Past Times

Glory days of rail travel in NC were gone by the 1950s

Passengers at Raleigh’s Seaboard Station could look forward to modern comforts in their travels.
Passengers at Raleigh’s Seaboard Station could look forward to modern comforts in their travels. File photo

By the mid 20th century, traveling around the country by rail was starting to give way to more modern modes of transportation. In 1956, Associated Press writer Reese Hart took a look at the history and state of train travel in North Carolina.

Remember how families used to flock to railroad stations on Sunday afternoon to see passenger trains come and go? They held a fascination for young and old. And remember the pot-bellied stoves in the depot waiting rooms?

These are nostalgic memories of a by-gone era in North Carolina’s history of passenger trains. In the early twenties, passenger train travel in North Carolina swept to a record peak. Today, it has dwindled to its lowest point, according to Clarence H. Noah, Traffic Director for the State Utilities Commission.

In contrast, railroad freight service is in the midst of its best business in history, Noah said.

Of 30 railroads operating in North Carolina, only four now have passenger trains: Southern Railway, Atlantic Coast Line, Seaboard, and Norfolk & Western.

Automobiles, buses and airplanes have combined to make deep inroads into train travel. Noah said automobiles “have been just as injurious to bus travel” as to trains.

Passenger trains enjoyed their best business during the twenties. Then came the bleak depression years and business was poor. In an effort to bolster sagging revenues, some railroads operated excursions at reduced rates. As an example, the Seaboard once ran an excursion from Hamlet to Wrightsville Beach and return for $1.25 per person.

Beach excursions were a part of the passenger train picture in the twenties, Noah recalled.

“They ran beach excursions,” he said “just about every weekend during the summer. I thought I was missing something if I didn’t go on one of the excursions. Most of my trips were from Raleigh to Norfolk. We would stay up all night during the trip, singing and having a good time. At dawn, we would arrive at the beach and go fishing or swimming. That night on the return trip we would get some sleep.”

In those days a round trip excursion fare from Raleigh to Norfolk – a combined distance of 346 miles – was $4. At present, the regular coach fare for a round trip is $8.70.

Passenger train rates are cheaper than they were 33 years ago. Noah pointed out that the present rate is 2.78 cents per mile, compared with 3.03 in 1922 and 3.51 in 1848. The lowest rate was 1.92 in 1942.

During World War II, railroad travel boomed. Gasoline and tire rationing caused many motorists to turn to trains or buses. The heavy flow of servicemen swelled travel. But after the war years the railroads began to feel the pinch worse than ever.

Noah said some railroad men are “very optimistic” that new type passenger trains will help solve their maintenance and operating costs and at the same time lure people back to railroad travel.

New type trains, offering more comfort to travelers and more economy for the railroads, are being used experimentally on the Pennsylvania Railroad, The New York Central, and the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad.

Except for terminals in the big cities like Charlotte, Winston-Salem and Raleigh, railroad stations are all but deserted today, a silent reminder of a once busy era.

The familiar water tanks at depots have gradually disappeared with the passing of the steam locomotive. The Norfolk & Western, Noah said, is the only railroad operating in the state which still uses steam locomotives. A few years ago when Southern Railway switched to diesel locomotives, complaints came in from some persons living near the tracks, bemoaning the passing of the steam whistle. The Southern restored the whistle in place of the diesel horn, but it didn’t have a true “steam” tone.

Digging into files and books on railroads, Noah came up with some interesting facts on North Carolina railroads. The earliest passenger trains were not heated. He said that “in the 1840’s urchins along the railroad earned small change by selling hot bricks and hot stones to passengers for foot warming.

“Gradually, wood-burning or coal-burning stoves were introduced. These were usually installed at the ends of the car, but in some instances the stove was in the center of the car. Hot water heaters gradually replaced stoves during the 1860’s and 1870’s.” Today, modern passenger cars are air-conditioned.

Noah said that in 1952 a streamlined train consisting of a two-unit diesel locomotive, nine passenger cars, a dining car, mail car, and a baggage car cost approximately $1,700,000.

No figures are available for North Carolina, but in 1920 – the peak year of passenger train travel – railroads in the southern states transported 150,917,730 passengers. The N&O Jan. 29, 1956

Read more stories from local and state history and send us your own stories on the blog Past Times, newsobserver.com/past-times.

Leonard: 919-829-4866 or tleonard@newsobserver.com

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