Searching in Georgia for DPM

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Thursday, February 14, 2019

Longtime Trains Editor David P. Morgan often professed his affection for the Louisville & Nashville, thanks to his adolescence in Louisville. But for the first several years of his life he lived in Monticello, Ga., on the Central of Georgia. One day in the mid-1930s, young DPM (left) and his brother Mick posed with a dog for a family photo. Center for Railroad Photography & Art collection
Fans of David P. Morgan know the Louisville & Nashville was his favorite railroad. As a teenager growing up in the Louisville neighborhood of Crescent Hill in the late 1930s, he swore allegiance to the Old Reliable and its passenger trains and steam locomotives.

As if to bear witness to that faith, DPM gave Trains readers a regular dose of the L&N throughout his 33 years as editor. Who could forget the magazine’s issue-length tribute to the railroad’s M-1 “Big Emma” 2-8-4s in December 1972, written by his high school pal (and longtime L&N public relations man) Charlie Castner? Or his emotional, almost confessional L&N tribute in the May 1976 issue, with its impossibly long headline adapted from the old verse “Mother Macree”? (It began with the phrase “There’s a spot in my heart” — then went on for 36 more words!)

No question, the L&N got its due from its biggest fan.

But before the L&N entered his life, before he settled into his high school years on the leafy edges of a big city, David Morgan the little boy fell under the spell of an entirely different railroad, in an entirely different environment. It happened 60 miles southeast of Atlanta in the small town of Monticello, Ga., where David was born March 17, 1927. Monticello was at Milepost 45.3 from Macon on the Central of Georgia Railway.

The CofG was a considerable railroad in its day, with a web of main lines and branches weaving through the broad middle of the Peach State. Perhaps it was best known for two of its passenger trains, the Atlanta–Savannah Nancy Hanksand the Columbus–Atlanta Man o’ War. The CofG became a Southern Railway subsidiary in June 1963. 

Morgan's boyhood hangout — the place where he first really encountered railroading — was the CofG station in Monticello, pictured in 1973. James G. Bogle
For the first few years of childhood, David lived within earshot of CofG’s 105-mile Macon–Athens branch, which wound its way through Monticello along a series of graceful S curves. It was a sleepy line: the CofG timetable for 1933, when Morgan was 6, showed but six trains, two northbound and four southbound, all listed as “mixed.” In addition to local passengers, they mostly carried agricultural products and woodchips, the bounty of hilly north Georgia. 

The Morgan family was deeply entrenched in Monticello life. His father, the Rev. Kingsley Morgan, was pastor of Monticello Presbyterian Church, one of the largest congregations in town. Near that church, the reverend and his wife, Juliet Freda, raised three boys, including David’s two brothers Len and Mick. There they lived until 1937, when the pastor answered the call to lead Crescent Hill Presbyterian Church in Louisville.

Although DPM didn’t write often in Trains of his formative years in Monticello, he did produce a memorable recollection in the September 1982 issue. “The mixed train made an enormous impression upon a sensitive 8-year-old in swishy corduroy knee pants and silent tennis shoes,” he wrote. “The 10:30 appearance of the southbound run on Saturday morning was, without question, the biggest event of the best day of the week.”

That essay was entitled “When the Train Left, the Fun Paled,” and you can read it by following this link.  

Monticello Presbyterian Church, where Morgan's father Kingsely was pastor in the 1920s and '30s, stands proud in a recent photo. The Jasper County courthouse is in the background. Kevin P. Keefe
David has always been a big presence in my life. Years ago Alison and I visited his old Crescent Hill neighborhood and attended the church his father led there. Last week afforded me another chance to get a deeper feel for the man. We planned a driving trip from our daughter’s place in Charleston, S.C., over to visit friends in Atlanta. When I checked the map, I was excited to discover that Monticello wasn’t far off our route — just 26 miles or so south of I-20. Time for a detour. 

I was pleased to find a vibrant small town. Driving in on Georgia 83, we found Monticello’s courthouse square was alive with cars, trucks, and pedestrians. Monticello is far enough from both I-20 on the north and I-75 on the west to avoid the sort of dreary four-lane strips that suck the economic life out of so many other towns. We stopped at a crowded little café called The Vanilla Bean, bustling at lunchtime, and enjoyed pecan chicken-salad sandwiches as we sat by the front picture window looking at the square. It sounded like everyone coming through the door knew everyone inside.

After lunch, we headed for the Presbyterian church. It was easy to find — a large, sprawling, white clapboard structure on the southeast edge of the downtown, dominated by a pair of steeples near the front entrance and a substantial cemetery alongside.

Around back we found the office and spoke briefly with Lisa Fuller, the administrative assistant. I wasn’t surprised when she told us she hadn’t heard of the Rev. Kingsley Morgan from 82 years ago, but I still enjoyed our brief visit. Staring up at the stained-glass windows that flank the sanctuary, I could imagine little David Morgan in there, shifting impatiently in the pew, dutifully listening to his father’s sermon but eager to run out those big double doors to see the next 2-8-0 whistling into town. 

The depot at Monticello is gone, but the line once trod by the CofG 2-8-0s that so enthralled young DPM endures as part of Norfolk Southern's network. Kevin P. Keefe
Our last stop was less uplifting. I found the remains of the old Central of Georgia station on Frobel Street, just north of the square. After predecessor Covington & Northern arrived in Monticello in 1887, the railroad built a spacious combination passenger and freight depot, notable for its generous veranda, keeping little kids like David in the shade. As the accompanying photo shows, by 1973 the building had been shorn of its porch roof. The building was razed sometime thereafter. 

I couldn’t bear to photograph the station site, little more than piles of old foundation blocks strewn with garbage. I decided instead to walk just beyond the mess and shoot the Norfolk Southern station sign, the name MONTICELLO in white against a green background, the sign a remnant of the railroad’s time as a Southern branch.

Before we left town, we witnessed a southbound NS local, its open-top hoppers loaded to the gills with woodchips. Today the line is the NS Madison District, extending only 17 miles north from Monticello to Madison; the rest of the 33 miles up to Athens have been abandoned. But apparently the remaining branch still has enough customers to prevent NS from selling it off to a short line. 

Heading west later on Georgia 16, we watched Monticello fade in our rear-view mirror. I felt good about most of what I saw, and heartened that David apparently never lost his love for his original hometown. “They say that once you leave a town like Monticello . . . you should never go back,” David wrote in 1982. “I say horsefeathers to that.”

Having been there on a warm, sunny day in February, I understood how he felt. 

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