Al Kalmbach captures train time at Calera, Ala.

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Tuesday, January 17, 2023

Some young women wave to their friends departing on L&N train 3 at Calera, Ala., in the spring of 1942. Al Kalmbach photo
Some photographs grab your imagination and won’t let go.

Case in point: this simple but quietly affecting portrait of what I’m guessing are some teenage girls giving two friends a sendoff as they board Louisville & Nashville train No. 3 on the platform of the joint L&N and Southern Railway station in Calera, Ala., in the spring of 1942. The photographer was Al Kalmbach, founder of the company that brings you these words.

For years, I have been making regular trips through the South during winter, and most times try to visit places that meant something to a hero of mine, longtime Trains Editor David P. Morgan. Years ago, I attended D.P.M.’s father’s Presbyterian church in suburban Louisville, followed later by a trip to Monticello, Ga., where the editor grew up (and the Rev. Kingsley Morgan also led the local Presbyterians). There were other treks to places David made famous: Saluda, N.C.; Anniston, Ala.; and Jellico, Tenn., to name a few.

This time I wanted to focus on Al Kalmbach and specifically this photo by him, which appeared in the July 1942 issue of Trains. We thought enough of the image to include it decades later in our “100 Greatest Railroad Photos” special edition that appeared in 2009. The founder doesn’t get much credit as a photographer, but my goodness, he deserves it. This image is proof.

There’s so much going on here. First there’s the remarkable top photo, a reminder that once upon a time trains were a part of nearly every American’s life. It’s just a routine day on the platform at Calera as No. 3 makes its brief stop on its way to Montgomery. But Al’s camera takes us beyond the routine as he captures the beaming smiles of the bobby soxers, waving to their friends boarding the train.

Where were they going? Heading home from nearby Alabama State College for Women for the summer? Going on a shopping trip to Montgomery? And why was Al Kalmbach on the platform, Korelle Reflex 6 x 6 camera in hand? On an ad sales trip for his fledgling railroad magazine? Traveling with his family? We’ll likely never know.

The octogenarian L&N conductor is the perfect complement to the scene. Erect in posture and perfectly turned out in his uniform and sparkling black shoes, he’s likely near the No. 1 spot on the Birmingham Division seniority list, and damned proud of it. He might be old, but he’s reliable.

A station crew loads train 3’s Railway Post Office as the fireman of Pacific 248 looks on. Al Kalmbach photo
There’s more. L&N No. 3 was an unnamed daytime accommodation, but it had more going for it than meets the eye (and for many of these details I thank my friend Ron Flanary, L&N historian extraordinaire). The train originated the night before in Cincinnati, almost expressly for the purpose of delivering through sleepers to Nashville off the Pennsylvania Railroad. By the time it departed Nashville at 9:10 a.m. it was back to being a lowly day train, with stops at virtually every small town between Decatur and Montgomery. That includes tiny Calera, 540 miles from the bustling platforms of Cincinnati Union Terminal. 

Fortunately, Al Kalmbach wasn’t content to merely record what was happening by the open vestibule. After photographing the young women and their conductor, he turned hard to the right for something just as appealing: action at the head end, where the fireman of the 4-6-2 stands atop the tender, watching as the station crew loads sacks of mail on and off No. 3’s Railway Post Office. You can’t blame him if he looks a bit impatient. Ahead are 64 more miles and 11 stops at such places as Minooka, Verbena, and Prattville Junction before train 3 can tie up at 10:44 p.m. in Montgomery. Lots of work to do, not a lot of time to do it.  

We should also note No. 3’s workhorse, No. 248, built at the railroad’s South Louisville Shops in 1920. Like the Pennsy and the N&W, the L&N manufactured a lot of its own engines; the 248 was one of 400 to come out of South Louisville between 1905 and 1923, including 2-8-0s, 0-8-0 switchers, four classes of 2-8-2s, and a number of light and medium Pacifics like the 248.

Any railroad that made its own engines gets extra points in my book. To learn more about how L&N did it, check out Charles Buccola’s commentary on South Louisville in the March 2023 issue of Trains, a sidebar to Ron Flanary’s article “An Old Reliable Comes Home to Kentucky,” about the restoration and display of L&N homebuilt 0-8-0 No. 2132 at Corbin, Ky. 

How fortunate we are that Al Kalmbach could capture this ephemeral scene at Calera on that wartime afternoon. It’s possible some of the giddy young women in the photo are still around, but certainly not train No. 3. “I couldn’t nail down when mainline locals Nos. 2 and 3 were discontinued,” says Ron, “but I think it was in the mid-50s when the L&N made some moves to rationalize local service on this route.” Calera did manage to hang on to passenger service until December 29, 1966, when Cincinnati-Montgomery long-haul locals Nos. 1 and 4 were discontinued.

Today, an empty lot exists at the site of Calera’s one-time joint L&N/Southern Railway depot. Kevin P. Keefe photo
Calera’s station is long gone as well, not that I expected to see it. When I stopped in Calera last week, it took a few moments to get oriented, but eventually I figured out where the joint L&N/Southern depot and its generous covered platforms stood, now just an empty expanse of gravel ballast hard by what is now CSX’s main line to New Orleans. The site still shakes to the rumble of passing freight trains on the CSX/Norfolk Southern diamond, but the endearing charm of an afternoon in 1942 is but a memory. We can be grateful to the intrepid Al Kalmbach for giving us a glimpse of it. 

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