“All of my early traveling was done by trains, and on Sunday afternoon when we didn’t have a TV, we would watch the trains. I remember watching and wondering where the train was going.”
Trains was the topic of discussion at a Whitfield-Murray Historical Society meeting on Sunday afternoon. Society members Marvin Sowder, a local history enthusiast, and Ty Snyder, with the Dalton Convention and Visitors Bureau, emphasized the importance of trains to the area, as well as how trains have changed over time.
In the 1840s, construction on the Western & Atlantic (W&A) Railroad picked up pace, Sowder said. W&A is currently CSX.
“Work on the W&A began in a big way,” he said. “Track was laid and small towns sprang up all along the railroad... The W&A pushed rapidly ahead, and in 1847, the first train arrived at Cross Plains — then in the process of becoming Dalton (which was chartered and incorporated later that year). There was a big celebration. Posters went out to every town in a 50-mile radius. A great multitude gathered around the tracks. Most had not seen a train before.”
Town lots were sold for weeks after, and buildings and businesses were constructed quickly, Sowder said.
“From a population of 200 to 300 in less than one year, it had grown to about 1,500,” he said. “That was fast growth for a Southern town in those days.”
The depot was so integral to early Dalton, the city limits were defined as being a mile in all directions from the depot, meaning the depot was the center of town, he said.
There were three depots in Dalton. It was originally thought that the freight depot, which was recently restored, was built in 1914. The plaque describing the historical significance even states 1914.
But when the building was renovated a few years ago, some boards were discovered that were signed in 1911, Snyder said. He said the beams are original, but the floor is not. The doors and hardware are also original.
People often ask him about what times trains will be coming through town.
“Railroads have not operated on an official time schedule in decades,” he said. “They have general schedules but not posted to the public at all because of security reasons.”
In the past, each railroad company had different tracks and equipment, now everything is universal, Snyder said. Locomotives don’t change when they move along a different company’s set of tracks, which is why they sometimes have other railways’ engines and boxcars on their line, he said.
Today’s trains run using diesel electric locomotives and tracks no longer make a “clickity clack” sound because they run on “continuous welded tracks,” Snyder said. “Rails are a quarter mile long. They have automated machinery that welds them together. They electrify the rails on either end, and it gets white hot, which welds it.”
Diesel engines can be turned on or off, unlike steam engines of the past, which could take hours to heat up enough to run, Snyder said.
“To keep a locomotive going took constant fire, constant maintenance and a huge number of people to run it,” he said. “Today, it takes two people to run the train. It only really takes one, the engineer, but the conductor is there in case the engineer has a heart attack and dies.”
As technology changed, many railroad companies lost money on passengers and switched over to hauling freight only, Snyder said.
“It’s easier to transport things in bulk by rail,” he said. “At least twice a day I see trains that are from the new Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga. You’ll see them headed south. They take the cars to a yard in Atlanta where they’re shipped out by truck.”
You may have heard the saying “from the wrong side of the tracks.” But do you know where the saying comes from? According to Steve Hall, who has done a lot of research on the history of trains, steam locomotives were dirty, throwing embers which at times caught buildings on fire, and leaving soot behind. Being downwind of the train meant dealing with those things, as well as smells from animals being shipped. In Dalton, “downwind” was the east side of town, which is why many area on the west side have more expensive homes and neighborhoods. Historically, the east side of town housed the working class.
The Whitfield-Murray Historical society will have the following officers beginning in January:
• President, Randy Beckler
• First vice president, Melissa Burchfield
• Second vice president, Mary Hardin
• Treasurer Martha Minor
• Newly elected trustees: Ellen Thompson, Woody Glenn and Tonia Kendrick
• The following trustees were recently appointed to fill unexpired terms: Penny Carpenter, Dale Lowman and Ralph Ausmus