Hank, I Can't Hear That Lonesome Whistle Blow


My earliest childhood memories are of steam locomotives struggling up the long hill behind our house near Pittsburgh, PA, on the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Panhandle Division mainline that ran westward from Pittsburgh to St. Louis. The unfamiliar sounds of whistles and staccato exhaust were foreign and frightening to me, particularly when they woke me at three o'clock in the morning. The railroad behind our house was a great mystery, a place of strange noises made by strange beasts at all hours of the day and night. 

Williams Hank I Cant Hear Whistle

Photo by Bob Williams © 2007

My initial fright over the railroad across from our backyard ended when our neighbor, George Llewellyn, who worked for the Pittsburgh and West Virginia Railroad at the Rook roundhouse, explained to me why steam engines made so much noise. Soon, I began looking forward to hearing the locomotives approaching, knowing that a kindly engineer or fireman would smile and wave back at me. The sound of a multi-chime whistle echoing up the valley became my security blanket, a sign that everything was right in the world and that even in the dead of night, in pouring rain or blowing snow, there was a friendly soul out there.

After those first formative years, we somehow always managed to live near railroads, and being near Pittsburgh meant there were trains wherever we went. The trains ran close to all of my relative’s homes; they were near my schools; and we rode next to, under, or over them on our Sunday drives. I don’t think I even took notice of the transition from steam engines to diesels. They were still trains, and the engineers still waved.

Today, I live near Atlanta, a city created by the railroad, as were many of our cities in the south. In 1837, Georgia chartered the Western & Atlantic Railroad, which still exists and is still owned by the State, to operate from the Chattahoochee River northward to the Tennessee River at Ross’ Landing, later named Chattanooga.

The railroad’s southern terminus was defined as "some point not exceeding eight miles" from the southeastern bank of the Chattahoochee. State surveyor, Stephen Long, marked the spot by driving a stake into the ground in the Georgia wilderness and pronouncing the site “a good place for a tavern, a blacksmith s shop, a general store and nothing else.”

The most southern point on the Western & Atlantic was named Terminus. However, in 1843 it was renamed Marthasville in honor of the governor's daughter. Two years later, J. Edgar Thompson, the chief engineer for the Georgia Railroad and later the Pennsylvania Railroad, who built the PRR’s Horseshoe Curve, renamed the town Atlanta.

Atlanta thrived as a railroad town until the Civil War when Union General William Tecumseh Sherman did a bit of urban renewal around the city. After the retreating Confederates blew up 81 boxcars filled with gunpowder, creating the huge fire made famous in the movie version of “Gone with the Wind,” Sherman had his Bluecoats pile up every railroad car, wagon, and anything they couldn't carry with them in Union Depot and burn it.

Atlanta was gone, but it rose again phoenix-like from the ashes. Five years later, Henry Grady, editor of the Atlanta Constitution, said, "I want to say to General Sherman, who is considered an able man in all parts, though some people think he is a kind of careless man with fire, that from the ashes he left us in 1864, we have raised a brave and beautiful city."

I’m not near the railroads any longer. I can't hear a train whistle from my home in Roswell, northeast of Atlanta. Event my daily commute to work doesn't take me near a railroad. If it were not for weekly "fixes" working on the Blue Ridge Scenic tourist railroad in North Georgia, I would be going crazy. I miss the sound of a locomotive horn in the night. I need that feeling of security I had as a child living across the street from the former Standard Railroad of the World.