The Blue Ridge Scenic Railway ended its 1999 season last Saturday. The railroad carried 26,000 passengers, 53 percent more than its inaugural season, but still lost $30,000. I guess that means there will not be any raises. Oh well, what is one more zero on the paycheck? I do this for love, not money. Hopefully, this will be our last year in the red. We are adding three more cars to the train next year, and that should allow us to carry the 40,000 riders we are projecting as we expand our schedule to Thursday through Monday.
It was a fine day for our final trip, partly cloudy and in the mid-40’s in the morning, clear and sunny with a high in the mid-60’s in the afternoon. Most of the leaves were off the trees, but the pines, holly, and mountain laurel provide some color, especially when contrasted with the bright red seed pods remaining on the bay sumac that lines our route along the river. Blue Ridge is only 1,700 feet above sea level and the weather isn’t much different than Atlanta, but the sky is bluer, the pine trees are greener, and the air is cleaner.
Our final day of operation was only marred by the news that Marvin, our mechanic, lost his father to cancer earlier in the week. We all signed a sympathy card and got back to the business of running the train, but we sure missed not seeing Marvin at the crossings and talking with him on the radio. Even though Marvin does not actually ride the train, he is our guardian angel, following along in his yellow pickup truck, flagging the road crossings and standing by to help whenever we have problems. Marvin and I have become the A-Team when it comes to dumping the sanitary tanks, and he has taught me a lot about the intricacies of railroading. Estimating distances in railroad car lengths or knowing how far the train will roll after you tell the engineer to stop is not something you learn in school. Even a simple act like coupling and uncoupling cars requires some skill. You can always tell the railroaders who learned their job the hard way; they are usually missing a finger or two.
The highlight of our last trip was bringing Santa and Mrs. Claus into Blue Ridge for the Christmas parade. They were the only passengers on the train and rode with me in the open-air car. I stayed out of their way but did manage to get a few pictures for Alice. She still believes in Santa, and that is why I love her. I appreciate her keeping the joy of Christmas in our house even though the kids are grown. As for me, I guess I have turned into a Bah Humbugger over the years. It is not that I do not enjoy Christmas (notice that I still spell it out), it is just that it has become so commercial. I think it really hit me when I walked over to the mall one day and noticed that they put Santa Land right across from Frederick’s of Hollywood. By the way, the Santa and Mrs. Claus who rode our train are British and live south of Blue Ridge in a town called Ellijay that, appropriately enough, is located on the Ellijay River. Santa has been here for 29 years, has a bushy white beard, twinkling eyes, and a great sense of humor. He is also booked solid every weekend between Thanksgiving and Christmas. No one questioned why he came to town on a train instead of a sleigh pulled by eight reindeer.
After we tied up the train (figuratively speaking) on Saturday evening, we had our end of season awards banquet, compliments of the railroad’s owner. All the principles gave each other awards, just like they did last year, all the while talking about how important the volunteers are and that they could not run the railroad without them. Someone gave the owner and the other big wigs framed photographs of the first trainload of logs shipped from Blue Ridge in twenty years. (We have a contract to haul logs for a lumber company just down the tracks from the depot.) I remarked to one of the volunteers sitting with me that I wondered why they did not give out framed photos of us emptying the sanitary tanks. I guess it bothers me that the volunteers are never recognized individually. The passengers fill out comment cards each trip and 90 percent of them compliment the car hosts, often by name. I do not know why we do not read some of those comments out loud and acknowledge the volunteers who earned those accolades. Besides, my name is on a lot of those cards. But hey, I won a poinsettia. I never claimed the prize, but I had the winning number; I just played dumb (easy for me) and let them draw another number. Somebody more deserving than me won it, and that is the way it should be. Anyway, I have too much fun working on the train to need any recognition. I get my reward when we leave and arrive on time, and we do not hurt any passengers or crew in the process. A bad day for me is leaving town one minute past our scheduled departure time. (Bob’s story continues below)
A brief History of the BRSR
The BRSR is a subsidiary of the Georgia Northeastern Railroad (itself a subsidiary of Patriot Rail), but the BRSR was a project of the Blue Ridge community before any railroad was interested. It had nowhere to run until Georgia DOT stepped in and purchased, then leased to the GNRR the tracks from Blue Ridge to the Tennessee Line. That’s still the arrangement today. Those tracks can be traced to first,the Ellijay Railroad, then most famously the historic Marietta & North Georgia, then the L&N and CSX.
I spent Saturday night at the Days Inn (railroad discount) because I was too tired to drive home. I watched part of a James Bond movie, an old one with Roger Moore; I think it was “Moonraker.” Then I read some short stories and poems from “The Oxford Book of the Sea.” You know, the “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and stuff like that; it helps me keep my sea legs so to speak. I fell asleep reading a passage from Conrad’s “The Heart of Darkness,” which was the basis for that famous post-Vietnam War classic “Taco Lips Now.”
I cannot sleep in motel rooms, so I woke up at 4:30 on Sunday morning, couldn’t get back to sleep, and decided to pack my things and head back down the four-lane to Atlanta. Just as I crested the hill coming out of Blue Ridge (which, by the way, is the continental divide between waters that flow into the Tennessee River basin and those that flow to the Gulf of Mexico), I saw the western sky light up with a blue glow. I thought, “That can’t be sunrise; it’s on the wrong side of the road. So, it’s either one hell of a thunderstorm or somebody set off a nuke!” I could see for miles, all the way to the horizon. And then a meteor came streaking in low from north to south, trailing a bright orange tail before burning out just above the horizon. Talk about a religious experience. I could not have come up with a better way to end the season on the Blue Ridge Scenic Railway. Two hours later, as a beautiful sunrise lighted my way, I pulled into the driveway, greeted by Foxy Lady wagging her rear end because she does not have a tail, and Alice looking at me through bloodshot eyes after a long night of putting up Christmas decorations. “Hi, Honey! I’m home!”
Author’s Note: This was written at the end of my second season as a conductor on the Blue Ridge Scenic Railway, a tourist line running between Blue Ridge, GA and Copperhill, TN. The railroad was still struggling that year because we were a new operation located 75 miles north of the Greater Atlanta metropolitan area, our biggest market.
Blue Ridge was a sleepy little mountain town that never recovered from the economic effect of the L&N Railroad moving its locomotive shops to Etowah, TN in the early 1900s. The tracks between Ellijay, GA and Copperhill had been abandoned by CSX in 1986, and the right-of-way taken over by the State of Georgia Transportation Department, but with no plans to restore rail service.
The scenic railway was the brainchild of the Georgia Northeastern Railroad, the Atlanta Chapter of the NRHS, and Fannin County Georgia, and began operating in June 1998 with a switcher and several passenger cars. The BRS is still in operation, carrying 78,000 passengers in 2020, and Blue Ridge is a thriving city.