Those Train Horns We Hear in the Metro

One of the most familiar aural or sound images we hear nearly every day in hometowns throughout the ATL are train horns. I grew up in the Metro and my earliest memories of train horns date back to when I was about age 5 or so. I could hear the sounds permeate the air waves of Brookhaven and Chamblee when the old Southern Railroad, freight or passenger, used to come rolling through on what railroad people call the Main Line, that one parallel to Peachtree Road.


Train horns were a kind of soundtrack to my youth. When I was up close to the tracks, if I was on Peachtree at Brookhaven when it was a quaint village in the early 1960s, or hanging out in Old Chamblee, the sound was blaring, at first too loud. But that was cool because the blast matched the visual, rushing image of the locomotive and the train cars, making the total sight and sound package fascinating to me. Long before today’s Amtrack, the passenger line I saw was the old Southern Crescent. (My mom explained to me the crescent described an arc: New Orleans, Atlanta and Washington D.C., connecting to NYC, and then returning in opposite sequence, routes Amtrack now takes.)


Because passenger trains blow through their routes in hometowns fairly quickly, their horns don’t last as long. Freight trains, much longer and slower, are another matter. In the days before railroad overpasses were common there was a prominent grade crossing in Brookhaven, on Redding Road and Peachtree at the entrance to Ashford Park. As horns signaled the train coming, a gate went up at X-shaped signs (the X meant Railroad Crossing).


A marvelous way for a captive audience to pass the time while freight trains rolled through hometown crossings was to see various cars painted with faraway railroad colors, logos and names: Southern, of course, but also Louisville & Nashville and many others. My favorite train cars were literally few and far between: the bold yellow ones with red letters branded Southern Pacific, from way out west. Meanwhile the locomotive train horn sounded on. I didn’t realize it at the time, but train horns the way we hear them today were fairly new when I was a kid in 1950s Atlanta.
Atlanta began as a railroad hub before the Civil War and the city, now the region, was named by an engineer after Georgia’s first railroad, the Western & Atlantic. (Not totally consistent, but Atlanta is a made-up name, the “feminine” of Atlantic, if that makes any sense.) Railroads allowed landlocked Atlanta, perched more than 1,000 feet high on the Pied-mont plateau, to link the eastern and western parts of the southern region with a central depot at Five Points. At the height of Atlanta’s train service more than 150 trains a day ran through many metro hometowns.
Today one sees tracks in Duluth, Norcross, Brookhaven, Lilburn, Stone Mountain, Tucker and Decatur, and other hometowns. Train all pulled into Terminal station in downtown Atlanta. There were so many tracks coming into the ATL that downtown, viaducts (bridges) were built over the rails, which created Underground Atlanta. It’s therefore possible when you go to underground street levels, you can see layers of the city’s railroad past.
The earliest trains, in Atlanta as elsewhere, signaled their coming through grade or level crossings usually with bells. Then later came an improvement, steam whistles produced from engine boilers. (Whistle stops were signs along the tracks to re-mind engineers to sound their steam whistles when approaching a town or crossing.) I never heard shall we say bells and whistles. By the 1950s, when I grew up, Diesel locomotives were becoming state of the art and they had, as warning signals, compressed air horns, basically prototypes of the kind that are used today.
Modern Diesel locomotive horns don’t sound like the old choo-choo trains or the chugga chugga of steam engines from years ago. Instead, Diesel horns are a kind of bawling sound, loud and unrestrained, but very pleasant when heard some-what muffled from a distance of perhaps a couple of miles.
The night time train horn I hear today is that of the Norfolk Southern, which rolls from Duluth, Norcross and Brookhaven into Atlanta. I live in Peachtree Corners, and at nights especially I hear the train sounding its horn at the landmark location of the Detective Hugo Arango Memorial Bridge overpass at Oakcliff Road. In daytime when I’m teach-ing history at GSU Perimeter College in Clarkston, I hear horns of the CSX running parallel to Ponce de Leon Avenue.
Compressed air train horns sound high musical notes, tonally like a steam whistle. Engineers sound their horns for vari-ous reasons, usually to give notice to clear the tracks. A horn valve opens, and through it, air flows. When air passes through a narrow opening, it oscillates or vibrates against a nozzle, producing the distinctive air horn sound. Its waves are in turn amplified by a large flared horn bell. Bells, whistles and horns were for years manipulated by levers or pull chords, as you see sometimes in old movies. Since the 1990s, though, train horns have push-button controls. In case of emergencies, engineers can sound their train horns at will.
Train horns I like the most though are the routine, almost calming, sounds heard at a distance when railroad engines pass through grade crossings. Rules require that engineers sound their locomotive horns at least 15 seconds, but no more than 20, before entering a crossing. The pattern for blowing blasts of train horns that we usually hear are: 2 long, 1 short, and 1 long. It’s repeated or prolonged as necessary until the lead locomotive fully occupies a crossing.
Atlanta has clearly embraced its railroad sounds and I love that. When the Falcons or the Five Stripes score at Mer-cedes-Benz Stadium, for example, it’s celebrated with a tape of a railroad horn. And in one of my favorite movies set and filmed in Atlanta, Baby Driver, train horns are sounded throughout the film, integral to its Academy Award winning sound-track. Singer/songwriter Johnny Cash, a hero of mine, famously loved trains and the sound elements involved.
Indeed, train horns are compelling because they are so unique, rushing and musical. Ironically the horn itself is not very prepossessing, quite small and not very visible when perched atop a Diesel locomotive. Multiple horn units are musical be-cause they literally work as chimes, producing different notes that when sounded together make a chord. And I just can’t help it: those chimes of a train horn are just pure music to my ears.


– Dr. Paul Hudson

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