Macon minister shares his love of trains with others
There are no train stations in the Bible.
You won’t find a red caboose anywhere in the Gospels. Noah was engineer of an ark, not a locomotive from the B&L Railroad.
If you listen to the sermons of Ralph Hawkins, every now and then you might hear an imaginary train whistle.
It happened last Sunday at Northminster Presbyterian Church in Macon. He was preaching on Psalm 121. The annual pilgrimage to the temple by the Jews provided the perfect segue.
“It is a prayer of God watching over your going out and coming in,’’ Ralph said. “It reminded me of the old railroad time tables that fit in your pocket with the schedules and other information. It was just a playful analogy to stick a time table in your pocket and have it ready to know where you are on the journey.’’
Members of the congregation were given printed bookmarks with Psalm 121 on one side and the cover of a Central of Georgia Railroad Winter 1958-59 time table, with the slogan “The Right Way to Travel” on the other side.
At 6-foot-5, Ralph is taller than your average minister. He also is more of an authority on the history of steam locomotives and Southern short line railroads than most of his fellow clergy.
You might say Ralph arrived in this world with an affinity for trains, even though he was born in the “Rocket City” of Huntsville, Alabama, home of the George C. Marshall Space Flight Center.
His father, the late John Hawkins, began taking photographs of trains with a Kodak Brownie camera as a high school student in the late 1940s. Now Ralph continues the legacy with digital photographs and an extensive website (www.hawkinsrails.net), a web scrapbook with 70 years of railroad photography. It features more than 14,000 images, 450 individual pages and draws web traffic from across the country and around the world.
John Hawkins was an electrical engineer who moved his family to his hometown of New Orleans in 1978. That’s where his fascination with trains began. New Orleans was a major railroad hub, and its iconic streetcars part of the world’s oldest continuously operating street railway system.
“His family got its first car when he was 15 years old,’’ Hawkins said. “And, like a lot of Southern families, they would take a Sunday drive after church. When they crossed the Mississippi River, my father had his dad pull over at a salvage yard, where he snapped photos of this little steam locomotive. Those were my dad’s first railroad photographs.’’
Later in life, John Hawkins not only stopped at all railroad crossings but would plan trips around visits to switching stations and rail museums.
“By the time I came along, my father was well into his hobby of riding, chasing and photographing trains,’’ he said. “I grew up tagging along with him.’’
Ralph and his brother, Jack, became apprentices of those ribbons of steel that provided the backbone of the American transportation system. They also shared their father’s love of model railroads.
“I was fascinated by trains … their size, their power,’’ Ralph said. “I grew up wanting to be a locomotive engineer. It was kind of an adventure. Dad always was scouting out a place or looking for something historical. We would find it and take pictures. He always knew the back stories.
“When I was a teenager, we were traipsing across Mississippi taking pictures of trains and my dad says, ‘I’m not sure, but I think somewhere around here Charles Lindbergh had to land his plane because he had engine trouble.’ He was full of trivia. And, lo and behold, we go over a hill or two and there’s one of those historical markers. Lindbergh had been following the Columbus & Greenville Railroad from the sky.’’
Ralph is now in his 25th year as a minister. His daughter, Ella, a ninth-grade student at Mount de Sales Academy, is not as passionate about trains as her father. But she has been a good sport about it. She has ridden on Amtrak and accompanied him to museums. She also has developed an interest in photography.
His father’s mission was to take photographs to document equipment and locations. Ralph has become somewhat of an expert on his dad’s favorite subject — the smaller railroads, commonly referred to as short lines. They often are locally owned, and they continued to operate steam locomotives and aging equipment well into the 1950s and ‘60s after the big rail companies had modernized.
“Fathers and sons reconnect as peers in adulthood, so my father and I wound up forging a whole another season of friendship around trains,’’ Ralph said. “All throughout his retirement we continued to take trips together and chase trains. When his health got to where he couldn’t travel much anymore, he said one day he was going to give me all his negatives and prints. I was thrilled and honored.’’
Creating the website was the nexus of three of Ralph’s most devoted hobbies – trains, photographs and computers. He constructed it from the bottom floor, even doing the coding.
Internet search engines drive folks to his train engines. He gets asked a lot of questions online, and he usually has the answers. Most of the time, he does not charge money for the use of his archived photographs.
“I’m not going to monetize this thing,’’ he said. “My dad was such a generous soul. He loved it for the way it connected him to people. That’s the joy of it.’
Ed Grisamore teaches journalism at Stratford Academy. His column appears on Sundays in The Telegraph.