Notes from Slightly South of North Georgia

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It was another beautiful autumn weekend on the Blue Ridge Scenic Railway. We made history this weekend. Well, at least we made local history. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution might not find it that remarkable. We ran our train (two engines and six passenger cars) south from Blue Ridge, Georgia to the tiny community of Cherry Log, GA. It was the first passenger train to stop at Cherry Log in over 60 years, and even then, Cherry Log was only a flag stop. Trains only stopped if passengers needed to board or disembark. However, unlike those trains of old we came to Cherry Log with 200 passengers and they were all getting off.

 

Ciminel Notes North Georgia

Entering Cherry Log
Photo by Bob Ciminel © 2007

Cherry Log consists of a few houses, a post office, and a church. It is seven rail miles south of Blue Ridge, and, from the perspective of the fireman's seat in the locomotive, Cherry Log is just a clearing in the woods. For the railroad, Cherry Log marked a major change in geography. It was the transition point from the relatively flat flood plain of Cherry Log Creek to a pair of hills with 2-percent grades to reach another southward flowing stream.

Every October weekend, Cherry Log hosts a small festival featuring local crafts, food, and music. The festival's organizers stick a few hand-painted signs out along the four-lane with the words "Cherry Log Fall Festival" and an arrow pointing in the general direction of the festival site. You can't read the sign if you're traveling more than 30 miles an hour. The speed limit is 65, which means everyone is driving 80. Those signs flash past in an instant, so you have to know where you're going if you don't want to miss the exit. But it's no big deal. Cherry Log is a laid back community and the people who need to know about the festival already do.

The end of summer is festival time throughout metro Atlanta. There is no comparison between the Cherry Log Festival and, for example, the Yellow Daisy festival at Georgia's Stone Mountain Park. The Yellow Daisy draws a hundred thousand people from all over the metropolitan Atlanta area. Heck, if Cherry Log can attract a hundred people in a weekend, it's a big crowd.

Arriving in Cherry Log around 10 a.m. Saturday morning, our passenger train caused quite a stir. For one thing, the people at the festival could hear us coming down the valley for over an hour. The first five and a half miles down the valley were uneventful, but that last half mile into Cherry Log was a bit of a challenge.

Cherry Log sits around a sharp left hand curve at the top of a steep grade. The rails were wet with morning dew, and our locomotive's wheels started slipping. Carl, the engineer, had the throttle wide open and was sanding the rails for all he was worth, but the train stalled a half-mile from the festival site. Fortunately, we had a second engineer aboard, and he strolled back to the rear engine to give us a push. We arrived five minutes later to the cheers and shouts of the waiting crowd.

I am constantly amazed at the way people react whenever a passenger train pulls into a small town. Everyone, young and old, is waving and smiling. It must be something implanted in our collective psyches or part of our genes; something left over from turn-of-the-century America when railroads were the lifeblood of communities like Cherry Log. On that Saturday, we became the lifeblood of the Cherry Log Festival.

As with most small-town festivals in the South, the main attractions at Cherry Log are the local crafts. Where else can you find decorated toilet bowl plungers, or hand-painted circular saw blades? Personally, I like the homemade sausage biscuits drenched in "sawmill gravy." I don't know what they put in sawmill gravy, but it is delicious, and I don't ask questions.

Ciminel Notes No Georgia 2

Curtis Curve
Photo by Bob Ciminel © 2007


A local gospel group was performing when we arrived. They provided anyone within earshot a taste of "that old time religion." I know what you're thinking; music for rednecks. Sure, a lot of the people wore blue jeans and ball caps, but an equal number wore shorts, polo shirts, and sandals. It was a diverse crowd for the North Georgia Mountains.

I was too busy with my conductor duties to tour the whole festival, even though it was only a block long, but I did buy a bag of boiled peanuts and a ball cap stenciled "Cherry Log." I couldn't wait to get back to Atlanta and have someone ask me, "Where the heck is Cherry Log?" To which I would reply, "What are you, a Damn Yankee? Every Southerner knows where Cherry Log is! Next to Robert E. Lee's gravesite, Cherry Log is probably the most sacred place in the South." Then I would have to make up something because I haven't the foggiest idea how Cherry Log got its name or why it exists. However, regardless of its historical importance, the railroad went through Cherry Log, and that made it an important place to me.

Our 200 passengers bought up all of the crafts and most of the available food at the festival. They were like a school of Piranha as they passed through the place. The gospel group was beside themselves; they had never played for such a large audience. I can't say they experienced rapture, but they sure were on Cloud Nine. They even forgave us for blowing the locomotive horn in the middle of one of their songs.

Listening to that gospel group reminded me of some advice I gave my son when he began playing the guitar. As I watched an elderly white-haired man playing the electric guitar, I recalled telling my son, "Play any kind of music you can, rock and roll, country, Cajun, gospel, heavy metal; it doesn't matter. Don't become a music snob and only play what you like. Musical notes are human emotions that can be written on paper or sent through the air. Let those emotions flow through you and into your guitar." That is what I saw that gospel-singing, guitar-picking old man doing. The spirit was moving him; flowing through him into his guitar and out to the world. He was the world's greatest guitar players all rolled into one, and he was sitting on a small stage next to the railroad tracks in Cherry Log, Georgia, playing to an audience of fifty people who had no idea what he was experiencing.

We left Cherry Log right on schedule and crept back to Blue Ridge at a leisurely eight miles per hour. The track between Blue Ridge and Cherry Log was technically out of service, but we had special permission to operate on it for this one trip. Our maintenance crews had worked all week replacing ties and realigning the rails just so we could go to Cherry Log.

Our tourist railroad carries passengers of every sort, ranging from the well-to-do folks from Atlanta to people who have to scrimp and save to afford the $20 ticket. We bend over backwards to serve the people who live in the small communities along our route, even if it means going out of our way and 60 years into the past to do it.

The tracks we run on are curvy and steep. Something about those two ribbons of rail winding through the woods mesmerizes me. It could be the parallelism of the rail or the symmetry of row upon row of ties, or perhaps it's the way the rails appear to join together in the distance. It could be the mystery of what lies around the next curve or beneath the next trestle. Whatever it is, I'm addicted to it. I will work an entire weekend just to spend an hour on the locomotive watching that mystery unfold.