I have had the great privilege of spending a great deal of time with a “railroad man” who is very familiar with the train depot in Conway. A hands-on expert, having loaded freight from the train and delivered it into Conway and Wilmington during the 1930s and 1940s. He also rode the trains and was a brakeman and engineer. He knew everything that was to know about the Conway Depot, its operators, its customers and the beach and the surrounding area. His name was John Anderson and he was my dad.
He and I took a train ride every evening from his living room during the last four months of his life, because as I spent a great deal of time with him as he awaited his passing due to cancer, we did what we did not do when there was time to kill, time to waste in our lives, we talked. When time has become a precious commodity not to be wasted, we talked about the important things in life and his mind went back to the love of his life – the depot in Conway.
No one knew or loved the Conway depot and trains more than he. Our family, my grandfather being Levi Owen Anderson, had lived at the depot during the ‘30s and my grandfather was in charge of moving the freight that came in on the train and distributing it in Conway. His three sons helped him make deliveries to the surrounding area by buckboard until trucks came along. Sometimes the freight was put on boats at the riverfront warehouses and moved down the river to its destination. The house was actually at the end of the trestle bridge and the train when directly by it, shaking it twice a day like clockwork.
Dad told me how to unhook cars, connect them to the engine, how to move a car to a spur track when it is damaged, how to hand signal, all about the signals at crossing, how to make a emergency stop. He taught me how to drop off bags of mail on one end of the station and how to pick up outgoing mail on the other end of the station and also pick up and leave messages on a stick on each end of the station.
I learned of train cars that broke down, that were moved to spur tracks and the contents salvaged and given to the residents of Conway – such as a train car full of green bananas. Another story told of the train pulling into the station and everyone running out trying to escape thousands of bees that were attacking them. The train was transporting bee hives and two had turned over.
The train was the airplane and Internet of its day. Life in little towns depended on the train. Towns developed around the train station and news, mail, freight and people all came from the railroad. The telegraph lines were build to travel along the already established track.
Everyone had a watch as, again, every stop was on a schedule and it was of the essence that their schedules be met. My dad told me that the one time he got in real trouble with his dad was when he and his brother stoked the train engine and took it took it to the beach, parking it at the beach, then it was manually turned around on the turn stall and they headed back to the depot in Conway. The boys had gone swimming and he put his train watch in his boot and some stole it.
Today, with the train depot wanting to stay open and keep the train running, I remember what my dad told me about how those tracks had to be maintained. The rails would rot and have to be replaced. The spikes would start to come loose and sometimes rise up inches and have to be replaced. The ground would become swampy and would have to be fortified with chipped rock. This had to be done for miles and miles of track. It took every minute that they had using a push-me-pull me hand cart to keep the track clear and in working order.
These tracks and these bridges have not been in everyday use for many decades. Time has had its way with them and even things at the depot show wear and tear and rust. With due respect to the present owners, even though they have worked hard at the depot and made it a beautiful storage facility for some impressive antiques, it is not a renovation of the train depot that served Conway.
But more than that, it would take much more that $3 million to get and keep the miles and miles of track and bridges back in shape and in working order. It would take many men and years to accomplish.
There are so few that use the train now and they will find alternative way of shipping their goods. The train station at Conway has seen its last days.
Whenever I’m in another town and hear off in the night the long drawn out bellow of a train whistle, I stop and listen as I remember my dad and our last days together when we boarded the train every evening from that living room and we passed through our family’s lives together. In hearing our story, I learned who I was.
With all due respect to the parties concerned and to the millions of honorable men who worked on the iron horse that changed our land, it is time for all concerned to accept the end of a spectacular era, and to pay the proper respect to the trains that connected our nation from sea to shining sea and their bygone glory days, and to remember those days when they hear that lonesome whistle blow.
The writer lives in Myrtle Beach.