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Pig's Delight

Allan Heard

Railroads and trains were an important part of my childhood, and they still trigger good memories. New Albany existed primarily because two important railroads crossed one another there–right square in the middle of town. Much of our industry–the lumber mills, the cotton gins, and the federal cotton compress–were symbiotic to the railroads and we to all of them.

Further, from the time I was about nine, I lived less than two hundred feet from one of the railroads. The vibrations of huge trains rattled the light fixtures and dishes half a dozen times a day. When one of the two night trains was late or did not run, we would wake up and wonder, “What was that?” When I went to town, I often walked along a rail, balancing like a tightrope walker. I always crossed the railroad bridge in that fashion, though a walkway was available.

I became very impressed with the destruction a locomotive dealt a car when it ran into one and then rolled it along until it was just a ball of steel. It seemed that wrecks happened often on one of the dozen or so poorly marked grade crossings in or near town. We always knew the people who were maimed or died, sometimes very well.

What really impressed me most was the train wrecks–three, I think, in my short tenure there. The railroad company, even then, had pretty elaborate means of communicating to their trains, chiefly by semaphore signals which told an alert engineer that somebody was coming or was just ahead. Apparently, there was not so great communication between the Frisco and the GM&O.

My favorite wreck happened one afternoon near dusk when I was about 12. For some reason, a freight train on the GM&O stopped across the intersection or at best was creeping through it. This was not unusual except that old 106 was due on the Frisco. Now, 106 always stopped, but its engines were often well past the intersection when it got stopped because the long downhill grade into town made stopping difficult. Today the train was long and that was what was going to happen.

The story goes that the engineer, good old Charlie Pugh, in spite of his locking the brakes, saw that he was going to hit the train, so he jumped from his locomotive. Then he saw that it was going to hit what appeared to be three tank cars of gasoline. He jumped back on the train on his first bounce and ran for his life up the tunnel through the three big diesel locomotives. The lead locomotive stopped just beyond the GM&O tracks. The three tank cars all lay on their sides–but there was no immediate explosion. Dark brown liquid began to spill from one of the cars. Molasses! Black-strap molasses. It slowly filled a street gutter and flowed down the street in front of the Coca-Cola plant.

Everybody in town turned out to see the wreck, and before long opportunistic farmers began to show up and catch molasses in barrels. Hundreds of gallons, though, just ran down the gutter toward the Tallahatchie River. The streets were a mess. Then, after more than an hour of barrel filling, a railroad workman hit the plug in the top of the tank with a heavy steel bar, and the handout to the local pig farmers ended.

Nobody could believe that such a simple process could have ended the waste and mess hours sooner. I have thought about that lots of times through my life. “Is this a real big problem, or does the plug just need to be tightened?” It is awfully easy to jump to faulty conclusions when we fail to question what’s really going on. A faulty conclusion is often just like the molasses spill–a pig’s delight.