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Magic carpet to Durham

For a boy on his first train ride, a humble mixed was like the Crescent Limited

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Southern Railway 2-8-0 No. 400 powered a boy’s “magic carpet” mixed train to Durham, N.C.
Curt Tillotson Jr. collection
What an adventure this was for a 7-year-old, impressionable young man, already a lover of trains. Indeed, every minute of the 4-hour trip from Stovall to Durham, N.C. (approximately 45 miles), is still fresh in my mind even though it happened many, many years ago.

My family decided to go shopping in Durham, an all-day event. Since I had shown such a fascination for trains, Dad suggested that I, along with Grandmother, ride the mixed train from Stovall (Mom’s hometown) to Durham, where they would pick us up at the grand Union Station in the “Bull City.” I jumped at the chance!

Stovall was on the Southern Railway’s old Richmond Division, the line from East Durham to Keysville, Va. Grandfather was a Southern section foreman, responsible for the tracks from Stovall to the Virginia state line, and two of my uncles were locomotive engineers who operated trains on this line. In this, the steam era, it was worked by the small but beautiful H-4 class 2-8-0’s—for my money, the finest group of Consolidations on any railway’s roster.

Train 67 arrived in Stovall that wonderful day in June at 9:30 a.m. in the charge of No. 400, an H-4 with white trimmed driving wheels. The 2-8-0 came to a stop with 15 freight cars and a combine on the rear rather than a caboose. The combine was divided into two parts: half handled express and l.c.l., and half accommodated passengers. There was no air-conditioning, you just opened a window to allow the breeze to pass through . . . plus cinders, the glorious smell of coal smoke, and the magnificent sound of the stack talk from that wonderful 2-8-0 up front.

I had my ticket in a “death grip” as we boarded and Grandma allowed me to sit next to the window. Mom, for reasons I never understood, dressed me for my trip in a white shirt, white short pants, white shoes, and a white cap. By the time we arrived in Durham, smoke and cinders had altered my white get-up considerably.

At 9:40 the engineer blew his whistle twice, and with a gentle lurch my adventure began. Moving along with slack running in and out at 25 mph, and at times a blistering 35, we made good time to Oxford, N.C., my hometown.

Once in Oxford, the train had nearly 2 hours of work to do, so we sat there as the sun heated up our car. There were five other passengers on board, along with Grandmother and yours truly, who had a smile on his face during the entire journey.

While in Oxford, our locomotive ran around us, coupled onto our combine, and did more work in the yard. What an exciting time I had looking at the “face” of this 2-8-0 while it shuffled from track to track.

Finally we departed Oxford, continuing our southward trip with only one stop remaining, Camp Butner (now Butner), N.C. Thousands of German and Italian prisoners of war had been housed here during World War II. We had a few loads to drop off and three or four empties to pick up, all of which took about 40 minutes.

After Camp Butner it was on to East Durham. Once there, No. 67 went around the wye, entered Southern’s Greensboro-Goldsboro line (the Danville Division) and backed up to Durham’s beautiful Union Station. At the time, it served not only the Southern but also Norfolk &Western’s Durham-Lynchburg line and the Seaboard Air Line’s Durham-Oxford-Henderson line.

While our train backed toward the station, I was standing in the doorway along with the conductor. I spotted two of the dainty-looking but powerful Durham & Southern 2-10-0’s getting a train ready for a run to Apex and Dunn, N.C. I even saw a Seaboard 0-6-0 switcher working around the little yard. It was a thrill watching the shiny rails pass under our train.

Much too soon we arrived at the station. Mom, Dad, and two aunts were there to greet us as Grandmother and I left our “magic carpet” which had brought us from Stovall to “the big city.”

Mom had an odd look on her face when she saw me. I looked down and immediately understood why. My white outfit was now off-white and spotted with numerous black marks. I looked like a Dalmatian, all as a result of the open window on our combine and the smoke produced by 400’s exhaust. I felt like a veteran returning from combat, the black spots being medals to prove my courage.

On our way back home that afternoon I could not stop talking about my experiences and, for several nights thereafter, I had dreams of what was an event in my life that will remain with me until I go to that big roundhouse in the sky.

Never will the other train rides I have taken over the years match, for sheer enjoyment, that Stovall-to-Durham journey. Thank you Mom, Dad, Grandmother, Southern Railway, and engine 400 for such a wonderful time, back in an era of a more gentle pace of life when little things meant so much.


First published in Spring 2003 Classic Trains magazine.

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