Trains on the brain

Charles at Large: A fifth-generation Atlantan explains the city

Q: What happened to all the cool old passenger trains that used to run through Georgia?

Neill Herring, a former Georgia Association of Railroad Passengers lobbyist, rode the Dixie Flyer and the Ponce de Leon from Dalton to Atlanta back in the sixties. “The train guys knew us because we helped handle the mail,” he says, “and let us ride home for free.” He remembers the Nancy Hanks, too—a heavily used train with a lunch counter and a dome car—and the Royal Palm, Silver Comet, and Georgian, all inter-city service trains. None have survived.

The old passenger trains made money three ways: mail contracts, railway express business, and, of course, passengers. By 1965, the U.S. Postal Service had begun to take mail off the trains, opting instead for highway and truck transport. “All through my childhood, railway express had green trucks with red lettering delivering packages to people,” says Herring. “Passengers, too. They were driven off by systematic reductions in service.” The dining cars went away, as did the “butches”—boys who sold food. Only coach cars were left, and those barely made money. There were no public funds to improve the locomotives, and people had been favoring automobile and airline transport since World War II ended, anyway. More than thirty trains still ran through Atlanta in 1966, but many weren’t doing good business. So Amtrak emerged to “kill off the trains,” says Herring. Amtrak cut passenger service nationwide by about two-thirds overnight. “The South took a bad hit.” The Crescent, one of the last privately operated trains in the country, was sold to Amtrak in 1979.

Q: I’ve been riding the old Rich’s (now Macy’s) Pink Pig for years, but never stopped to ask: Why a pig?

Neither two former Rich’s presidents, nor four living members of the Rich family, nor the Atlanta History Center’s curator of urban history, nor a folksy history of Rich’s called Dear Store, can solve this porcine mystery. David Barnett, former president Richard Rich’s grandson and the de facto family historian, isn’t even convinced of who had the idea: “I’m not sure Gramps would have been deeply involved in picking the species of the animal.” He thinks Alvin Ferst—a former Rich’s executive vice president who died at age eighty-seven on September 30—may have known the answer: “He was [until now] the last living man in the room when they chose the pig.” This is certain: In 1953, the department store bought a miniature monorail and added a pig snout and a caboose with a curly tail, and kids rode it for a quarter. The Pink Pig continues to delight today, for $3, in a white tent at Lenox Square.

Illustration by Edwin Fotheringham

Got an Atlanta question? E-mail Charles Bethea at