© 2019 CR Britting
The eight-year-old boy always looked forward to going to Norlina. The North Carolina town was a major railroad switching point and he loved to go there with his uncle and watch the trains. The Seaboard Railroad mainline from New York to Miami passed through Norlina and if you got there at the right time of day you could see the Silver Star or even the Silver Meteor stop briefly to pick up passengers.
As a town, Norlina was barely more than a wide spot in the road, a reason for traffic on U.S. Route 1 to slow down briefly as travelers hurried to more important places. As a rail center, Norlina would not have been any different than any other small town except for one thing: The Seaboard also had a branch line running from the Norfolk, the Virginia seaport, to Norlina, where it joined with the mainline running north and south. And so, several times a day trains from various points would arrive in Norlina and either leave cars for later pickup or actually transfer cars from one train to another. Norlina had a 'Y' track, where locomotives could be physically turned around and a small switching yard where freight cars could be sorted and arranged into trains.
On this particular summer evening, the boy and his uncle got there at about eight o'clock. Shortly after that, a passenger train from Norfolk arrived. While some passengers were getting off and on at the front of the train, a switch engine attached itself to the rear. The eight-year old's eyes grew wide as he watched the crew working in the narrow space between the cars, disconnecting the air hoses and electrical connections. Finally, they unhooked the coupler, detaching the last three passenger cars from the rest of the train with the passengers still on board. A few minutes later the rest of the train departed, and the switch engine pulled the three passenger cars onto a side track.
In a little while, on the mainline, a Florida-bound train arrived. The "Sunland" originated in Richmond, Virginia and ran daily to Florida. During its brief stop in Norlina, the three cars from the Norfolk would be attached to the rear of the Sunland and become part of the train for rest of the trip south. When the train returned from Florida, the process would be reversed, and Norfolk passengers could complete their trip back home.
The boy and his uncle watched as the Sunland's big E4 locomotives passed them and disappeared around the curve. The baggage and mail cars came by next and finally, the passenger cars came to a stop directly opposite the station. Knowing from past experience the sequence of events, the boy turned and looked across the parking lot just in time to see the switch engine moving away with the three passenger cars. His excited eyes followed the small procession until it disappeared into the darkness.
In a moment he saw movement down the tracks and watched closely as the Norfolk passenger cars, having been switched onto the mainline, slowly approached the end of the waiting train. A small moving light caught his attention and when the cars got closer he could see a brakeman riding the first car, his lantern swinging back and forth as he signaled the switch engine’s engineer. Just then another brakeman appeared and walked onto the tracks behind the last car of the Sunland. He grabbed the huge, foot-high steel coupler, and with a grunt dragged it to the center position, assuring that it would line up correctly. Then he deftly stepped away just as the new cars reached him.
The boy watched closely as the first brakeman's lantern moved in a circle, slower and slower and slower. Finally, with hardly any jolt at all, the cars came together. Both brakemen crawled into the gap between cars and began to hook up the hoses and other connections. In less than a minute they were finished. The two men exchanged a brief smile and a word of greeting as they emerged from between the cars, then one mounted the train and the other hurried back to disconnect the switch engine.
Glancing towards the station, the boy saw the conductor come out, looking at his watch. "'Board!" he called, encouraging the last of the passengers to get on the train.
After the last passenger had boarded, the conductor picked up the footstool and placed it up on the train. Moving away to where he could see around the curve, he waved his lantern back and forth, signaling the engineer to proceed. His signal was answered by two short whistle blasts from the locomotive. The conductor hurriedly got aboard and lowered the floor covering the steps. In a few seconds, the train started to move. Just as he was about to close the door, the conductor happened to notice the boy watching. His face softened, perhaps remembering another wide-eyed boy, and he waved. The boy waved back and stood there watching until the train was out of sight.
"Gee, Uncle John," he said breathlessly, "that was fun. Can we come again tomorrow night?"
The fifty-year-old man chuckled and put his arm around the boy's shoulder as they walked back to the car. "Maybe so, Charles, we'll see."
* * * * * * * *
Now as I stand here once again, I remember it just like yesterday when in fact it happened nearly 70 years ago. The Seaboard abandoned it's Norfolk train in the 1950s and Norlina became just another station stop along the way. In the seventies, they discontinued stopping at Norlina altogether and passengers had to go to Henderson, eighteen miles away, to catch a passenger train which only stopped once a day in each direction. The last passenger train passed through Norlina in October 1986.
The citizens of Norlina made the station a historic landmark and each time I returned home over the years it was a reminder of days past. About ten years later the station burned down and today only the concrete platform remains. Weeds grow up through the cracks and dead leaves cover the area where passengers walked so long ago.
Over to my right, only a gravel roadbed remains where the mainline used to be, for the track from Norlina to Richmond was torn up in 1987. Only a line from Norlina to Raleigh remained for local freight and that was abandoned in 1996.
As I walk back to my car, my heart is filled with immense sadness, as if some cherished part of me is gone forever. It brings a wish for things long past, a return to yesterday.
I return to Norlina fairly often, since I was born in a town called Warrenton, about four miles down the road, and still have relatives there. I was last in Norlina in March 2019 and it looks much the same as it has for the last twenty-plus years. I still get the same intense feelings, even after all this time. I always walk through the station area when I go there and this time was no exception.
This is Norlina in the late 1960s or early 70s. Not sure of the date, but I actually got off the train here in 1966 and the station was still there at that time.
June 2019. This picture is remarkably similar to the pic above. The track on the left was where the Norfolk train originated behind the camera. In the distance ahead the track continues through the trees to Raleigh, NC, about 60 miles. In the upper picture, notice the two buildings behind the white shed on the right. Now check this picture. Yup, same buildings. How about that?
One other thought. In story, it refers to the Norfolk cars being attached to the end of the Sunland. Look in the upper picture to the track branching off the right. That track is how the Norfolk cars were moved over to the mainline. And if you look on the other side of the shed in the upper pic, you'll see a brownish looking track. That's the track that ran north to Petersburg and Richmond, Virgina.
One final thing to note: In the upper picture on the far right, there's a small brick structure with a memorial to the founding of Norlina. It's in the lower pic, too, but very small. That monument is shown below.