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What kind of day did you have?

Being clear of an L&N track was not enough to keep one motorist out of harm’s way
20140604TWIW
Bystanders inspect a sedan deluged with coke during a derailment of an L&N train in Chattanooga.
C. K. Marsh Jr.
One day in 1965, a friend and I were searching for the obscure terminal of the Tennessee, Alabama & Georgia Railroad in the Alton Park section of Chattanooga. Coming up on a railroad crossing, we decided to parallel the line in hopes of intersecting the TAG. The edge of the street was right at the end of the ties.

Within two blocks we spied a Louisville & Nashville switch crew approaching with a short cut of cars. As its shadow passed over us (yes, it was that close), we noted a 50-ton-capacity hopper car with extended sides rocking ap­­preciably as it made its way toward downtown along with a dozen loads and empties. Within another couple of blocks we determined this was not the route to the TAG, so we turned around and drove back along the L&N track.

As we approached the original crossing we’d found earlier, we observed a stunning sight. That hopper car, a load of coke, had turned over into the street. A hapless driver was waiting to turn right at the crossing as soon as the train passed. The wayward hopper car did not strike his vehicle, but the lading came out like a tidal wave, flooding the car with coke, beating the sheet metal into a dented mess, breaking out the windows, and flattening all four tires. There was a dark, dusty cloud over the entire scene. I jumped out of our car and observed the motorist, still behind the wheel, right up to his neck in coke. When I opened his door, coke spilled out into my shoes and pants as I helped him get out of the car.

Moments before, he had been an ordinary-looking white man, but now he was black over every visible surface. Since he was not hurt, we did not stay around for the police investigation, but I’ve often wondered what he told his family around the dinner table that night about his day.

First published in Summer 2007 Classic Trains magazine.


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Before Penn Central

Before Penn Central

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