Friday, March 29, 2013


Sometimes, I hear it in the afternoon, when I’m standing in the kitchen and the house is quiet. A deep rumbling in the distance and maybe a long, low whistle. I hear it more clearly when I’m working in the yard or laying by the pool. It enters my consciousness so gradually that I’m not really sure how long I’ve been hearing it.

And then it’s there.

If there’s any noise around me, a lawn mower, or traffic, or if I’m distracted, I don’t notice it at all.

A train track runs about a mile from my home in Chapel Hill. It was built around the time of the Civil War and, in fact, its construction was delayed by the war.

Most mornings, my wife and I drive to neighboring Carrboro for breakfast at Weaver Street Market or Open Eye, Caffé Driade’s sister coffee shop, and we cross the tracks just a few yards before the entrance to The Weave’s parking lot. 

Occasionally, we have to wait while an engine barely crosses the road and then backs up, disappearing in the same direction it came from until the gate lifts slowly back away from the street, as if it's only real purpose was to disrupt traffic for a few minutes while looking for all the world like a 200-ton prairie dog momentarily sticking its head out of its burrow.

For a few weeks last year, the crossing was under construction to make driving across the tracks less bumpy. It tied up traffic at the busiest spot in Carrboro.

From The Weave, the spur continues on another half mile to UNC’s power plant so trains can deliver product there. The Libba Cotton Bikeway was built alongside this portion of the track bed so students can bike safely from Carrboro to the UNC campus.

“Libba” was the nickname of blues and folk musiciansinger, and songwriter, Elizabeth Cotten. Elizabeth was born in Chapel Hill, North Carolina on January 5, 1893. She died June 29, 1987.

Local restaurateur, Bill Smith walks along this railroad track spur in the heat of Carolina summers to pick blackberries for Crook’s Corner. If you’ve ever picked blackberries, you know that picking enough to serve in a busy restaurant is quite an accomplishment. Heck, picking enough for one blackberry cobbler is a challenge.

When I drive the “back way” to Carrboro from Chapel Hill along Estes Drive, I cross the railroad at a point where it vanishes in a straight line in both directions. I love to look down the track as I cross, through the woods at the converging rails. On rare occasions, I see a solitary person walking slowly along the track bed. I envy them and imagine that one day I will take that walk.

In February of 1861, the North Carolina legislature created a corporate charter for the University Railroad Company to establish a rail connection from Chapel Hill to some unspecified point on the North Carolina Railroad. The State University Railroad began service in 1882, more than 130 years ago. It is currently part of Norfolk Southern Corporation.

The legislature specified that the railroad could be built no closer than one mile from the university. Some claim this was so the noise wouldn’t disturb the university, but others claim they wanted it far enough from campus that students couldn’t readily leave town on weekends and spend their money elsewhere. For decades, UNC students arrived in Carrboro by train and walked the mile to campus over a dirt road.

"The Whooper" ran from University Station to Carrboro for over 40 years. From PiedmontWandering's blog. 

For whatever reason the train station’s location was determined, the town of Carrboro sprang up and thrived around the train station. The track runs by the old cotton mill, whose refurbished brick building now houses the Carr-Mill Shopping Center and Weaver Street Market. Abandoned tracks still run through the parking lot across the street at Fitch Lumber Company, where trains once delivered lumber.

Today, the border between Chapel Hill and Carrboro is barely discernible, though they are distinct municipalities. Once you’ve lived here for a while, you know when you have crossed the line between Chapel Hill and Carrboro, but it isn’t obvious even then.

I bought a book about the history of Chapel Hill not long after we moved here. The town has a long and interesting history because it is the home of the first public university, the University of North Carolina, founded in 1789. Many students left campus to fight in the Civil War and most of them died. There is a statue in their honor on campus.

A lot of history there.

I opened that book the other night and randomly landed on a page with a photo of Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten. Elizabeth wrote many songs, but perhaps her most famous is “Freight Train”, a classic that most budding guitarists know and want to learn to play. It was then that I learned she was born in Chapel Hill and lived on Church Street, within walking distance of my home.

I still didn’t tie her to the Libba Cotton Bikeway until a few days later when I discovered her nickname.

Libba was left-handed and played the guitar basically upside down and backwards. You can watch videos of Neil Young or James Taylor (also a Chapel Hill-ian) and figure out how to play their songs, but I dare you to learn from watching video of Elizabeth Cotten. She plays the bass notes with her fingers and the high notes with her thumb. People who learn to play guitar the traditional way are completely dumbfounded by watching.

I got into a conversation about Elizabeth Cotten with the regulars at Caffé Driade this afternoon (a fine place to enjoy the distant sound of trains while sipping on a latté) with people who have lived here much longer than I have. It was only then that I made the most obvious connection of all.

That train I hear when I’m working in the yard? The one that sometimes stops traffic at the crossing on the way to breakfast in Carrboro? The low whistle I hear from my kitchen in the middle of the afternoon? The train that runs by Bill Smith’s favorite wild blackberry patch?

That’s Elizabeth Cotten’s freight train.

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