Steel Rails Singing

photography by Jerry Siegel, words by Joe O’Donnell


It was our river.

Twin rails of steel tied to a raised bed of rock and earth slipping like a metal stream past the newborn city of Birmingham. Throughout history cities have grown up on the banks of rivers or beside the tide of deep-water bays. Not Birmingham.

We grew up trackside.

The city, surrounded by an abundance of iron ore, coal and limestone (the ingredients needed to make iron), was founded at the convergence of the North and South Railroad and the Alabama and Chattanooga Railroad. Birmingham became an entrepreneurial dream fueled by the transportation possibilities of two new railroads steaming through the heart of the post-Civil War South.

The rails running through town, the smoke belching from the new blast furnaces, the men with new money in the new brick buildings on the grid of streets north of the main tracks running through the very heart of the heart of the city—that was Birmingham in its early history.

Throughout the 20th century the humming of the rails, the heart-stopping shrillness of the train whistle blowing, the clanging of the rail crossings, and the click-clack of the wheels striking steel was the music of the city.


Like the opening strains of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue which sounds for all the world like a New York subway car starting to pull out of the station, the soundscape of Birmingham today is tied to the music of the railroad. Spend an hour in the new Railroad Park and you’ll hear its distinctive sounds.

From its birth in 1871, the city’s economic growth was tied to the railroad, too. Even today the railroad industry remains focused on Birmingham. Four major Class I railroads serve the metro: BNSF Railway; Canadian National Railway through its subsidiary Illinois Central Railroad; CSX Transportation; and Norfolk Southern Railway.

Norfolk Southern, for one, has developed a plan it calls the Crescent Corridor, a 2,500-mile rail network supporting the supply chain from Memphis and New Orleans to New Jersey. Norfolk Southern envisions its plans creating 73,000 new jobs by 2030—47,000 of them by 2020 in a public-private partnership for moving freight throughout the Eastern United States. The company calls the Corridor a 13-state economic engine with 300 miles of new track, new or expanded terminals in 11 markets, more than one million trucks a year absorbed from interstates, carbon emissions reduced by nearly two million tons per year, 170 million gallons of fuel saved annually, and $576 million savings from reduced highway congestion.

Part of the plan is Norfolk Southern’s Birmingham Regional Intermodal Facility project in McCalla, designed to establish a high-speed intermodal freight rail route linking the Gulf Coast and the Northeast. Intermodal facilities are to railroads like hubs are to airlines—they help get the cargo to the right place at the right time. Economic analysis indicates the facility, targeted to open in 2012, will create or preserve 8,600 jobs by 2020 and 13,000 jobs by 2030 and will have a cumulative 20-year economic impact of $8 billion on the region.

Since opening in 1989, a facility at the Virginia Inland Port in Fort Royal, VA, similar to the one planned for Birmingham, has resulted in 27 major companies locating nearby, $599 million of investment, and 7,000 new jobs. Intermodal is the safest, most efficient, and economical way to move freight. A typical intermodal train hauls 280 truckloads of freight and moves a ton of freight 436 miles on one gallon of fuel.   So while railroads may seem a thing of the past, they remain a bright part of Birmingham’s future.

A man and his  Railroad

Shane Boatright

by Joe O’Donnell

The blue locomotive, bright in the sunshine of a warm winter day in the south Georgia low country, moved slowly along the tracks of the St. Marys  Railroad, past woods, marshland, and a solitary man fishing near the trestle.

Richard Long was at the controls of the locomotive just as he has been for more than 50 years, first with Seaboard Railroad, then Amtrak, and now St. Marys. “I was privileged to have a job I liked,” Long says, “It carried me away from my family a lot, but I was able to give them a good life.”

Just past a small blue house, he leans on the locomotive’s whistle. In the back yard of the house right by the tracks, a woman carries her little girl on her hip, a dog at her heels, and waves.

“They come out most every day to wave when I come by,” Long says.

That’s a slice of Americana you don’t see much anymore: a locomotive passing back yards, a little girl coming out just to wave at the sound of the whistle blowing, a man whose father worked on the railroad, whose son does the same.

That sense of being a part of something rare and privileged extends to the owner of the St. Marys, Birmingham’s Shane Boatright.

The Boatright Companies Founder and CEO always says his proudest moment in the railroad industry was the day he first became owner of his own railroad. A lifelong passion for the industry and growth of Boatright Companies led to the purchase of St. Marys Railroad in 2007. The 11-mile long shortline railroad, which has been in constant operation since 1865, primarily services companies transporting paper products and items needed for the Kings Bay naval base, including ballistic

Richard Long

missiles for submarines. The route runs from St. Marys to Kingsland, GA.

A Blue Locomotive on St. Marys Railroad

“This is a great business for us,” Boatright says. “We have a contract with the U.S. Navy and a good mix of customers. There is a deep water port nearby, which has lots of potential.” Plus, it’s great that a guy from Birmingham owns a railroad that moves ballistic missiles, Boatright says. That’s something you can’t argue with.

“It’s really an honor and privilege to work in any way we can for the security of the country,” Boatright says.

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2 Responses to “Steel Rails Singing”

  1. This is why Railroad Park and, soon, the Prize2theFuture contest site, is going to be so important to the future of our city center, because they are right there along the still active railroad tracks and connected to the abandoned rail bed off First Avenue South. Both the active track and the old railbed are great assets for our community.

  2. Holly C says:

    I love Shane Boatright! He is such an amazing man and does so much for the Birmingham community. He is a living legend.

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