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Growing up in Louisa –Working on the Railroad?

Weekly feature . . . by Mike Coburn

While I have written about the trains that passed through my hometown before, I have revisited some of my earliest memories regarding this subject. I recall the first time when my mother showed me the big, black, smoky, iron monster working its way south along the tracks. We were living in the large first-floor apartment at the Louisa Inn and were picnicking on the grass between the tracks and the inn. The noise and rattle was a little scary, but mom was quick to calm me and assure me that these heavy monsters were ‘friends.’

She had me stand in sight of the train and wave to the engineer as he approached. I saw the returned salute when he waved his gloved hand with a big smile. His iron horse, as mom would call it, rolled past as the heavy, black smoke streamed behind him. This train was full of empty coal cars and was headed to the big mining towns further down the tracks. I knew little of that at the time, but I did see some things of interest. I either noticed, or was told that the three men in the cab all had important jobs. Mom explained that the one who waved was the engineer, the second man was an assistant engineer who watched from the other side, and the third was the fireman. She told me the fireman’s job was to take coal from the tender and shovel it into the fire box to railroad engineer glove copyrailroad engineer glove copykeep the fire hot so it could make steam. That stuff was over my young head, but I did notice the three men wore coveralls made of what I’d later call mattress ticking. Their caps matched with the blue and white stripes, as did the big gloves they wore. I saw gloves like that for sale in the stores downtown, but they were too big for my little hands. I came to love watching ‘choo-choos.’ The steamy, lonesome whistle became music to me, as did the sound of the wheels hitting the seams in the shiny, steel tracks.

Another part of the uniform for conductors and engineers alike, was a railroad pocket watch. These usually hung on a gold chain that glistened to impress the passengers that this was a person of merit. Time zones were set up across the country, but all were set to C&O time. By having their watches synchronized they could avoid trains wrecking by crossing paths. This was also important for the owners and station masters bragged and took note that the trains run on time. I learned this over time, and I still visit museums dealing with trains. I will forever enjoy those excursions.

This visit with mom in the side yard of the Louisa Inn, was also the occasion of the first of many sermons on staying clear of the tracks. She told me that you could never tell when a train might barrel down the tracks and sneak up on you.

She added that if I were anywhere near close the big wheels would suck me in and crush me. I had just gotten over the sting of crushing a honey bee and the pain it caused my poor foot. The bee had not made out much better than my swollen arch. Mom had held me and kissed it to make it feel better. After all, that’s what moms do. Applying this lesson I was sure that I didn’t want a train to be sucked under a train!

Over time mom would point out the various kinds of cars such as tankers and box cars. The box cars where sometimes full with closed side-doors, but at other times they had open doors and were clearly running empty. She showed me flat cars, too, which sometimes held vehicles like army trucks, jeeps, or other equipment. I always wanted to stay and watch for the little red caboose. Most of the time I’d see a man riding in the caboose, sometimes up in the raised observation space, and at other times on the back platform. If I caught his eye I’d wave at him, too. They almost always returned the salute with an answering wave.

It would be another four years or so before I got my American Flyer model train for Christmas. It had a light that worked, and the engine made a chug-chug sound, putting out some smoke from its stack after oil from a little bottle was added. When set up with the tracks, it went around in circles, whistling and passing the transformer I used to increase or decrease its speed. The train only rarely jumped the track, but boys likes wrecks, don’t they? What I liked most about this brand of train was that it just had two rails, just like the real thing. The other brand I saw in some of the stores had three. I was left wondering what kinds of trains the designer of this toy had seen. History has proved me wrong on the importance of that because the other brand clearly outsold the one I had. (I bought a copy of my old one and have the engine and tender displayed in my Florida room on two-railed track.)

I think it was sometime around four or five in the afternoon that a passenger train would regularly pull into the station just a block away. It came to the station from the direction of Paintsville, and would pull out and travel northward, toward Ashland. Early in the mornings the passenger train would come from Ashland and go on down the line toward Paintsville. This pattern allowed a lot of people that lived along the line to ride to work in Louisa and then go back home at night. Some were students that would come to town that way instead of riding a school bus. After all, the roads in those days weren’t anything like what we have now. In fact, the river road was often not passible for the lack of paving and missing bridges.

I remember the time when mom took me to the depot and bought us some tickets. I recall that we were helped up on the train by the conductor. The step was high so a little help for me and my little, short mom was appreciated. Once we were in the crowded car the people on board seemed very nice. A couple of men dressed in work clothes got up and gave us their seats. I was grateful because the train was already moving and it swayed a good bit. I was afraid I’d fall. Besides, I wanted to look out the window. It is a little confusing to me after all these years, but I remember on some newer passenger cars were very much nicer than some of the older ones. The first ones were lined with painted wood and the benches were hard. I remember that on some the paint color was an army green and made with steel tubing. After that, in the newer ones, the metal was a shiny aluminum like I’d seen in restaurants and soda bars. These latter ones were fancy, some having a dining car and even what mom called a ‘Pullman.’ That meant they had sleeping accommodations. Early ones had two decks of beds with a heavy curtain, but others had a real room with a door that locked.

I remember trying to walk between cars when the train was in motion. Not only did the train sway from side to side, sometimes with a jerk, but the clackety-clack of the train’s wheels was loud when I opened one of two doors and stepped onto a platform. There were places to the side of the platform where I could look down and see the tracks going by. That was a little scary because we were moving so fast. When the train was in motion I wasn’t supposed to move from car to car without an escort, but mom was never far behind, so I guess I was alright. Later trains had better sealed passage areas that seemed safer than the old ones. They were still noisy, though.

While, as I mentioned, some of the first passenger cars were army green, they later became all metal, with fancy shiny aluminum with art deco motifs. Going from barely enclosed coaches to fancy modern cars happened within just about two decades, and my generation saw it happen. I’ve written before about the day the new diesel stream-liner stopped at our little station. It was stopped long enough for a crowd to gather and excitement to stir in our hearts as we looked over the beauty. I was in that crowd to see our first steam-less locomotive and I remember the painted stripes. The windshield was much closer to the front. It had a big centered spotlight that swept back and forth to light the tracks ahead.

Shh! Don’t tell anybody, but my friends and I would sometimes run along next to a slow-moving freight train, grab the ladder rail, and pull ourselves up aboard. It was normal action during the depression that ‘hobos’ would ride the rails all over America looking for work. Hobo camps were set up here and there. Some of the tramps would go to a nearby farm to ask for some work they could do to earn a meal. They were tough days for many, for sure. Many farmers were generous and helped with whatever they had. I read about the cities that had soup lines for the hungry. In those days no one had anything to share. The farmers who could grow his own food and had a little to spare.

Further out west they were losing their farms to foreclosures, or the dust storms had carried away the topsoil, leaving piles of sand or surfaces of hard clay. This was when our parents were growing up, but it had its effects for generations. I suspect it still isn’t over for some. Homelessness continues to be found around us as is the dirge of poverty.

Later, as I grew up, I was sent to meet the train and to give an important envelope to the person working in the mail car. This was like a traveling post office. I was told it was quicker to send mail out that way instead of taking it a block further downtown to the post office. It would take a while for me to connect all the dots and realize that mail from the post office would also end up going on the train. We essentially skipped the middle man, even though we still paid the 3¢ postage. I’m thinking the rush was that we had to make a payment by a certain date and we were pushing our luck by meeting a train. Who knows?

I remember those big, heavy baggage carts with steel wheels and thick wooden beds that the depot baggage master would wheel out to unload a baggage car. I’m sure lots of important things made that trip every day, but to a kid they looked like trunks, boxes and luggage. It’s likely that some of the papers and magazines that went to Hack’s or Ern’s newsstands came in that way. I guess someone would pick up the stuff and deliver them later. Some papers came in by bus, too, so our little town had the latest. Compare that to the internet and you’ll see the gap between then and now.

The mixture of persons that would get on or off the trains. Some were families that were going up, or down the line. Some were men that were commuting from a whistle stop and to town and back, one or two I knew to be teachers that taught classes at schools, and some were traveling salesmen that would visit the storekeepers and merchants around town. Some of these would also go door to door selling vacuums, or something. I saw soldiers and sailors coming and going, too. Usually a gang of family and friends would be there to greet them, or to see them off. Little did I know I would be one of those coming in and leaving in uniform, too, in a few years.

I was a teenager by the time I started to take notice of some of the features that controlled where and when the train would travel. In some places along the line a big signal was installed that gave on-coming engineers notice to stop or go. As it happens a lot of the track was duel allowing trains to pass, but there were sections where a train would need to stop before a switch over to allow another by. Some of those lights were mounted high on a tower, while others sat on the ground very near to the tracks. There were also places where a switch could be thrown manually, to direct a train off the tracks they were using onto a side track. I remember a few places that had a spur line to allow box cars to approach the warehouses and unload, or load.

I remember the little pump carts that one or two persons could set up on the tracks and then move it on down the line. Pumping the leavers up and down momentum could build up so the cart could go forward or backwards. The railroad workers could also stop the cart and roll it free of the tracks to allow trains to pass. There was always a bit of danger that you could be surprised, but if you were attentive and followed the signals, you could travel to wherever you needed to go. Usually these little carts were used for track inspection, or to take someone out to throw a switch.

I walked the rail many times when my destination fit. I played a game of trying to stay balanced on the shiny steel rail like a tight-rope artist. The fact was that on some days I was better at it than others. I’ve always been a little tipsy, or downright clumsy, so I would then switch to taking my steps on the ties. Because of their spacing, I tried to step on one tie with one foot and the next with the other. Like the klutz that I am, I would fall away from that into the gravel. Like the old railroad joke, “Two drunkards were walking between the rails when one complained over the long length of the stairway. The other said he could manage the length, but the hand rails were too low.” Some folk who lived further out of town undoubtedly walked over narrow rail beds and even bridges.

I once walked from the area near the old ice house up the tracks to the Water plant. That ridge was narrow enough for me since I could easily envision a train coming through and my having no way to escape. I planned in my mind to lie down as flat as possible and stay still, hoping I would not be killed. Thank goodness I also knew that one could hear trains afar off by putting one’s ear to the rail. That would tell me if one was approaching in time to find a safe-haven until the locomotive passed by.

There were many different jobs that railroaders had, including many that I’m sure would surprise us. Station masters had to know Morse code to understand the messages coming in. They also would sell tickets, move baggage and luggage, put out mail bags for the postal workers. Some were boiler-makers, some were steel-workers. Some had to ream out the piping, and some worked on the wheels and the brakes. They had firemen that shoveled the coal into the firebox, and break men that turned the big wheels located at the end of a car to brake it if it were rolling free in the yard. Conductors and workers used lanterns with red or green lights to signal the engineer, who may be nearly a half-mile away. There were different types of inspectors and those that laid rails, or replaced ties. There were signalmen, and engineers (design and pilots), and some drilled tunnels, built bridges, and maintained crossings.

I remember that at many whistle stops there was a device that allowed mail bags to be suspended near the tracks so an arm on the postage car could scoop it up as the train passed. It was fun to watch. Heavy canvas bags were used since the exchange was violent. I remember a simple ‘snap’ and the bag disappeared onboard to be sorted.

When I enlisted in the Air Force I was sent by train to San Antonio for basic training. My three-day trip to Texas was on a ‘first class’ berth on a train called the ‘Sportsman.’ It was very modern and classy. I had a private Pullman room with shower, bed, and table. I was given full run of the train so I walked through the club car, the dining car, and spent a lot of daylight hours in the observation car which had a section of seats enclosed in windows on a higher level above the train. I could see the engine and all the country side as we traveled through the Missouri Ozarks and the Oklahoma oil fields. I rode the same train back, making a change in Ashland to take the C&O back to my home town for my first leave

I talk to my wife about the idea of catching a train and heading out west, just to see the sights and enjoy the scenery. No doubt the plains and the Rockies would give a thrill. I know there are excursion trains we could book, but perhaps riding out to Seattle or San Francisco and flying home would be worthwhile. No doubt it wouldn’t be cheap, but the idea can go on our ‘bucket list.’

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Growing up in Louisa – Landmarks!

Weekly feature . . . by Mike Coburn

I have read the following verse many times over the years, but since I’m not in the demolition business, I had not personalized the biblical quote in Proverbs 22:28, (KJV) “Remove not the ancient landmark, which thy fathers have set.” I know the reasoning behind this is so that God’s people will see and remember the struggles and victories of the past. They serve as signs to each generation and reinforce the stories meant to be told by word of mouth. They help to explain who we are as a people. Whether it is a pile of rocks, or the remains of a temple, those instructions makes sense.

Coming from a small town in eastern Kentucky, I am left wondering what monuments, or landmarks, we may have destroyed, or for that matter, have either passively, or intentionally, elected to save. The question is what things we ought to preserve for posterity. Take for example, the pile of stones Joshua was instructed to build when he crossed the Jordan River into the promised land. Those stones were to be permanently left to remind all generations of the crossover event.

When I think of ‘landmarks’ a few buildings, geographic features, and structures pop into my mind. The practical problem is that buildings, even if a salient feature of a community, grow old and by nature will one way or another disappear from the landscape. Surely some things that we intentionally designed and built as a memorial should be preserved. I’m thinking things like the Washington Monument, National Capital, the White House, and the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials. But what, did I see as landmarks when I was growing up?

We laugh about the silly tales of a farmer who gave directions to a lost traveler: “Go a mile or so down to the Bussy barn and turn left on Leaf Branch Road. That will take you over the hill to the holler, which has a road going both ways. Turn on that and go past the widow Cyrus’s place and take the foot bridge over the creek. You’ll soon enough come to Boydville Station. From there take the train. The conductor will tell you when it’s time to get off.” The problem is that the features are obvious and well known to the farmer, but are less understood by the traveler. Even with the directions you might find that you can’t get there from where you are.

My experience with GPS systems aren’t always that good, either. We hear stories of folks who were led to a swamp or otherwise off the beaten path. I’m reminded of the common advice relating to our famous bridge. People who live on the ‘point,’ like my friend Bernard, Bill and Larlene Lemaster, and Kay Maynard, have likely told many visitors to take the bridge, and when they get halfway across, they should turn right. That old bridge was a landmark to me. I crossed it many times, often walking to Fort Gay for baseball or to buy some Verner’s Ginger Ale. No doubt the steel grid and wooden walkway needed the updating users now enjoy. I thought it was spooky to look down into those swift waters. Thanks to a few dedicated citizens the old bridge was replaced with a much better, more modern, and safer structure.

When I was growing up, a landmark might have been a mere rock overhang, or a certain curve in the road, or maybe a swinging bridge. Coming around a curve and seeing an expected valley meant that we were almost at our destination. My contemporaries will know some of those features, but others are lost already to the newer generations. We no longer even travel the same roads since the main highway going north was moved to parallel the river.

Louisa Supply Co. Louisa Supply Co.

Shutting my eyes, I can recall many things that were and that simply are no more. For one reason, or another, they no longer exist. Take the old ‘KY normal college’ that was at the southern end of Main Cross. A number of generations called that their high school, including my mother and me. Shortly after I left town this building was razed and replaced by a more modern structure. The town benefited by the change, but we who walked those broad hallways were left to mourn the loss. I remember the old supply mill that sat next to the railroad tracks at Perry Street. Fire claimed this dusty building, I’m told, but I’m not surprised. Flour dust is explosive and had to be at least a catalyst once the fire started. Just north along the tracks the old armory of my mom’s day is gone, too. My mother would remember that better than me, although I did explore the building in my younger days. During the war, many a soldier and young lady danced the evenings away to songs such as the Andrews sisters singing “Don’t sit under the apple tree.” When I sneaked in to see this one it was very dangerous. The stairways were leaning and ready to fall.

I recall that century old church sitting on town square. It stood at the center of the main intersection downtown. I spent many days and evenings at church, choir practice, social events, and Sunday school. The congregation moved to a modern building between town hill and pine hill. The church of old was abandoned and boarded up when I last visited the town.

Town hill itself is cut up by new roads, but I remember the times I walked the dirt road next to the town dump, (which is now a shopping center), and on to a fork near the top. The roadway that might have taken me further uphill to the old fort bishop ruins, is private and has been blocked. The other route I used to ascend and descend the hill was on its face. I would start at the old grade school and climb. Now the new road dissects that path with steep cuts. The old “Mayo Trail” that led out to the Pannell’s Pontiac, the skating rink, the Flattop Inn, the waterworks, and on out to High Bottom, remains, but is secondary to the higher road now commonly traveled.

There used to be a stockyard at the northern end of Clay Street that was busy with cattle and their buyers and sellers. I remember the Van Hoose Lumber Company run by Teenie’s dad, and across from the Curtis Young’s grocery store on Pike and Clay.

Everyone from that day will remember the famous depot which was so long a landmark. Sadly, it burned along with several other buildings including two grocery stores, food locker, shoe shop, and the barber shop I often visited when forced. The virtual gateway to downtown was destroyed, and more sadly, a life was lost.

The downtown that I remember as a bustling business venue is pretty much a ghost town. Some newer businesses have a foothold, but they are not the money-makers I remember from back in the day. The flower shop, Western Auto, the Garden Theater, Carter’s Department Store, the Rexall Drug Store, the bank, the Favorite five and dime, and others are all closed. Many buildings that once held busy retail establishments have other uses today. Some appear to be empty or abandoned.

The downtown area was a victim of the big box stores and the two by-passes that insured traffic would no longer pass through the downtown. The big fire on Madison took its toll, but some businesses were already having trouble staying on the black side of the ledger. Private charge accounts established long before plastic was being used, forced merchants to personally carry debt. The charge cards of today might have helped if they were around. Cash was hard to come by as the coal business plunged and even the railroad was forced to reduce services. The largest payroll in the county was paid out by the school board, but those were often less than poverty rates. Teachers took ‘payday’ loans out more and more often to pay for the essentials of living.

Canrival in Louisa Canrival in Louisa

The ‘Needle Dam and Locks’ were first surveyed by a young George Washington, and are an important remaining landmark. For years, only the ghostly pillars of the dam crossed the river. The needle structures were either missing or broken. Just after I left town they were repaired and once again the river became viable for river travel.

Many of the stately or cute homes in town and a few of the businesses still stand. Simpson’s Gulf is still there as is the Tasty Freeze. The Cypress Inn remains, even if it has changed character, and so does the post office. Dee’s Drive In is there (I stopped by and ate lunch not too long ago). The house I lived in is radically remodeled, but is still standing, as are the houses once owned by my neighbors. The newer of the old HS buildings also still stands. The townspeople enjoyed many football games and basketball games there in those days.

At least in my mind, landmarks are not merely the convergence of the river forks, or town hill, or even pine hill. There are few things ‘set’ by our fathers in memorial. One would be the monument set for Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson, the historical markers (if any), and the older houses or buildings sprinkled about town.

All of this nostalgic writing may make it seem as if I am in disfavor of ‘change.’ Not true. I’ve pretty much always been a proponent of progress, but with a caution that not everything new is necessarily progressive. There’s certainly a place to improve our lot(s) in life and we should be about doing just that. I dream for a change that would come and embrace the past, such as a redevelopment effort to restore and improve downtown. Parks, theaters, stores, restaurants, and even condos, or apartments over storefronts might bring the town back to the days when neighbor knew neighbor and a walk with the kids was the order of the day. Keep, or duplicate the landmarks, maintain the small-town feeling. Then enjoy the new landmarks even as my peers enjoyed those of our time when we were ‘growing up.’

Maybe this new millennium is an opportunity to clean up the quaint little town and add parks, paths, fountains, and give new birth to a town that deserves another chance. I’m hoping to see that develop for newer generations to remember as ‘home.’

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Growing up in Louisa – Moms Matter!

Weekly feature . . . by Mike Coburn

 Over the years I have written about many different kinds of memories. One that arose from the recesses of my mind occurred when I was watching TV and saw “Hi, mom,” mouthed by a professional football player who was sitting on the bench. The sound did pick up the comment, but I knew what he had said by reading his lips. You see, when he saw the TV camera was focused on him, the first thing out of his mouth was the motherly greeting. I know that it is not a rare phenomenon, but rather that it is so very common. It is an impulsive reaction for so many of us creatures. We think of mom, first. There are many that continue long after mom’s passing, to try and please her. We all want mom’s approval, and we want to do this, or that, for our mothers. Moms are forever, important to us. 

 It’s not rare that a person under duress would call out for ‘mom’ or in some countries, ‘mum,’ whenever difficulties arise, including our dying breaths upon our death beds. I’ve heard war stories where a wounded soldier cries out from his foxhole for his mother to save him when he perceives that he is facing death. The call is usually to one’s own mother, but there are times that even the ‘mother of Christ’ is invoked by religious teaching. Are we to believe that such action is an inherent sign of our belief that mother can really intercede? It is it just a ‘throwback’ to former times when mom would rush to kiss the boo-boo? Are our mothers a type of ‘home,’ and a shelter wherein we find final and complete comfort? Ah, there is no comfort like a mom’s embrace. 

There is no question that our mothers are the nearest and dearest to our hearts. It makes sense. After all, they were the first to care for us. They provided our nurture and daily needs. They fed us, wiped our behinds, bandaged our wounds, dried our tears and encouraged us in times of trouble. They understood us, but more importantly, they had an everlasting love for us. Their love had no limits. Neither did their forgiveness. 

With all this sentimental reasoning about Mother’s Day there is another segment of the world that aims to use this ‘holiday’ as a marketing ploy, thus instigating commerce that would encourage the flow of greenbacks into their coffers. The candy people, the flower people, the jewelry folks, and the favorite restaurants, all rush to help clueless husbands and off-springs find a worthy mean of celebrating. How nice. If we spend enough money then mom will see that we love her. That’s the idea. Really? Undoubtedly we should find ways to let her know that she more than matters, but is often the power that keeps the wheels turning. It’s nice to eat out together so long as family members don’t have their faces in their respective smart phones. Insincerity is too easily read, especially by mom. Doing something without having your heart in it will likely cause more pain than comfort. 

 So come on people. I suspect two ideas might nearly mean more to mom. 1) Spend some time with her. I mean, really listening to her and not give the appearance of needing to be someplace else. 2) Help her. Find the nastiest chores needing attention and do them without her asking or even knowing you’re on the job. When she goes to take care of the dreaded work, she’ll see someone cares. She may have been hinting on other ideas, too, but we guys are often clueless. 

Just know that we can never tell her too often of her importance, or send her too many cards. We should include her in our important events as we can. Back when I was growing up I knew a few elderly grandmothers who simply just sat and rocked alone. They often spoke of their children, but rarely saw them. Of course, kids grow up and have their lives and are amid raising children of their own. They get lost in working on careers, but they must remember that they got to this point thanks to mom. An idea I had for those who can, is to pick a day every month, or every quarter, for a mom ‘date night.’ You guys should have long ago set up one of those for your wife, too, you know. Once a week with honey, and once a month with mom, will add so much value to their lives and yours. It will draw you closer and show her that she still counts. If you can’t work that in another message is sent. Mothers are astute as reading messages sent and not sent.  

The man who still has his mother and sees that his kids respect and celebrate her, is already blessed. I remember being told once many years ago that “If you want to be treated like a King, treat your wife like a Queen.” That’s merely the golden rule restated, but it works. You don’t need a Dale Carnegie to tell you these simple things. Moms everywhere have already influenced the lives of their families, often at a high personal cost. Always remember, mom took care of you when it wasn’t convenient. Mother’s Day is a special day to remind you of this special person and give you opportunity to reach out and thank her. 

Happy Mother’s Day, Sunday, May 14, 2017.       

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