A Simpler Place and Time: Your Ticket to History in Motion

written by MARTY STEINER | photography courtesy of TENNESSEE VALLEY RAILROAD; ST. MARYS EXPRESS; COASTAL HERITAGE SOCIETY; ATLANTA HISTORY CENTER; THE DWELL HOTEL; ST. MARYS CVB; QUENTIN BACON

Gladys Knight and the Pips’ hit “Midnight Train to Georgia” won the Grammy in 1973, was inducted into the Grammy Hall Of Fame in 1999 and, in many ways, became Knight’s signature song. With romantic love as its theme, the tune has a certain allure about it — but the thought of a midnight train ride may not be particularly appealing to a modern family on vacation.

Instead, each of the train ride experiences offered in, or around, Georgia is unique and evokes its own allure. The vintage of the locomotives and coach equipment, distance and length of time, sites visited or terrain covered vary widely by operator. Most offer special rides for holidays or other events. Likewise, their corresponding museums offer a diverse mix of exhibits, activities and information. Whether familiar with these three stops or climbing aboard for the first time, your ticket to history awaits.

Tennessee Valley Railroad

The Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum has solved the “Midnight Train” dilemma with more conveniently scheduled rides from their sprawling railyards in Chattanooga. This operating railroad offers a wide variety of trips, some themed, some across state lines, while utilizing its extensive collection of rail coaches with either early 1900s steam locomotives or more modern diesels.
The Missionary Ridge Local route, offered daily during most of the year, takes passengers along one of the area’s original rail routes, across four river trestles and through the pre-Civil War Missionary Ridge tunnel that dates from 1858. This is an hour-long trip with a viewing of the locomotive rotated on a turntable for the return trip and a tour of the museum’s restoration shops. Tickets start at $17 for adults and $11 for children ages 2 to 12.

The Hiwassee Loop is a 3.5-hour route up the Hiwassee River gorge. This trip experiences an unusual, spiraling corkscrew track that actually crosses itself.

A much longer day trip, which includes the Hiwassee Loop, is the Copperhill Special. This 94-mile, nine-hour route allows time for lunch on your own and a visit to the twin cities of Copperhill, Tenn. and McCaysville, Ga.

Chickamauga Turn, another day trip, spans more than six hours with layovers in the Chickamauga-Chattanooga National Military Park and the historic town of Chickamauga, Ga. This trip includes a tour guide, an historic dining car option for lunch as well as the choice of a private coach.

The longest trip offered is the Summerville Steam Special, a 100-mile round trip to Summerville, Ga. These trains are powered by one of the two restored ex-Southern Railway steam locomotives dating from the early 1900s. The vintage Southern Railway steam locomotive 4501 generated all the sounds, smoke and aroma of trains of the past while powering a recent fall trip of mine.

A favorite for foodies, the Dinner on the Diner train features a gourmet threecourse meal with the clickity clack of the railroad track in the background. Though the route is a simple ride through the Chattanooga area, this experience comes with white linen service in a restored 1924 dining car. A Christmas Special Dinner Train offers an expanded four-course meal. Optional premium dining is available with an upgrade to the Pullman car, Clover Colony, while the Eden Isle Office Car is available for private parties.

Many holidays and special events provide themes for other special trains. Notable among these are: Halloween Eerie Express with a stop at a fun house, Santa’s Hiwassee Holiday Train, the long established North Pole Limited that travels past lighted trackside displays on the way to the “North Pole” and new this year, the Day Out with Thomas in late April and May.

Unique to the Tennessee Valley Railroad are their week-long Railroad Summer Camps, held during the month of June. The overnight camp, directed at high school students, includes all aspects of railroading including history and operation of railroads, and how steam and diesel engines work. The junior camp, with separate day sessions that focus on late elementary or middle school students, adds railroad craft projects and games. Train rides are part of these camp programs.  

This museum describes its various train rides as “a rolling time machine providing the sights and sounds of yesteryear.” Passengers pick up tickets in an old-fashioned train station with a typical terminal dining area. The museum’s trains have been featured in many major movies, including the 2011 “Water For Elephants” with Robert Pattinson, Reese Witherspoon and Christoph Waltz as well as music videos for country stars like Eric Church and Dierks Bentley. | tvrail.com

St. Marys Express

The St. Marys Express is the current reincarnation of the actual operating railroad that shuttled freight cars 18 miles to the historic coastal town of St. Marys, Ga.This railroad was re-formed as a scenic, theme-focused, operating passenger route for tourists and train enthusiasts.

A limited number of trips, all with open-air railcars are scheduled each year from the departure point, located just 8 miles east of Interstate 95’s Georgia exit 3. Every trip has a theme that includes characters and actions by the associated Theatre by the Trax actors. These include the Peter Cottontail Express (April), Rock ‘n’ Roll Express (May), Patriotic Express (July), Catfish Express from Kingsland, Ga. (September), Steam Railroad Days and Rock Shrimp Festival (October), Halloween Express (October), Santa Express (December), and Wild West Steam Express (February). Whether it’s a Western gunfight, cowboys, living scarecrows, zombies, hoboes, pirates or a visit by Santa, passengers are brought into the action while the trains traverse swamps, woodlands, pine barrens and creek crossings.

Also unique to the St. Marys Express are “At The Throttle” experiences, which allow a limited number of people to actually run the authentic 1930s locomotive while its underway. | stmarysrailroad.com

Georgia State Railroad Museum

Georgia’s history, like many other areas, is closely linked to the railroads. The Georgia Railroad was formed in 1833 to build a track from Athens to Augusta and was completed eight years later. An 1836 traveler’s guide to America listed the Altamaha and Brunswick Railroad with 12 miles of track as one of the first Georgia railroads. Trivia fans and history buffs will revel in the fact that some of these first railroads were actually powered by horse or mule teams, not locomotives.

Savannah’s historic railroad shops and offices have been known as the Roundhouse because it contains a fully operational roundhouse, or turntable, that turns a locomotive around at the end of the line to head in the other direction. This complex served the Central of Georgia Railroad for more than a century until 1963, and is the most complete antebellum railroad manufacturing and repair shop in the entire country. Now these yards are a National Historic Site housing the Georgia State Railroad Museum (formerly the Roundhouse Railroad Museum).

The Georgia State Railroad operates a number of steam and diesel powered trains with a complete 2017 schedule published online. Steam and diesel are indicated with April being entirely steam powered. These rides are approximately 30-minute tours of the extensive railroad museum site. Rides start with the locomotive being turned around on the turntable before hooking up to the train cars.

This museum also provides interactive displays and railroad themed play areas that are popular with children. Their exhibits include railcars and handcars as well as the locomotives. Operated by the Coastal Heritage Society, the museum is part of the Tricentennial Park, which also contains the Savannah Children’s Museum. The former Central of Georgia Train Shed now houses the Savannah Museum of History and tells the story of Savannah from 1733 to now. | chsgeorgia.org

Today, with a renewed interest in our simpler lifestyles of the past, this nostalgia has included the preservation of museum trains as well as these fully operational railroads. If the thought of a train ride excites you, then as Knight would say, “Hey, I’ve got to go… gonna board the midnight train and go.”

All Aboard and Ready to Roll

Where to Stay in Chattanooga

During the Civil War, the corner of East 10th Street where The Dwell Hotel now resides was home not to a mid-century modern masterpiece, but to Fort James, a large stone fort that protected Chattanoogans in years of strife.

Decades later, during the city’s Dynamo of Dixie boom, German immigrant L.A. Hirtzfield was commissioned to design a 16-bed hotel. The Colonial Hotel opened in 1909, which later became the Stone Fort Inn, harkening back to its historical past and as of last year, was playfully updated and named a member of Design Hotels. While the name has changed over the course of a century, the brick-and-limestone structure is still intact, and calling our name for an extended Chattanooga stay. | thedwellhotel.com

Where to go from St. Marys

St. Marys is the gateway to Cumberland Island, Georgia’s largest and southernmost barrier island with 18 miles of undeveloped beach. Visitors discover pristine maritime forests, undeveloped beaches and wide marshes whispering the stories of both man and nature. Natives, missionaries, enslaved African Americans and wealthy industrialists all walked here; today, Cumberland Island is home to more than 9,800 acres of Congressionally designated wilderness. You may find yourself hiking, biking, camping and beachcombing after disembarking from the ferry. Purchase tickets in advance to guarantee your spot. | cumberlandislandferry.com

Where to Eat in Savannah

Move from one nostalgic travel hub to another with dinner at The Grey. Occupying a 1938 art deco Greyhound Bus Terminal that has been painstakingly restored to its original luster, The Grey offers a food, wine and service experience that is simultaneously familiar and elevated.

Bringing her personal take on Port City Southern food to a city of her youth, Chef Mashama Bailey’s ability to create dishes that are deep, layered and soulful in their flavors has earned her critical acclaim — and a spot on our dining wish list for 2017. | thegreyrestaurant.com