Once upon a time the United States resembled today’s Europe in an interesting way. You could get to most places by train and very often did.
When I was in the first grade in Charlotte, I traveled by train fairly often. My dad worked for the Southern Railway. He and my mother and I rode free on his Company pass unless a Pullman sleeping car was involved.
Living in Charlotte, we were ex-pats living abroad. Our native land was Winston-Salem where my grandmother, the matriarch of the Thompson clan, held court at the center of the known world; that is, the world known to me and my cousins at the dawn of our public school years.
Just now I pulled up Google Earth on my Macintosh to try for the umpteenth time to figure out why, when going from Charlotte to Winston-Salem, there was any reason to change trains at Barber Junction; but I remember that we did that although the once-and-future Red Line from Charlotte to Mount Mourne goes straight through Barber to “Winston.” Somehow, though, we changed trains at Barber Junction—a rural railway intersection fourteen miles northeast of Mooresville.
Sometime, shortly before trains gave way to cars and airlines, I remember taking the train to Barber and “Winston.” We passed through Mount Ulla, whose name was emblazoned on the flour mill there. “What an unlovely name,” I remember thinking, “for a rather pretty place.”
Rail intersections like Barber were oddly menacing. A T-bone train wreck was a fearsome prospect and Barber Junction was a place where rail lines crossed at right angles.
From birth, I had been around railroad tracks. I knew that they merged gracefully into each other and diverged when necessary by means of switches. That they occasionally have to cross had not occurred to me.
Switches—not whistles or the rhythmic steam exhaust from cylinders—are the real vocal chords of trains, at least from the passenger’s perspective. Once they gave voice to the wheels beneath the coarse wool-upholstered passenger cars, just as the as the grooves of a phonograph record gave voice to the needle.
No one who remembers trains before Amtrak damped the wheel noise down to near silence ever heard a train say anything cute like “clickety-clack.”
Rather, they said “clack CLACK…clack CLACK” as the switches passed under the pair of wheels at the front, and then the rear, of the car.
It’s hard (though interesting) to try to imagine an arrangement of variously sized and distributed railroad car wheels that could translate a track switch into “clickety-clack.” The thought of riding such a contraption is daunting.
Occasionally, when driving the back way (NC 801) to “Winston,” I stop by Barber Junction (now just “Barber”) and try to recall what it was like back when. Today there is only cleared land where once there stood a restaurant that Dad and other railroad men liked a lot. It catered to layover passengers, transferring between the Mooresville-to-Winston line and the Salisbury-to-Taylorsville line, where they crossed at Barber.
In my mind’s eye, the building that contained the restaurant resembles an old western movie set like “High Noon”—complete with a wooden water tank for the refreshment of steam locomotives.
Traveling by Internet, you can see a picture of Barber Junction before the depot was removed: http://www.railpictures.net/viewphoto.php?id=278325&skip=1
From the vintage of the diesel locomotive passing the depot, you can tell that the photo depicts the Junction well past its prime.
Today, if you visit the North Carolina Transportation Museum in Spencer, you can see exactly what the 1898 Victorian depot building at Barber Junction looked like. It’s been lovingly disassembled and restored in Spencer, where it serves as the Museum’s ticket office.
In the early 1990s, my work included analysis of what the personal transportation environment of the future would be like.
No one who has ever been exposed to the transportation planning process has illusions that road building—even if boom times somehow produced enough money—can have much effect on congestion. For one thing, temporarily smooth-flowing traffic arteries attract more vehicles the way malignant tumors attract blood vessels.
In the 1980s, serious consideration was actually given to a strategy of just letting things bog down so that post-automotive transit systems would “self-assemble” out of the chaos!
Self-driving cars are as clever as Braille speedometers—unless self-building roads also rise up to carry them. But in some parts of the world there are mini-trams; pigmy streetcars that can run on disused rail lines with little track rehab required because the vehicles are so light. Self-driving min-trams, some using abandoned rail lines, sounds a lot simpler to implement than self-driving cars.
In a mini-tram world, Barber Junction might even rise again.
Mooresville’s Stan Thompson is a retired strategic planner and environmental futurist for AT&T. His column appears every other week in the Tribune. Email him at: HST2nd@aol.com.
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