Nothing stirs memories like the sound of a train.
The roar of a locomotive. The rhythm of the rails. The shrill of a whistle.
“It sends chill bumps up my arm,” said Don Daniel, who was raised in a railroad family and has an affinity for ribbons of steel.
There are no tracks running through the tiny community of Blount along Ga. 42 in the northern climes of Monroe County. The closest trains are eight miles away in Flovilla.
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“We can hear them when the wind is blowing on a quiet night, sitting out on the porch,” said Denise Collins.
Don and Denise are across-the-road neighbors who share a passion for railroad history. Two years ago, Denise “dreamed up” a three-room replica of a train depot built behind her home. Together, they have rolled out one of the largest and most impressive private collections of train memorabilia in Middle Georgia.
There are railroad relics, photographs, artifacts and what Don trumpets as “more train and railroad history on the city of Forsyth and Monroe County than the historical society.”
It is worthy of being on display in a public museum. One day, they hope it will be.
Denise affectionately calls it “Trains R Us.”
They have traveled on trains across the U.S., Canada and parts of Europe. Their mission is to roam Georgia’s backroads on a quest to document and photograph the state’s 174 train depots.
“When we go on a trip with a group, we automatically become known as the ‘Train People,’ ” Denise said, laughing.
They are such kindred spirits, you might think they have known each forever. But their tracks didn’t cross until five years ago, when Don called Denise to offer his condolences following the death of her husband, Charles Collins.
Collins, a native of Forsyth and a 1945 graduate of Mary Persons High School, was a successful businessman, best known for running for U.S.president in 1996 as an independent candidate.
Don founded The Monroe County Reporter in 1972 and still writes a weekly column. He is proud of his family bloodlines with the railroad. His grandfather was a “Gandy Dancer” with the Wrightsville & Tennille Railroad, managing the crew that maintained the tracks. His father, Chester Daniel, started as a flagman and worked his way up to conductor. He was killed in a caboose accident in 1947, when Don was 7 years old.
Denise grew up “on the other side of the mountain” in Good Hope, Alabama. She watched the trains pass through, romanticized by the notion “they were always going somewhere.”
“I was a poor, backwoods kid seeing all these beautiful people in the windows of the Pullman cars going by, looking like they were having a good time,” she said. “And you wanted to be on that train with them, going wherever they were going because it was somewhere other than Good Hope, Alabama.”
She was fascinated by the “lovely ladies who rode the train in their Sunday best. They had their white gloves on and Sunday hats and were always smiling. I said one day I’m going to ride a train, and I did. I said one day I’m going to own a train and, lo and behold ....”
She can now claim pieces of some 300.
She even has a dog named “Choo Choo.”
Once upon a time, communities were dots connected by train tracks. Atlanta was born in 1837 as a settlement called Terminus at the end of the Western & Atlantic Railroad. By the mid-1800s, Georgia had more rail miles (643) than any state in the South. In the 1920s, Macon’s Terminal Station boasted as many as 100 arrivals and departures a day. It was such a busy transportation hub there were 10 tracks with platforms for local trains and eight tracks for those passing through.
There were no interstates and few highways. Folks may have owned cars but, if they were traveling great distances, they took the train. It was so much a part of life, local newspapers printed the daily train schedules. Georgians fondly remember their trips on the famed Nancy Hanks, speaking of her as if she was a beloved family member.
“Our country was basically founded on the railroads,” said Don.
Denise and Don exclusively collect steam engine trains and have preserved everything from benches from a depot in north Georgia to a section of old rail, to an engineer’s toolbox to a toilet seat from an 1889 Pullman car.
Across the roof line of the “Blount” depot are large, stained glass images of a locomotive and caboose. They light up at night and are positioned to depict a train going through a tunnel.
“We are constantly looking for trains and railroad memorabilia to add to our collection,” said Don. “Often on weekends, we map out where ‘existing’ depots are located in Georgia and head out on a road trip.”
Many of those depots have been razed and no longer exist. But Don and Denise capture those still standing with their camera lens. Some have been renovated and have found after-life as chambers of commerce, city offices and museums.
Denise and Don have worked closely with Louise Burkhalter, of Ocmulgee Arts in Macon, to preserve the photographs and other artwork in “museum quality” framing. They have had ongoing conversations with local officials about the possibility of opening a train museum. (Forsyth hosts an annual train festival on the first weekend in November.)
“We will donate our train memorabilia because we have seen, time and time again, what an attraction it is,” said Don. “Forsyth and Monroe County is our home. We would like to see it stay. It would be a great asset.”
He said there are five train museums in Georgia, but none in Middle Georgia. Railroad enthusiasts in other cities, including Macon and Perry, have expressed an interest in displaying the collection.
In the meantime, if your memories are suddenly racing down the rails, you can contact either Don (478-994-1312) or Denise (478-994-3369) to schedule an appointment for a free tour of the private collection.
Ed Grisamore teaches journalism and creative writing at Stratford Academy in Macon. His column appears on Sundays in The Telegraph.