Three Southern Towns

Passenger trains figure large through the Northeast, along the California coast and centered on Chicago. Elsewhere, they’re a lifeline for towns no longer served by bus and for people that don’t drive cars.

I ride trains by choice and never tire of looking out windows at woods barely beyond touch, captured by misty mornings and the nighttime assemblies of riders waiting to board from under old platform sheds in dim light.

I’ve also wondered about the importance of trains to the small towns where they stop, and not just for the passengers who ride them. How do trains animate their towns, or how might they again?

I looked for answers in three Southern towns where trains run up main street. You too may find that riding trains helps refocus your own America.

Yemassee, S.C. – The depot potential

Yemassee in 2012 prepared the comeback of its trackside downtown in an unusual way.

A BBC reality show chose to film an episode in its series that sends the women of a town away for a week while the men stay behind to, well, in the case of Yemassee, restore the train depot. The depot is Yemassee’s visitor face. For years it sat shuttered. Yet four trains a day stop in this town of 1,000 with two lively businesses, a few that make do, and otherwise the hulls of buildings of a once-busy railroad town. Yemassee scraped together a quarter-million dollars for its 60 minutes of fame plus reruns.

Yet nobody rented space at the restored depot. Le Creuset didn’t re-open its kitchen goods warehouse that it had already relocated closer to I-95. Residents still had to make do with a post office in a trailer. No additional cars noticeably rumbled across the tracks between I-95 and nearby Lowcountry resorts.

It was the traffic-diverting completion of I-95 in the mid 1970s that bottomed Yemassee out. Decline had begun a decade before when the Marine Corps closed its Yemassee barracks. Across 60 years, a half-million easy-spending recruits had passed through.

However, even a brief visitor easily imagines Yemassee of the future, not just the rail gateway for coastal vacations but also the ecotourism hub of the region’s natural and cultural heritage.

Realms of public and private wealth surround the town. Canopied roads set off plantations, where owners come winters to hunt and entertain. They cooperate with the ACE Basin Project that conserves 350,000 acres of diverse habitat prized by birders, paddlers and off-road cyclists.

“We see plenty of them already driving through,” says Mayor J.L. Goodwin.

The Nature Conservancy calls this one of the Last Great Places on Earth, no less for its nature as for its cultural history. Gullahs from West Africa transformed the basin of the Ashepoo, Combahee and South Edisto rivers into a prosperous rice growing economy that continued after emancipation. The legacy of Harriet Tubman suffuses the region, encompassed by the Congressionally enrolled Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor.

Then there’s Yemassee’s hip side.

Paula Fletcher’s general store is where you get breakfast and lunch among the art and quilts, and news about the Yemassee Revitalization Committee that she chairs. Plans call for installing the post office in the depot along with maybe a cyber cafe. Paula’s own plans call for adding a micro-distillery for what’s called “licit moonshine” and bourbon. “We’d be third in the state and first in Hampton County. We’d capture a lot of people off I-95,” she says.

And there’s Harold’s Country Club, a steakhouse, bar and dancehall in a converted downtown car garage with fan belts and radiator hoses still on the walls — what placemaking is all about. Everybody shows up weekends, from plantation owners to tourists, who can still pump gas out front.

If Harold’s, why not outfitters and guides also in the depot? Plenty of historic homes for B&Bs. With its history and compelling natural gifts, why not Yemassee renewed in a green economy?

Ashland, Va. – Capitalizing on the train

Eleven dollars and 15 minutes will get you north by train from Richmond to Ashland, a bedroom town of 7,500.

Same as in Yemassee, there’s no functioning passenger depot, but with seven times Yemassee’s population and home to 1,500 students, faculty and staff at Randolph-Macon College alongside Railroad Avenue, trains figure large in Ashland life.

Some 50 trains pass a day, including 10 each way that connect passengers between Richmond and Amtrak points north to Boston. The town logo shows a cowcatcher locomotive. Restaurants call themselves Trackside Grill, Iron Horse Cafe and Caboose. There’s a Train Town Toy & Hobby, and shop windows post signs for the annual Race the Rail Run.

Instead of an Amtrak-managed train station, the fixed-up old depot houses the Ashland Visitors Center. “Homemades by Suzanne” across the avenue sells “bench lunches” for train watchers, some of whom put pennies on the tracks for trains to flatten.

In the Pamunkey Regional Library, atop a table that elsewhere might offer a jigsaw puzzle, there’s a model railroad set in front of windows that kids rush to when trains stop.

Trains have enriched the town, starting in the 1840s when the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac line started Slash Cottage (later Ashland) as a mineral spa. In 1868 a boys school relocated in search of a better future in a railroad town. That’s today’s co-ed Randolph-Macon.

Trains equally root Ashland’s psyche.

One morning over steaming mugs at Ashland Coffee & Tea, David Hamilton explained to me, “the train is always here. It stops us — stops us from what we need to do. Stops us at the crossroads. The trains are real important. They’re built into how we live.”

A Mr. L. Thompson, a track crossing guard at England Avenue, drove a school bus for 20 years, ran a cab service with his father until 2010, and now, with an assigned parking space beside the depot, comes out mornings for an hour and afternoons again to make sure kids and older folks know trains are coming. People wave and shout hello!

I like how Caroline Coronado arrived. Caroline, a jeweler, rode trains between North Carolina and New York.

“Every time, I would tell somebody to wake me up when we came through Ashland. I wanted to see that cute little town again with the college by the railroad tracks. One day I got off. I heard of an apartment available over a store. I took it.” Now she and her husband Alvaro help lead an active arts community enriched by Richmond train visitors, by Randolph-Macon faculty and staff and by students’ parents.

That experience of Caroline isn’t all that unusual, says Lou Flanagan, founder of Caldwell Banker Dew Realty on Railroad Avenue. “The tracks absolutely add value. People have stopped in the office just off the train to learn what the town is like. That row of Victorians just south of the business district? They sell high — at least those in good condition — just because they’re close to the tracks. That’s a selling feature here.”

Best news I heard while in town was that, while the old Henry Clay Inn beside the depot was closing, Ashland’s Herald Progress newspaper was relocating downtown after 20-plus years out near the municipal airport.

Trains run. Town thrives.

Southern Pines, N.C. – A railway retreat

The magic of train towns captured me in the person of Kelly Peckels, when Train 91 pulled into Southern Pines in a late night rain. Kelly, who manages the Jefferson Inn, a block from the train platform on Broad Street, greeted me with an umbrella.

We walked a block to a rocking chair porch that opens to the inn through French doors below a glass transom. Cut glass chandeliers burnish lobby columns, comfy armchairs and exposed sprinkler pipes. Rugs cover squeaky oak floors beneath a pressed tin ceiling, sections of glass in bulls eye surrounds, and a vase of roses on a table of regional magazines.

But when I complained that the room Kelly showed me was uncomfortably large, she right away showed me the “historic room,” which is to say, an original before a recent inn restoration that combined 22 rooms into 15.

“Perfect,” I said, whereupon Kelly, after explaining that these days people want more space, conceded that the room was also her favorite.

Southern Pines, population 15,300, is the doorknob that opens a Sandhills region renowned for golf and equestrian sport. The town relies chiefly on retirement income, health services and its famed leisure economy.

Into the 20th century, these were the sandy Pine Barrens. A little place, where turpentining allowed a living. But what a town founder in 1887 imagined as a health resort soon attracted the Seaboard Air Line Railway that began carrying northern tourists down and longleaf pines up. Golf began at the turn of the century, centering in nearby Pinehurst and later also Aberdeen. Southern Pines remains the train town.

No interstate exit usurps Southern Pines commerce. Instead, one-of-a-kind shops show an evolving green downtown, like Green Goods for organic and recycled products, Gracefully Rustic for regional goods, the Moore County Farmers Market, a cycle shop, and an outdoors trading store.

Broker Ed Rhodes, for 35 years president of Rhodes & Co. Real Estate on Broad Street beside the tracks, says he has never heard anyone say they wish the trains didn’t come through. “People I deal with certainly enjoy the trains. I do. They’re a plus. They absolutely improve our quality of life. Yes, yes, they’re good for real estate values.”

The Sunrise Theater next to the depot is among popular venues that showcase regional performance, often featuring country blues. Weymouth Center for the Arts and Humanities houses the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame and artist in residence programs. Across the avenue, the Arts Council of Moore County innovates.

Executive Director Chris Dunn does beer tastings with the mugs of regional potters. He brings in chamber musicians from around the world, and different from many larger cities, he says “I let them program up to a quarter of atonal works.”

He also backs provocative theater; recently, playwright Ray Owen’s “Bleeding Pines of Turpentine.” The work recalls regional history in daily lives, including the depiction of blacks and whites who worked fields together, and as a result were both alike shunned.

It’s a long view that trains fit.

Ridership Rise

Amtrak carried a record 31.6 million passengers in Fiscal Year 2013, delivering nationwide benefits, providing vital transportation services, advancing America’s economy and demonstrating the value and convenience of the national passenger rail network, according to an October release from Amtrak. It is the tenth ridership record in 11 years. Among the highlights of its record ridership are its ticket revenue which increased to a record $2.1 billion, and eight individual monthly ridership records  were broken during FY 2013, including the single best month in its history.“This year’s record ridership was achieved station by station in the more than 500 communities across America that Amtrak serves,” said Amtrak President and CEO Joe Boardman. Communities realize stations served by Amtrak are anchors for economic development, catalysts for historic preservation and tourism growth, sites for commercial and cultural uses, and points of civic pride. The numbers in Yemassee, Ashland and Southern Pines further highlight the stats, as train passenger arrivals and departures in the three towns continue to rise year after year:

  2000  2012
Yemassee 8,700  14,300
Ashland 10,320 24,041
Southern Pines 3,032 7,092

Data courtesy of Amtrak

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