Deciphering the various train whistles was once a form of cheap entertainment



Inez McCollum

I grew up across the street from a railroad track. When we had guests and a train would pass by shaking the house and making so much noise conversation would momentarily stop, my Dad would point to the track and say: “Train!” I found an address so that I could request a card that explained what each series of toots meant. Sitting on the front porch or in the living room and deciphering the various train whistles was a form of cheap entertainment! You must remember, there were few televisions and no home computers at that time.Typical_1930s_TrainB

I would fantasize seeing my uncle

I recently saw a bit of trivia that during the 1930’s railroads were one of the largest employers. An uncle of mine worked with the maintenance crew repairing the tracks during the 1940’s and until his retirement. Whenever I would see one of those little pump cars going along the track taking the crew from one area they had repaired to another site, I would fantasize seeing my uncle with them.

Railroad gang on pump car

pump car

There are many songs about trains

Americans were, and still are, fascinated with trains. Many of the Western movies had scenes of the lone train going out across the desert or through the valleys. Many songs were about trains. As a teenager, I would sing or hum the tune to “A Long Steel Rail”. During a recent trip to Branson, MO, I heard a group play “Orange Blossom Special” and at another show, the religious song, “Life is Like a Mountain Railway”. Both were tunes I had not thought of in years.

People lined up to take photo shots of the steam engine

My husband and I made two steam engine trips, one to Chattanooga, TN and the other to Columbus, GA. These were sponsored by the Birmingham Steam Engine group. Tracks for those trains went through wooded areas and along streams of water never seen when traveling by automobile. When we would approach overpasses, people would be lined up taking photo shots of the steam engine moving along. On one of the trips, the steam engine had some mechanical failures and we finished the trip being pulled by a diesel engine. It was so comical to see those people fold up their photography equipment and leave when they saw the change of engines!

There would have been a trainload of heart attack victims

When the man who bombed the Birmingham Women’s Clinic was believed to be hiding out in caves in the Nantahalla National Forest, I made a steam engine trip through that area. It was explained to us by the guide that those dark areas in the forest were caves. When we would see the dark spots, we would chant, “Eric, come out, come out wherever you are!” Had he appeared, there would have been a trainload of heart attack victims!

Nantahalla National Forest (Marjie Lambert/Miami Herald/MCT)

nantahalla national forest train

The Little Red Caboose

I have a book, “The Little Red Caboose” that was worn thin by my grandchildren. One of the corners of the cover looks like one of them chewed on it. Some of my grandsons were with me when we were stopped at a railroad track by a passing train. To keep them entertained, we were looking for the caboose. As the train ended, there was no caboose! Only then did I realize those were no longer in use by the railroad. They are now used as museums, guest rooms and whatever else the purchaser can think of.little-red-caboose-golden-book-lg

My most recent trip via train was from Hamburg, Germany to Copenhagen, Denmark. The last few miles of that, the train (with passengers aboard) went by ferry. Some of us went from Copenhagen to Malmo, Sweden via train.

Several years ago, a group I am a member of hosted some people from Montana. One of the places we toured with them was the Heart of Dixie Railroad Museum in Calera, Alabama.  One of the men, a railroad buff, did not complete the planned area tours. He and his host remained behind going through those train cars.

Heart of Dixie Railroad Museum

heart of dixie railroad

As I sign off, one of my favorite night sounds is the train I often hear in the distance. That ranks ahead of the occasional owl in the trees.

Note Added by Donna R. Causey: “I found the following article in the January 1837 Jacksonville Republican which was published in Alabama. The sound of train whistles was new at the time.

Published in the Jacksonville Republican, January 1837


Mention has been made several times lately, of the new contrivance for giving the alarm to people who cannot be trusted to their own eyes and caution, in the vicinity of Rail Roads. Its effects are thus described in one of the papers:

“The locomotive has one contrivance of a most peculiar character. It carries a brass whistle, which is blown by the steam, whenever any animals come upon the track or a crossroad is passed, no words can describe the shrill, wild and unearthly sound produced by this arrangement. In going thro’ the woods, the noise is peculiarly startling and it can be heard for miles.”

RIBBON OF LOVE: 2nd edition – A Novel of Colonial America (Tapestry of Love Book 1)

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Inspired by true historical events, Mary and Henry Pattenden flee to America to escape religious persecution – Will a special gift from her parents provide all Mary needs to face life in a new world?


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Dr. Don P. Brandon,Retired Professor, Anderson University, Anderson, Indiana



  1. Thanks for the wonderful memories of growing up in the late 30’s and early 40’s. My grandparents home was near the railroad track in Brookwood. We would lay in bed at night listening to the trains. My Mother had a saying about what the train was doing. She would say, “I think I can, I think I can, as the train struggled hard; then, I know I can, I know I can, as it started gaining speed; then, I did it, I did it, I did it, as it went on its way. This loses a little in translation but as a child it was fascinating.

  2. I assure you the horns are way louder now and the trains much bigger, longer, and taller. You can hear them rumbling and the tracks roaring from miles away without any horns. You would shit if you knew who really owns them now.

  3. My Great Uncle Robert Stafford was the station master in Grayson, Louisiana in the 50s. His wife, Jean, was my Grandmother Margaret’s sister. My family lived in Hot Springs, Arkansas and every summer my Grandmother and I rode the train to visit her sisters, all of which lived in the Monroe area. I remember playing around the station in Grayson with my cousins. We would lay down on the ground and put our ears to the rails–listening for the trains coming–exciting stuff. The most fun was hanging the US Mail pouch out on a frame device beside the track that allowed the people on the train to hook it as they went by. And of course we put pennies on the track to be flatten by the passing trains. We all loved that station. Trains were very exciting to young boys in the 50s!!

  4. John Moseley is my REAL name.

    John Moseley

  5. If you haven’t been to Tunnel Hill, GA, drop me a line and I will arrange a special tour. Museum and tunnel are open 6 days a week, Monday through Friday, come walk the line through the tunnel, just watch out for the spirits that sometimes get in the way.

  6. This is memories I still miss.grew up hearing the train whistle.lived most of my life near a track to enjoy but now I live where I don’t hear them anymore 🙁

  7. My dad use to talk about how they would talk to one another and let people know what was going on…he would have been 110 this year, his dad was with L&N

  8. I love to hear it!! I miss it..My great grandparents had train tracks right out by the porch,like you could almost touch it..

  9. In the ’30’s and ’40’s, I lived just north of Stapleton, AL in my grandmother’s house. The L&N railroad ran less than 100 yards from the house. There was a water tank there, and the Ward family ran the steam pump house. A stream was dammed to insure plenty of water when they filled the tank. I have fond memories of catching minnows (and the occasional catfish) there, as well as learning to swim in the pond. I wish my children had the memories that I have, but alas, I became a city boy.

  10. As a child I lived south of Calera (35 miles south of Birmingham). An L&N engineer, Mr. Virgin, whose family also lived in south Calera had a unique way of signaling his family that he was approaching the area. He started sounding (blowing) the whistle about a mile before he he got to South Calera. This gave us time to run out and wave at him. This was in the 40’s and wartime so anything was a source of entertainment for us. Some of his desendents still live in the area I think.

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