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The Train They Call "The City of New Orleans"
by Chuck Jones

The Illinois Central’s City of New Orleans -- no doubt one of the most famous trains, if not the most famous the IC had in their system on the Main Line of Mid-America -- had two sister trains. Let us look at a brief bit of history about these trains before we look at the The City of New Orleans, the main topic of this story.

The first train we will consider is the Green Diamond, a famous train of that era. We remember the beautiful two tone Cyprus and Cedar green colors, and we note the name Green Diamond was given to this train as a green diamond was the emblem of the ICRR.

The Green Diamond ran between Chicago and St. Louis. All coaches were connected in a way that prevented cars to be added or removed, thus it appeared to be one continuous consist. The Green Diamond had a colorful history, but was removed from service in 1947 and completely overhauled, later to re-emerge and enter into service in a completely different location, far away in Jackson, Mississippi.

On re-entry into service, the train was not only based in a different city, but was given a new name, Miss-Lou (MISSissippi--LOUisiana). This train had a run from Jackson to New Orleans, and of course the return. Each run took approximately four hours.

I never rode the Green Diamond, but I remember well the Miss-Lou. Both trains, along with all of the colorful, memorable trains, have now faded into railroad history. When AmTrak took over the passenger rail system, all trains took on the new look, identical in color and make up, no longer having their different beautiful colors that set them apart, running their own special routes, and appearing in their own special way as only trains of the past could do. This indeed was a sad day for all Railroad Buffs [sigh].

Now the rest of the story.

Growing up in Jackson, Mississippi, and attending high school and college in this fine city, allows me to say Jackson is my main hometown; however, being born and spending my earlier years in Memphis, I can rightfully say Memphis is my second hometown. I am proud of both.

During the summer between school sessions, I traveled to Memphis and enjoyed spending time with my relatives. It is hard for me to decide if I enjoyed being in Memphis with family or if I enjoyed more the adventurous ride on the City of New Orleans. I suppose enjoyment came from both.

Standing at the elevated station in Jackson, waiting on the City to arrive, I could look down on Capital Street and have a full view, extending to State Street, many blocks away. As I gazed up Capital, I anticipated the wonderful adventure upon which I was about to embark. You see, I was going to make this trip alone, and I felt about nine feet tall.

As I stood waiting, thinking of seeing family and seeing again all the sights of Memphis, I'd suddenly find my thoughts interrupted by the blast of the lead engine's horn as it pulled that wonderful City of New Orleans. Looking south, I could see the marvelous giant as its speed was reduced so it could make a safe entry into the station.

First, the giant engines would go by slowly, followed by several mail cars and finally the beautiful coaches. Coaches occasionally had to be added, due to more passengers riding the City that day. With additional coaches in place, we finally were able to board. When the loading and unloading of baggage and mail were completed, I could hear the conductor call "ALL ABOARD!" The blast of the horn meant we would soon be on our way, slowly at first, but picking up speed as we moved along Mill Street and into the switching yards.

Once on the outskirts of Jackson, the speed of the train increased, and I sat back with anticipation of the trip. There would be many towns to travel through, and there would be stops in a few, but also we would enjoy the beautiful countryside as we made our way north to Memphis.

The original route of the City leaving Jackson was Canton (the crew change in those days), Durant, Winona, Grenada, Batesville and into Memphis. I now live in Alabama, but I have been told the City has a new route out of Jackson. The City, on leaving Jackson, will go through Yazoo City and Batesville on its trek to Memphis. I wonder if the scenery is as beautiful as the original route?

The City of New Orleans, in the early days, was an all-coach train, the daytime sister to the famous Panama Limited, a night run, and was all Pullman (the cost was higher on the Panama Limited). The two trains had the same color scheme -- shiny brown with an orange stripe near the bottom, bordered by a narrow yellow stripe that bordered the orange. The engines had the famous green diamond shape with a white IC in the center, an impressive sight to behold for all railroad buffs.

The City of New Orleans had for years been famous in its own way, but became more popular when a song about the City was written and released in 1972. Steve Goodman wrote the song, and Arlo Guthrie recorded it and included it in his album, "Hobos Lullaby." Due to the popularity of the album, the next year a single "City of New Orleans" was released, and this only added to the City’s popularity. As many have said, this is a very popular song. Johnny Cash said, "I believe it is the best train song I have ever heard." Numerous other artists have released the song, increasing its popularity, one such singer being Willie Nelson.

It is well to mention at this point that we have had other popular train songs, including "The Ballad of Casey Jones." An engineer for the IC on the main line of Mid-America, Casey had a run from Memphis south on the same route the City and the Panama had; he was killed in a train wreck near Vaughn, Mississippi, due to running late and going at an excessive rate of speed. Casey’s fireman, Sim Webb, survived the wreck, and he told many tales about the IC and firing for Casey on the IC.

The ABC network show “Good Morning, America” had its beginning in the early 70s. The name for the show was taken from the song about the City of New Orleans. The name today remains the same, but the theme song has been changed.

It would indeed be a wonderful experience to return to Jackson and be able to board the familiar, bright, shiny City of New Orleans and relive some of the wonderful memories from the past while riding on "America's Native Son" -- "The Train they call The City of New Orleans.”


Chuck Jones writes: I now live in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, with my lovely wife, Nancy. We are both semi-retired, enjoying life in our new home, a college town. The main campus of the University of Alabama is located here, and, to say the least, football season is very exciting as ALL home games are played on the campus at the Bryant-Denny Stadium. We have excitement and an over-abundance of people on football Saturdays. We have attended St Mark United Methodist Church in Northport for sixteen years and find life in a college town very rewarding and exciting.

Read another of Chuck's USADS stories: Jackson, Mississippi ~ My Home Town

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