Railroad Stories: Old Steam Trains Were Part of Childhood

Growing-up years were spent playing on old steam trains.

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The old steam trains were a big part of my growing-up years. I grew up on a cotton mill hill, within 50 feet from the railroad tracks. Our family was poor - my father had died when I was only a year old - so my mother worked very hard to support me, my sister, my grand-mother and herself. I can remember her making $35 a week.

Rent on our three-room house was deducted from her paycheck. It was based on the number of rooms you had. Our rent was 75 cents a week. Back then, if you missed a day of work, you didn't get paid for it, and yet you still had to pay rent. Out of the 45 years my mother worked, she missed a total of three days.

As a boy, my friends and I were known as mill hill cowboys. We would play on the old steam trains until someone saw us and made us move on. Then we would sit on the banks and watch the trains go by, waving at the passengers on board. It was always a thrill to see the people eating in the club car as they rolled past us.

We just knew they had to be rich.

Living so close to the train station and the round-house, where the trains were worked on, we got to see just about everything. We saw both passenger trains and freight trains, including livestock being shipped, which was very common back then.

We often pretended we were train robbers, but unlike Jesse and Frank James, our biggest haul consisted of a few watermelons and some coal, which was intended to help heat our house. The houses back then were extremely cold in the winter and very hot in the summer.

During the World War II years, my friends and I would stand on the banks and wave at the soldiers on the troop trains as they went by. We loved to see the tanks and jeeps being moved. When a troop train stopped, we would run to it and get drinks, candy and cigarettes for the soldiers.

They were always kind to us and threw small amounts of change to us. One time a soldier gave us $3 to mail a letter to his girlfriend back home. For that one day, the mill hill cowboys were rich, and we talked about that man for many years.

As teen-agers, we would sit on the banks and watch as a team of black men put railroad spikes down to hold the tracks together. They sang some of the saddest songs I've ever heard. I became friends with two of the men. Big Paul, who was 6'5" and weighed 275 pounds, and Little Mo, who was 5'8" and weighed about 160 pounds.

I never dreamt that 10 years later, I would become

Paul and Mo's hunting partner. This was something that did not happen in those days - a young white boy riding in the same car as two black men.

Something that was always hard for me to understand was that Paul and Mo worked all their lives for the railroad, yet when we all went down to the train station to rest and get something to eat and drink, they had to eat on one side, while I ate on the other.

I'm glad that before they died, we were able to sit down on the same side, in the train station, and share a sandwich and a Coke together.

The railroad station is long gone. No more trains come by, and the grass has grown up and covered the rails and banks where the mill hill cowboys played. Paul and Mo are gone too. But sometimes I close my eyes, and I hear Big Paul and Little Mo singing as the Silver Star pulls out of Raleigh, N.C.

Richard Dickerson
Raleigh, N.C.

Back in 1955 a call went out from the editors of the then Capper’s Weekly asking for readers to send in articles on true pioneers. Hundreds of letters came pouring in from early settlers and their children, many now in their 80s and 90s, and from grandchildren of settlers, all with tales to tell. So many articles were received that a decision was made to create a book, and in 1956, the first My Folks title – My Folks Came in a Covered Wagon – hit the shelves. Nine other books have since been published in the My Folks series, all filled to the brim with true tales from Capper’s readers, and we are proud to make those stories available to our growing online community.