Lilesville pastor and engineer played the song that rode the rails

By: Leon Smith - Contributing columnist

Author’s note: The Seaboard is now CSX. Former CSX employees Curtis Diggs, John McCormick and David Napier gave me information used in this article, as did Gum Springs historian Ann Marks Hough.

Diggs, McCormick and Hough heard “the song that rode the winds” with their own ears.

In the days when steam engines rode the rails, even at night when you could not see them, you could often know who was at the throttle of the locomotive passing by. Above the choo-choo-choo-choo choo-choo-choo-choo of steam pushing drive wheels, above the lesser clatter of passenger car wheels crossing joints in the track, came the whooo whooo whoo whoooooo sound of the whistle as the engine approached a crossing.

Now, a locomotive whistle is a special thing to an engineer. It stands for the engine, the railroad, and in a special way, the person. Because the Seaboard allowed engineers to have their own whistles, the engineer put a lot of thought and care into the choice. One of the easiest roads to distinction was to have a special tone. Some whistles came from manufacturers, others were made in railroad shops. Still others were built by the engineers themselves.

To make a simple whistle was to do in metal what many children once did with a piece of cane pole. The cane section was left closed on one end, then v- notched with a pocket knife about an inch from the open end. Cutting a round plug and flattening off the top side left a narrow channel, which forced the wind to whistle past the notch. A good strong blow into the tube would make a really loud sound.

If an engineer had his own metal whistle, he would climb on the running board of the engine, unscrew the standard one-note whistle from the steam source just outside the cab and screw in their own personal whistle. If a one-tube whistle was good, then two tubes would be better, and a half dozen would be best. Some engineers — Casey Jones was one — had these six-tone whistles. It was easy to identify an engineer by the sound of such a special whistle. But there was another way.

While waiting around, diesel engineers have been known to play tunes like, “Shave and a Haircut (Two Bits)” on their air horns. Because human nature is playful, I am sure that the steam engineers played little ditties on their steam whistles, as well.

Maybe this is where Dick Brothers got his idea. Seaboard engineer Alonzo Richard Brothers had two jobs. One was pulling passenger trains behind steam out of Hamlet. The other was tugging souls closer to the Master in his no-salary, part-time calling as minister of Gum Springs Baptist Church, whose one-room building stood on the site of the present church, on Hailey’s Ferry Road, southeast of Lilesville.

Times were hard when Preacher Brothers was called to the church. It was in the time of the Great Depression, so most of the members were out of work. But they loved the Lord, and they loved each other, and somehow they got the idea that the Master wanted them to replace their little one-room building with one which would hold 500 worshipers. The men donated the labor, the women brought meals. Those who could donated lumber and supplies. The only one who was not on the site every day was the preacher himself.

There was a reason Mr. Brothers could not work alongside his flock every day. Those days off were the days he engineered on the Seaboard. He had to work, but his very heart was at Gum Springs.

Those men and women were giving everything they had to the building of the new church. And he needed to encourage them even when he could not be there.

What was he to do? If he did not work, he could not preach. He had often heard someone say, “I’ll be with you in spirit.” That was exactly what he wanted to do. Knowing what kind of man he was, I know he put the matter before the Lord. I don’t know exactly how his prayer was answered, and no one has been able to tell me. But here is how it might have happened.

One day, getting ready to pull out of Hamlet, I think Mr. Brothers was humming as he thought about his church members out there on the work site. He may have started noodling around, absent-mindedly tugging the cord to his regular, standard Seaboard-issued steam whistle. The notes got higher the harder he pulled the cord. They fell lower each time he released the cord and pulled lightly.

He came to himself when he heard a familiar tune. Although a musician would have heard pitches like G C D E, Mr. Brothers heard the first four notes of “O Happy Day.

Dick Brothers found himself playing his locomotive. Pulling out high notes, low notes, and notes in between, he moved into the last notes of the chorus. “Hap-py day…. happy day….when Jesus washed….my sins away.” This became his theme.

I wouldn’t be surprised if he said, “Hallelujah,” on the spot.

He played some more before he pulled out. If his fireman was a preacher too, they probably got to singing. When it was time to pull out, Preacher Brothers signaled the fact on the whistle, and they got under way.

It was just over two miles from where the tracks crossed Hailey’s Ferry road to the building site. He told his fireman he was going to play the tune as they got near his church.

So he started to play “Oh Happy Day” as he crossed the trestle over the Pee Dee River. Both he and his fireman knew it was against regulations to use the whistle that way. But he played on — the entire phrase when he could and when a crossing intervened he would play only G C D E — “O Happy Day.”

When he rejoined the workers at the church site, they had already figured out that it was their preacher playing his favorite hymn to them as he passed by going west, and it was their preacher playing his favorite hymn when passed by on the return run to Hamlet. They thought it was special to hear the Master’s praises riding the wind.

It wasn’t long before word got back to Hamlet that engineer Dick Brothers had been playing a hymn on the whistle of his steam engine. But in the late twenties and early thirties, things were not like they are today. The work of the Lord was given a break, even in the rules and regulations of a large railway line. So when the superintendent at Hamlet found out what Preacher Brothers was doing, and why he was doing it, the super wrote in an exception to the steam whistle rules. He made it known that Dick Brothers would always use his whistle to fulfill all normal and necessary signaling as a Seaboard railroad engineer. But after that, he could play “O Happy Day”on his locomotive any time he wished.

The new building had been started shortly after the Rev. Brothers was called to Gum Springs Baptist in 1928. It might not surprise you to know that there was enough love around that project that they laid the cornerstone on April 19, 1931. And that the building was declared debt-free on April 15, 1934 — the date Mr. Brothers designated homecoming Sunday at Gum Springs.

How long Mr. Brothers continued playing his locomotive I do not know. But it would be my guess that he continued until the Seaboard put him on a diesel in the late 1930s. And they kept loving the Lord and each other and sang like they knew Who they were singing about in the new sanctuary, too.

By the time I got there in 1982, that church was the most praise-filled Southern Baptist church I had ever seen. I could walk into the pulpit and begin to cry, the love was so strong. The Spirit behind “the song that rode the winds”: “Happy Day, Happy Day.”

Leon Smith, a resident of Wingate who grew up in Polkton, believes the truth in stories and that his native Anson County is very near the center of the universe.

Leon Smith

Contributing columnist