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Remembering life on the railways

            “My daddy was a railroad man,” said Peggy Harrell Jennings of Ortega. “My father, A.C. Harrell, worked for Seaboard Air Line, then Seaboard Coastline Railways when they merged, for about 30 years. He retired sometime in the late 1980s and passed on in 1992. He was a trainman, brakeman and sometimes a conductor.”

            Jennings, who attended the Nov. 18, 2019 Centennial Celebration of the Jacksonville Terminal (now the Prime F. Osborn III Convention Center), said she and her sister grew up with a healthy respect for the power of trains. “Daddy was a fanatic about us staying off the tracks, not playing near the railroad. When we learned to drive, he said, ‘Don’t you nevah and don’t you evah cross when the warning lights are on and the arms are down.’” One of Jennings’ cousins was killed when a car he was a passenger in was hit by a train. “The driver went around the crossing arms while a train was stopped on the tracks and a train coming from the other direction whammed right into them,” she said.

Seaboard Railroad Trainman's effects
AC Harrell, Jr. (pictured with his wife Annie Laura Harrell) worked for the Seaboard Railroad. Along with his cap, were two watches he used as a conductor.

            Railroading was the Harrell family’s way of life. “We often slept in since Daddy’s schedule was so erratic…late nights, early mornings, sometimes out of town, sometimes on
the Kingsland [Georgia] Switcher,” said Jennings. “I recall, when I was around eight years old, that one of Daddy’s railroad friends was killed while uncoupling two cars which slammed together. I was always afraid after that horrific accident that Daddy might not come home.”

            Jennings took her first train trip in 1955 when she was seven years old and lived in Live Oak. “Coming to the big city was a thrill, and the beauty and vast proportions of the Jacksonville Terminal were overwhelming. I could not get over how high those ceilings were. It seemed like a palace. There were Red Caps carrying baggage, a great hustle bustle of people and so many trains in the yard. There was so much to see it makes me smile with excitement to relive the moment these 60-plus years later,” she said at the centennial event.

Three generations of railroad men

            Another guest at the 100th anniversary reception was Scott Vining Davis, a fourth generation Jacksonvillian, who comes from a line of railroad employees. On his mother’s side, Davis’ great-grandfather Albert Abbott, worked for the Atlantic Coast Line as a train hostler and engineer from 1935 to 1947. Born in 1901, the year of the Great Fire, Abbott was one of 12 children, one in two sets of twins, from High Springs, Florida.

Albert Abbott worked as a train hostler and operator for Atlantic Coast Line, 1935-1947.

            “He was the operator of the ACL Locomotive 1504 that is parked outside the Prime Osborne Convention Center,” said Davis. “Although he only had a fourth-grade education and was illiterate, because he was so good at operating the trains, the ACL allowed him to take an oral exam [to get the job].” Abbott died of lockjaw from a cut on the leg in 1959, leaving behind his wife and 12-year-old son, John Stephen Abbott.

            Davis’ mother’s father, E.J. Vining, worked at the railroad in 1940-41 before entering the Navy during World War II. “After my grandfather got out of the Navy in 1945, he opened up Vining Bros. Service Station along with his brother Roy in 1946. They owned and operated the station on Cassatt, Lennox and I-10, then sold the property to Lowes and Walgreens in 1995.”

            His father, Ron Davis, a native of Waycross, Georgia, worked for the Seaboard Coast Line/CSX for over 30 years in the real estate division, then after a brief retirement was a consultant for the railroad for 12 years.

Guests at Jax Terminal Centennial Celebration
Scott Vining Davis with Mary Porter in front of an image of the Jacksonville Terminal in 1919.

            Although Davis did not follow in his ancestors’ railroading footsteps, he does work in transportation of a sorts, working at UPS since 1987 as a switcher/driver.

Railroad jobs paid well

            Other Jacksonville railroaders remembered posthumously by Jennings include Bill Copeland of Ortega, a retired Seaboard Coastline Railroad engineer, and C.W. Parrish, of Ortega Forest, a 45-year trainman with the Seaboard Air Line Railway.

            Copeland’s favorite run was a local freight going from Jacksonville to Green Cove Springs because he was usually home for dinner. When he was hired in December 1950 for $11.59 per day, he first had to pass a physical, and several oral and written exams. “You didn’t have to be a rocket scientist or have a college education, but if you failed one you didn’t get the job,” Copeland told Jennings a few years before he passed away in April 2019.

            Parrish joined Seaboard in 1937 after stints as a taxi driver and a Fuller Brush salesman. He spent the war years hauling soldiers from Columbia, South Carolina to Camp Blanding, saw the transition from coal-fired steam locomotives to diesel, and the merger of Seaboard with Atlantic Coast Line in 1967.

            Two months before he passed away, at his 100th birthday celebration in 2014, Parrish said, “It’s a good thing I found that railroad job. I never made so much money in my life. It was hard work and more dangerous than people realize. You had to be in good shape and pay attention all the time…you’re jumping off moving [train] cars, jumping for the grab bar when the train’s still moving. If you’re too fast or too slow you can get spraddled out there. It doesn’t take but a second to make a big mistake.”

            L.J. “Bunky” Johnson crewed with Jennings’ father, A.C. Harrell. “Having a good crew is the best; you almost know what the other fellow is thinking. Your daddy, I remember he was born in 1924, now he was a good man to have,” Johnson told Jennings. “We all worked and traveled together and looked after each other like family,” said Johnson, who is still alive. He said the favorite part of railroading was pay day. When he hired on in March 1952, he left a job making 75 cents an hour to be a trainman at $1.65 an hour.

            Johnson also recalled many humorous incidents during his career as a brake man, including the time a conductor got bitten by a crab as he loaded a croaker sack into the baggage area; drunken college kids streaking through the passenger cars; a woman whose pet ferret got loose and ended up getting thrown into the river, and armed guards accompanying Cuban Dictator Fulgencio Batista on a run to Miami.

Celebrating the terminal’s centennial

            The vignettes of these railway men are just a small slice of history around the Jacksonville Terminal, which opened Nov. 18, 1919 at a construction cost of $2.5 million.

            Designed by Kenneth MacKenzie Murcheson as a scaled-down version of New York City’s Pennsylvania Station, the terminal of reinforced concrete with limestone veneer was built in 18 months. Sixty miles of track accommodated 29 passenger track stations, with up to 210 trains arriving and departing each day. The daily peak volume occurred during World War II when 100,000 service personnel and civilians passed through on its busiest days.

Jax Terminal Centennial Celebration guests with keynote speaker
Scott Vining Davis, Mary Porter, Keynote Speaker Clarence Gooden, and Peggy Harrell Jennings.

            One hundred years later, more than 200 history buffs, train aficionados, and railroad employees past and present attended the  Centennial Celebration in what was once the waiting room for non-whites. Clarence Gooden, former president of CSX, was the keynote speaker at the tribute. His career at CSX spanned nearly five decades, from 1970 to his retirement in 2017.

            ASM Global, the Prime F. Osborn III Convention Center, and PRI Productions provided in-kind sponsorships and support to enable the celebration, hosted by the Jacksonville Historical Society.

By Kate A. Hallock

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