Let’s give some thanks for the railroad

I’m out on one of my first days this spring, enjoying a bicycle ride from one end of Atlanta to the other. The quality of the experience is directly related to the repurposing of abandoned railroad lines in our city, primarily by the Path Foundation. Without the dedication of large tracts of real estate to railroad lines for about 150 years, it would be today be impossible to enjoy a quiet ride thru Atlanta, close to nature, and with a pretty privileged view of the “back side” of the city.

Railroads were designed to be out of sight, and with minimal interruption to pedestrians and street traffic. Quite a lot of expensive construction and landscaping went into that, more and more as you get into most densely populated areas. Ask yourself while driving through Atlanta and nearby, where do you sit and wait for trains to pass? Not a lot of places I’d imagine. But trains are getting around nonetheless. Freight trains remain an important part of our transportation grid. As population density goes up, trains more often go over dedicated bridges. When it goes up more, the trains in Atlanta usually go under the roads thru tunnels. If you’re looking ahead of you, you don’t even know they’re there. While railroads remain important, their role has certainly declined from it’s heyday in the early to mid-1900s. Economic realities in the changing landscape of transportation technology have resulted in more and more rail lines getting abandoned and left just sitting there.

While that opens a “land of opportunity” for me as a bicyclist riding the repurposed lines, happiness is not the only emotion I’m left with. My family was instrumental in helping build up railroads from the early days, to their rise in both passenger and freight transportation, and ultimately their decline, as trucks, automobiles, air travel, and (as always) water transport dominated. My father, Robert Stovall Jr, was the president of the Columbus and Greenville (C&G) railroad company. His father, Robert Stovall Sr, was the president before him, and his father, Adam Tonquin Stovall founded the C&G. I came along when railroads were in decline. My first employment was at the railroad when I was ten years old. Most of what I remember about that is unloading railcars used to transport damaged groceries (like dented cans of food or bags or flour busted open). The C&G would sell this food to farmers to feed their livestock, and I was there to help load it for them. Ultimately the C&G was sold to Illinois Central in about 1972, as they couldn’t continue given the economic conditions, as small operations like ours got bought up in big mergers.

But today I’m out on my bicycle, and feeling a special kinship with the railroad as I ride the Southside Beltline Trail towards downtown Atlanta. Guthrie’s song rings in my head as I cruise along, rolling past houses, farms, and fields. Riding mile after mile, the landscape and views change constantly. There’s no need to hurry or get out of anybody’s way. The scenery includes riding alongside the backyards of neighborhoods, the backside of factories and other industry, and with a up-close and personal view of city infrastructure like big powerplants and other stuff you’re not meant to see. The advertising you see is not there for you. It’s a show of pride by the small business owners that built that place. In some cases what you see ahead might as well be rural. And all the while, you breeze past big and small roads and interstates as though they’re not even there, increasingly thru long tunnels that seem like they were all constructed just for your enjoyment. They were in fact built at great monetary cost and labor that was expended for a completely different reason of course. There’s something sort perfect about that for me. A chance to be both sad and happy, and with uninterrupted solitude in which to experience that to the fullest.

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