Three Southern Towns Where Trains Run Up Main Street
By Herb Hiller
Americans don’t ride American trains for getting anywhere fast. Okay, maybe in the Northeast, but we surely don’t ride coach through the South expecting overnight sleep. Instead of lullabies, we get lurch-inducing railbeds.
On the other hand, rewards come from looking out windows while slicing through woods, through suburbs, and often through decayed industrial zones targeted for smart growth.
Towns first grew around depots. Trains still typically arrive downtown, sometimes underground at grand stations or atop curving viaducts where steel wheels on steel rails screech their arrival.
Trains remain among us powerful and champion like. Windows are big. Views bigger. We might be anywhere we see.
And so it happened that after enough times riding north from my home in Florida, three Southern towns where tracks run up main street compelled my visits.
I wondered how people coped with having to idle at crossings or the noise at night. On the other hand, given that trains have been around a long time, how important might they be to people who live in these places?
The trip wasn’t easily arranged. No single service includes stops in all three towns. From home, I rode the Silver Meteor to Yemassee. Onward from there to Richmond for the transfer to Amtrak’s Northeast Regional Service to Ashland (and a few days later again for meetings in Baltimore). From Baltimore I rode the Silver Star to Southern Pines and home.
To make this schedule work, I arrived overnight from Yemassee at Richmond’s suburban station 4:25 in the morning. I had booked myself to Ashland on the 8 o’clock but decided on the 7:00 instead.
The station agent reviewed my entire itinerary. “You do this yourself,” he asked. I said yes. “Wow! he said. “You’re some kind of train-riding bandito!”
Of course, that’s why I ride. It’s not just about trains. It’s about train people. We’ve all been given a bye on hocus-pocus. We talk to each other like animated toon townies.
Morning was in the low 50s. I stepped down from the Meteor and quickly found Ashland Coffee & Tea. There, over steaming mugs, David Hamilton explained that “trains are always here. They stop us — stop us from what we need to do. Stop us at the crossroads. They’re real important. They’re built into how we live.”
For Ashland jeweler Caroline Coronado, who rode trains between North Carolina and New York, that meant having somebody wake her up every time they came through Ashland.
“I wanted to see that cute little town with the college by the railroad tracks again, until one day I got off. I found an apartment available over a store, and I took it.”
Now Caroline and her husband Alvaro lead an active arts community in this Virginia town that’s as clean as a whistle.
Randolph-Macon College sits back from the tracks, and with mom-and-pop stores along leafy Railroad Avenue, roots the place. I-95 runs only a mile east.
Ashland’s town logo shows a cowcatcher locomotive. Restaurants call themselves Trackside Grill, Iron Horse Cafe and Caboose. There’s a Train Town Toy & Hobby, and shop windows post signs for the annual Race the Rail Run.
In the Pamunkey Regional Library, atop a table that elsewhere might hold a jigsaw puzzle, a model train sits in front of windows that kids rush to when trains pull in (almost 20 a day).
Instead of Amtrak managed, the Ashland Visitors Center occupies the fixed-up old depot. A restaurant, Homemades [cq] by Suzanne across the avenue, sells “bench lunches” for train watchers. Omer Grubbs, Jr. is one. Omer is retired from Winchester, where Patsy Cline lived, he tells me. He fools with racecars on dirt tracks. Used to drive 16,000 miles to race in nine states.
Now he takes train pictures. He says “people put quarters on the tracks nowadays. Weddings happen on the tracks.”
Suddenly he’s up from his bench shouting inside where folks are collecting brochures: “There’s one comin’ and there’s one goin’!”
Southern Pines NC
The magic of train towns captured me fully in the person of Kelly Peckels, when the Silver Star pulled into Southern Pines in late night rain. Kelly, who manages the Jefferson Inn, greeted me with an umbrella.
We walked to a rocking chair porch that opens to the inn through French doors below a glass transom. Patterned rugs cover squeaky floors beneath a pressed tin ceiling. A vase of roses sits on a table of regional magazines.
But when I complained that the room Kelly showed me was uncomfortably large, she right away showed me the “historic room,” which is to say, an original before a recent restoration that combined 22 rooms into 15.
“Perfect,” I said, whereupon Kelly, after explaining that these days people want more space, conceded that the room was also her favorite.
Southern Pines opens a Sandhills region once famous for turpentining before the Seaboard Air Line Railway turned Pinehurst and Aberdeen into an American golf capital. Southern Pines remains the train town.
No interstate exit threatens downtown. Instead, shops show an evolving green side: Green Goods for organic and recycled products, Gracefully Rustic for regional goods, the Moore County Farmers Market, a cycle shop, an outdoors trading store.
Broker Ed Rhodes, 35-year president of Rhodes & Co. Real Estate alongside the tracks, says he has never heard anyone wish the trains didn’t come through. “People I deal with certainly enjoy them. They absolutely improve our quality of life.”
Weymouth Center for the Arts and Humanities houses the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame and artist in residence programs. At the nearby Arts Council of Moore County, executive director Chris Dunn hosts beer tastings using mugs fired by regional potters. He books chamber musicians from around the world and, different from even many large cities, says “I let them program up to a quarter of atonal works.”
He also backs provocative theater; recently, playwright Ray Owen’s “Bleeding Pines of Turpentine.” The work recalls regional history in daily lives, including the depiction of blacks and whites who worked fields together, and as a result were both alike shunned.
Yemassee, where I began my train-town travels, is a downtown ruins.
In a push to revive the town’s future, the Yemassee Revitalization Committee in 2012 hosted an episode of a reality show called The Week the Women Went. YRC scraped together three-quarters of a million dollars to send its women away for a week while the men did something the town wanted. They upgraded the old depot.
For 50 years, the depot played host to Parris Island-bound Marine recruits and their easy spending. Then the Marines gave up on trains and I-95 bypassed town. Coastal resorts sprang up with an international airport. Plantations switched from rice farms to leisure retreats. Yemassee, its population old, welfare dependent and without cars, needed the train, but few else did.
Two scant retailing sections neighbor the tracks. After 40 years, Hughes General Store run by Roy and Margaret, sits with shelves of little but tinned vegetables, cold cuts and packets of Roach Motel, the back store heaped with housewares and dry goods.
“Come on back here,” called Roy in his coveralls and a Yemassee Marine Reunion cap, eating a plate of chicken. “Lemme talk to you. Have some dinner with us.“
Roy told me that into the ‘90s, he and Margaret (both in their mid-80s), had a big business with five helpers. “Then older people passed away, and the younger people don’t cook.”
Roy started the Marine reunion, but its numbers are down to a couple hundred. Major J.L. Goodwin, nearly 15 years in office, wants a Marine memorial next to city hall, but he looks to the Yemassee Revitalization Committee to make that and most anything else happen.
Paula Fletcher, who runs Fletcher’s Finds, a busy general store that serves food, chairs the YRC. She’s adding a licit moonshine and bourbon still to her place and wants a cyber café in the depot that, though remodeled, remains empty and closed.
I like the faded sign atop the Yemassee Church of the Lord Jesus Christ of Deliverance — if not the trashy trailer behind weed-strewn piles with a sign that says “Previous prices are dead.”
“I am The Questioner,” said Yisrael, who rode up on his Kulana Sun Fish beach cruiser and lives in the trailer. He told me that though people ask him questions “about different religions and stuff, I’ve learned it’s better to question things than make statements.”
That didn’t forestall a flourished reading of Revelations 21 about how the abominable, murderers, whoremongers, sorcerers, idolaters, and “all liars shall burneth with fire and brimstone; which is the second death”
Whereupon Yisrael, who prefers not to use his first name, described a feud with the town and the YRC over a vacant corner lot he also claims that until lately contained massive piles of his stuff. Yisrael has taught himself the law. Lawsuits go back and forth.
Yet even a brief visitor easily imagines Yemassee of the future, not just as transportation lifeline for locals but also as ecotourism hub of the region’s natural and cultural heritage.
Realms of public and private wealth surround town. Canopy roads set off the plantations. Owners cooperate with the ACE Basin Project that conserves 350,000 acres of diverse habitat prized by birders, paddlers and off-road cyclists.
“We see plenty of them already driving through,” says Mayor Goodwin.
The Nature Conservancy calls this one of the Last Great Places on Earth, no less for its nature as for its cultural history. Gullahs from West Africa transformed the basin of the Ashepoo, Combahee and South Edisto rivers into a prosperous rice growing economy that continued after emancipation. The legacy of Harriet Tubman suffuses the region, encompassed by the Congressionally enrolled Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor.
Then there’s Harold’s Country Club, a steakhouse, bar and dancehall in a converted downtown car garage with fan belts and radiator hoses still on the walls. Everybody shows up weekends, from plantation owners to coastal tourists, who continue to pump gas out front.
If Harold’s, why not also outfitters and guides in the depot? Plenty of historic homes for B&Bs. With its history and compelling natural gifts, why not Yemassee renewed in a green economy?
Herb Hiller writes critically about mainstream tourism and about one of a kind places. Two of his three books have won top awards of the Society of American Travel Writers Foundation and of the North American Travel Journalists Association. An expanded version of his story about Kearney appears in his book, “Unmarketed Travel. ” He lives in Deland, Florida.