Tales of the Railroad – Downtown’s Beating Heart

railroad depot caboose

We’re pleased to welcome back our guest author, downtown resident Kathy Blue, with a story about her grandfather’s time as a railroad conductor.

My Granddaddy, B.A. Corbett, Sr.,  was a conductor for Norfolk Southern Railway until he turned 80.

Here’s a picture of him on a train pointing at some poor unsuspecting lady.   From the looks of the dress, I’m guessing this picture was taken in the 1930s.

His life centered around timetables and freight schedules – and of course, fishing.  He wasn’t one of those fancy passenger conductors.  No siree, he was a freight conductor – which meant serious business.    He was rotund man, a quiet man, a hard-working man.  He had a good sense of humor, but as a child I didn’t know it.  When my Grandmother was alive, he let her do all the talking.  He said that proved he had good sense.

When my Granddaddy retired to the front porch of his home on Old Garner Road, he’d pull out his watch and say, “The train to Raleigh is 3 minutes late.”   Even after retiring, he often wore his overalls, long sleeve shirt, and a misshapen billed cap. He rocked and smoked his cigars – Nurica Coronas and Tampa Nuggets – and watched for the next train, silently monitoring.

The railroad was even more important to Garner than it was to my family. 

If there hadn’t been a railroad, I’m not sure if the town would have even formed. The railroad was the lifeblood to towns before automobiles.  So the railroad came through and Main Street grew up along the tracks.  The sawmill was built right beside the track, and commercial buildings lined the road so that new goods could be displayed for purchase.

But yesterday’s blessing can sometimes become tomorrow’s curse.

Since the buildings were built facing the tracks, Main Street became a street with no place to expand forward.  And the railroad controls the right-of-way all the way up to the front doors on Main Street!  Due to modern safety concerns, that often limits what can be done on Main Street these days – fun things like street carnivals, pig cook-offs, and the parades that we remember attending as kids.  Of course, when the railroad came, the town builders weren’t thinking of a world in which Garner would have a population this big or that the railroad would become outmoded.  Hindsight being 20-20 and all that.

This is what Garner looked like in the early 1900s.

You can see the white depot in the center of the picture.  Main Street appears to be a morass of muddy wagon tracks.  I can only imagine genteel ladies trying to keep their long skirts clean!

The depot continued to serve paying passengers until sometime in the 1960s.  I remember taking the train to Selma as a child in Garner Methodist Church’s kindergarten.  The train picked us up at the Garner depot and we rode the train to Selma and then back again. We undoubtedly drove the other passengers crazy.

The Historic Train Depot remains an icon in Downtown Garner.

In the late 1980s, the Friends of Historic Downtown Garner raised money to move the depot back to its historic location and turn it into a museum.  But without adequate parking or room to expand next to the tracks, the depot has been locked up for years. In addition, today’s fast moving trains are a hazard when small children are around.

A recent push to move the Depot seems like a reasonable plan, but many, like myself, don’t want to see it leave downtown.  I think it would lose its historic resonance if it were moved outside of Garner’s historic district.  But it needs space for parking and restrooms and maybe additional features that must also be taken into consideration.  Town Council has asked the Garner Revitalization Association to gather a group of residents to look at nearby locations and uses that will contribute to Downtown Garner’s continued economic revitalization.

Without the railroad, we wouldn’t have sprung into being as a proper town – and that should be celebrated. 

But we need to think about how that gets done.  I’m hoping with the new recreation center, we can focus on the recreational and arts activities that already exist and those that could be developed in downtown, to keep Garner’s hometown feeling.