The Last Locomotive North
by Kent Fletcher
I read Lonnye Sue Pearson’s memoir at USADEEPSOUTH.COM about the last passenger train to run out of Cleveland, Mississippi, and a lot of poignant memories popped up about the old ICRR (Illinois Central Railroad).
Lonnye Sue wrote she finally got to ride that last passenger train to Greenville and back with her brother and her father. I sort of remember seeing that train on that particular day, but to my knowledge I never rode it to Greenville, or even Boyle. My rides were always north to Memphis, where either my grandmother or grandfather or both would pick me up. If my grandmother picked me up, we were off in short order to Goldsmith’s downtown, the one where a parking garage was on Front Street, or was it Beale Street? We would get to the department store by way of a tunnel under the street. Coming out of the tunnel into the basement entrance, the wild and wonderful smells of fresh breads and chocolates would literally fill up my senses. I could have waited there for my grandmother, Mrs. Mack, but she never would let me, instead she’d drag me off to the fabric department where she purchased her sewing needs.
However, if Mr. Mack picked me up, the trip to Round Pond, Arkansas, was pretty determined and straightaway. We’d take the old Mississippi River Bridge across to West Memphis, Arkansas, at a leisurely pace, connecting with US Highway 70. Many, many years later, Interstate Highway 40 would parallel Highway 70, but that was the farthest thing from my mind. I remember going through several small towns, including Lehi and Shearerville and Shell Lake, before finally arriving at Hicks Station and turning south on State 75.
In a week or ten days, I’d be taken back to Memphis to ride the ICRR passenger train to Cleveland. And this was all during the steam engine days. There was always a thick cloud of black smoke belching from the stack at the front of the engine, trailing for miles behind the last car on the train. I liked to get out on the platform on the last car and watch the rails fade away behind the train. Funny thing though, when the train stopped for whatever reason, my vision was skewed--seemed as if the tracks and the surroundings were coming back at me. Optical illusion, I guess.
My father, Johnny Fletcher, was always trying to find that elusive invention that would allow him to do other things, and he instilled a futuristic thingy in my brain. I remember riding the rails once to Memphis and thinking about the possibilities of injuries or deaths as a result of a train collision or derailment. The idea of seatbelts never came up, but the possibilities of some sort of balloon or airbag that would pop up in front of a passenger just before impact did. And what are in most if not all late-model cars today? Yep, airbags. Back then, of course, an idea like this coming from a young whippersnapper in Mississippi would not have been taken any more seriously than the notion that snow would strike the Delta in the summertime. But what if I had seriously pursued the idea?
While Lonnye Sue remembers the last passenger train to Greenville and back, I definitely remember the last steam locomotive rolling north to Memphis. I remember standing on the tracks at Sunflower Road and watching this big, black, dirty, lumbering hulk pour smoke out the stack as the pressure built to haul the freight north. Man, what an impressive sight that was.
Closing my eyes, I can still see that last train. I see the past rolling out of sight into the history books and into the memories of the Baby Boom generation. Sure, railroad buffs have found and refurbished some of the old steam engines and passenger cars from yesteryear. They charge us beaucoup bucks just to get onboard and feel and dream of the times gone by. But those of us who were fortunate enough to have ridden those trains, to have gazed upon them, and to wonder at the awesomeness of them, have something that our children and our children’s children will never know.
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