Waiting for this a long time

Staff WriterJuly 11, 2009 

When the first train reached our new passenger station at 7:20 a.m. Wednesday, it defied a Durham tradition.

It got here on time.

You may recall the last time Durham opened a new train station. It was a bright and sunny morning, 13 years to the day before this week's opening arrival, and a great crowd of very important people turned out to be seen at, and some actually to see, the ceremonies honoring the first train into the "Amshack."

They waited, expectant and excited. They waited. They sweated. The appointed time came, and they waited and sweated some more. And more.

By the time the train showed up an hour late, just about everybody had gone back to work.

Mechanical troubles back up the line was the excuse given. But trains and bad timing have a history in our town.

Who can forget the inaugural "street opera" at Brightleaf Square? -- "Carmen," in 1985. Durham's best and brightest turned out, 500 strong in their evening finery and rented tuxedos. The feared rain held off, everything was going fine and it came time for baritone Bradley Robinson to cut loose with "The Toreador Song" -- and a train started blowing its horn.

Blew the whole dang song away, sure did. Similarly, a local troupe was once doing a Sherlock Holmes play on East Campus. Dr. Watson was fretting about the villains getting away by rail, but Holmes reassured him, "There are no trains at this hour."

Guess what.

Legend has it, the very first train to Durham was late. That would have been back in March 1855 and the story goes that then, too, a good crowd had gathered to see this newfangled wonder. They waited. And waited.

Eventually, an old character called "Wash" got bored and thirsty, so he rode his horse to the nearest saloon and got himself a jug to wait with. Just as he got back to the track, the train arrived, blowing its steam whistle long and loud. The horse bucked, Wash hit the ground, the jug got smashed and Mrs. Wash cried "Glory be!" as all that corn whiskey soaked into the ground.

Demon Alcohol aside, trains and timing proved too much for Durham's original Baptists, too. Their first meeting house was about where the county jail now stands, close to the original Durham's Station at the present-day Corcoran Street grade crossing. The church was only five years old when the railroad started running, but the trains disrupted so many services and spooked so many congregational horses that the good folk packed up and removed to quieter quarters on what would become Cleveland Street.

Trains, though, are something Durham just has to live with, and, after all, if it wasn't for the railroad there wouldn't be any Durham. Before the trains, there was just farmland and some taverns of ill repute along the Hillsborough-Raleigh road and it wasn't until the post office and depot set up that a village took root around them.

So it's only fitting that the town now has a nice new place for trains to roll into. But the very important people did give it two days after the start of business before they called the crowds to see the ritual ribbon cutting. One figures that was just to get the last kinks out -- and maybe it means a lesson's been learned about trains and timing and this Bull City of ours.

jim.wise@nando.com or 932-2004

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