Trains in Downtown Knoxville (Photos by Luke Frazier)
(Ed. Note: Today’s article is by sometimes guest writer Luke Frazier.)
The first time I got really blasted in Knoxville was a couple of days after I moved here last September. I was on West Jackson Ave, right across from Brother Wolf Cocktail Bar. The reverberations cascaded down my body and rooted me to the sidewalk. I was startled (the sheer decibels guarantee it) and felt a flash of fear response too. But fight or flight doesn’t apply when you are talking about a freight train whistle blast at a volume where, I swear, you can see the sound waves. You are surrounded, and surrender is the only option.
Since I lived right on Jackson Ave it wasn’t the first time I heard the whistle signal for the crossing on Central St. just north of Jackson. But it was the first time I was outside on the street with only a parking lot between me and the tracks. It was the aural equivalent of diving into crashing ocean waves. Exhilarating, absolutely, but holy sh*t it was LOUD.
When I’m inside my second floor apartment across from Jackson Terminal I can’t actually see the tracks, but I hear all the trains (at least I should?). TDOT confirmed my casual guess of about a dozen trains rolling through downtown on any given day (and night), but the strange thing is how some are ghosts and others are goliaths. With my windows open the horn volume momentarily drowns out any music or TV I have going, and it’s impossible to think I don’t perceive the sound on some level, but in the 9 months of living with the trains a stone’s toss away I can say many runs now go unnoticed, fading into the background, my powers of perception hijacked by inattention. But the reality of the stretch of tracks in The Old City (roughly between Gay St and Hall of Fame Drive) is undeniable.
I read there are more than 300 miles of railroad tracks in the Knoxville area (mostly controlled by Norfolk Southern), and 370 million tons of freight moving through annually. The lengths of the trains vary widely but typically are 7,200 feet or less. With boxcars averaging 50-60 feet each, we’re talking about maybe 120-144 cars clacking through at a time. But it’s not the facts alone that matter. Trains carry a load of cultural freight quite independent of the products inside the sometimes heavily graffiti-tagged cars.
Certain train-related notions are cultural cliches at this point, true or not. There’s the friendly hobo riding the rails, the horse-backed riders robbing the mail train, the cartoon damsel tied to the tracks, and the action hero jumping from car to car (watch out for that upcoming tunnel). The whole damn myth of The West, the crusading marauders headed for the coast, settlers looking for their share, armies of exploitation and the excuse of Manifest Destiny. Freedom gets tied tightly to the realm of the rails, dressed up in romance.
Even from an urban vantagepoint, watching a long freight train chug/clack/screech past can be a meditative experience. Its energy is palpable and its progress inescapable. It rolls through and makes no excuses. For now, I consider it a good neighbor, despite its sometimes boorish blast.