I’ve always been proud of the fact that my family is anchored in our own small way to Bristol’s locomotive history. I have an old photograph of my grandfather, a man I never met. In the picture, he is standing alongside a train engine, clad in overalls — no doubt Pointer Brand. He is grinning from ear to ear, covered by what appears to be a thin layer of coal dust. My grandfather worked as a fireman on a steam train that ran out of Bristol, shoveling heaps of coal into the furnace to keep the train moving.
Trains have been coming and going into Bristol since the 19th century. Early on, they brought people and, for a time, wounded soldiers fresh from Civil War battles.
Of course, it has been a long time since anyone caught the train from Bristol — but there is hope that it may soon happen again.
Over the last few years, a lot of people have been at work to entice Amtrak to include Bristol as one of its connecting points. In fact, a delegation of folks from Bristol made their way up to Roanoke last week to make sure Amtrak executives know we are very much on board with getting passenger service back here. I, for one, was glad to hear that.
However, I mentioned it to someone and I got an answer that, well, frankly highlights an attitude in our community that needs to take the first train out. When I mentioned the possibility of Amtrak in Bristol, she laughed and said, “Nothing like that is ever going to happen here. Why would they pick Bristol?” Ugh.
I can think of a lot of reasons why Amtrak ought to make this a hub. For one thing, our station is ready to go, and we are perfectly situated to connect the eastern corridor with the rest of the south. I know a few people who are ready to use Amtrak out of Bristol to commute to their offices in D.C. and New York.
But, our community isn’t a jumping-off point; we are becoming more of a destination, too. We’ve got two new hotels coming on, an amazing museum, great restaurants, pubs, a top-notch bakery and Rhythm and Roots. Plus, the natural beauty here is a huge draw, especially when combined with riding on a train. In other words, a lot of people will take the train out of the hustle of, for example, D.C. to enjoy long weekends in our region.
And the majority of people here will welcome it with open arms, even the handful of naysayers. Some folks have been through a lot over the years, and sometimes it is easier to think nothing good will ever happen here than it is to risk getting their hopes up. Every so often, though, we have to be reminded that hope can make great things happen.
This is an interesting and crucial time in Bristol’s history — not because we are looking back but because we are looking forward and putting the pieces together for what can be a pretty amazing future. And somehow, it is right that trains have the possibility of factoring into that story of our community.
If enough people want to make passenger trains in Bristol a reality, we can make it happen. I do not think that Amtrak officials are likely to ignore a community that offers as much as we do as well as the potential for future growth. Every chance we get, we ought to make them aware of what they are missing here in Bristol.
Who knows? Maybe one day, one of your grandkids will look at a photograph of you boarding an Amtrak train at the Bristol Train Station.
Mark Hutton is an award-winning writer, ordained minister and adjunct faculty member for the Philosophy and Religion Department at King University. He is a member of the Bristol Herald Courier’s Board of Contributors. Board members are regular Opinion page contributors, and opinions expressed do not necessarily represent those of this newspaper staff and management.