On a spring day 50 years ago, William Brosnan, the president of Southern Railway, stood before a luncheon crowd of 300 or so at the old Dempsey Motor Hotel in downtown Macon to salute the region.
Among those in attendance were notable locals Henry Burns Jr., William A. Fickling Sr. and Peyton Anderson. The railroad was showcasing its brand-new electronic rail classification yard that to this day serves as the city’s eastern spine. The then-$12 million yard was named in honor of Brosnan.
But Brosnan, who began his career as a track laborer in Macon in 1926, wasn’t there for attaboys. Brosnan, an Albany native and railroading giant, had come to trumpet Macon. Interstate 75 was being built, railroads were reinventing themselves and the South was touting itself as a market for industrial growth.
“It has been my experience that all of Georgia, Macon and Middle Georgia people are more reasonable, less emotional, and more interested in the welfare not only of themselves but of others,” Brosnan said. “They’re just better people.”
Today the yard that bears Brosnan’s name sees about 10,000 train cars a week glide through on its rails. Some 300 people work there. But unless you know it is there or have some reason to venture beyond Seventh Street below Central City Park, you might not know the massive rail hub even exists.
In satellite photos, the place resembles a 2-mile-long, gravel-gray crease in the countryside between Broadway and the Ocmulgee River. The county landfill sits off to the east. Cherokee Brick and the east end of Eisenhower Parkway lie to the west.
These days, Norfolk Southern operates the yard. Incoming boxcars are sorted and connected to trains in choreographed routings that, viewed from above, are part conveyor belt and part roller coaster. The only day the yard doesn’t run is Christmas.
On Tuesday, when the company gave local reporters a tour of the grounds, two railroad men perched in a control tower six stories above the tracks kept an eye on computer screens that monitor inbound and outbound rail traffic there and across the state. Downtown rises to the north.
“We have to direct the trains basically like an air-traffic controller,” train master Chad Hitt said.
From six stories up, he and yard master Richard Collins can see storms roll in over the city. Sometimes they spot alligators crawling up from the river bottom.
Collins was on duty in the yard’s shorter north tower the morning the Mother’s Day tornado roared through in 2008. Asked if it sounded like a freight train, Collins just said, “It was terrifying.”
Down at track level, where the screech of braking boxcars and the hum of 200-ton locomotives collide in a slow dance of steel and gravity, a worker named Jud Montgomery was directing boxcars down a slope and into a multiveined array of tracks below. His spot is known as “the hump,” a rise in the tracks.
Montgomery, a hump foreman, has a job that amounts to herding cattle. He stands trackside and sends boxcars down a hill to their proper chutes.
“I still like it like it’s my first day,” Montgomery said over the wail of a passing train’s horn.
Maybe 40 feet away from where Montgomery stood, just off the tracks, was a concrete monument erected when the yard was dedicated to Brosnan in June of 1968.
The monument tells of Brosnan’s innovative approaches to market research, freight car design and reducing shipping costs. It declares that he “never feared the untraveled path” and “blazed new trails and drew an industry along with him.”