News from the Tennessee Valley News

Ronnie Thomas

Train tracks lead home
Full speed ahead for Hartselle man with 'One Track Mind'

HARTSELLE — The trains run on time in Richard Johnston's house.

He's conductor of three that track through an upstairs bedroom he and his wife, Ruth, converted into a train station.

They added to their Thompson Road Southeast home, moving their bedroom downstairs. There's no sparing expense when it comes to his passion for all types of rail huggers, from the old "Iron Horse" steam engines to diesel and electric-powered locomotives.

Visitors to Johnston's station, which includes a lighthouse, water tank and maintenance building, should check real time at the door. Forget the trains are models and the station is a miniature.

Johnston, 75, a retired businessman, has earned the right to fantasize. He'd like you to ride with him.

He fell in love with the sound of a train's rumble growing up in Cullman, where trains passed within a half-block of his house. He'd stand on the viaduct and watch the old Louisville and Nashville steam engines roll beneath him, the South Wind and the Hummingbird.

"That black smoke would curl up into my face," he said. "I never got tired of it."

He was 6 when he traveled on his first trains, on trips to Birmingham and Nashville.

His longest ride came when he was in the Army, when he rode a troop train from San Francisco to Evansville, Ind.

Johnston rode trains throughout his career, whenever he could justify the expense and time.

"I like the relaxation you get out of it," he said.

His last train trip was in 1996, when he traveled from Birmingham to New York to a model train auction.

His interest in collecting and selling models began in 1941 when he got an L&N model for Christmas. All that's left is the engine and a coal car. Among his personal collection, they're priceless.

'One Track Mind'

In 1991, he and son Brian of Pascagoula, Miss., teamed up to form a model train company. Ruth Johnston, a retired teacher, came up with the name, One Track Mind.

"We ship models everywhere," Richard Johnston said. "I have between 700 and 800 on hand."

Brian Johnston definitely has his father's enthusiasm for trains.

He became disturbed upon learning that owners of a closed grain elevator in Pascagoula were going to sell an L&N diesel engine left there for scrap. He said General Motors built it in December 1941.

"L&N started buying diesels in 1939, and this one, old No. 13, is one of the oldest in existence," he said. "I wanted to see it preserved."

His dad split the cost with him, and he paid $5,000 for it in 1998.

Then he didn't know what to do with it.

He called his parents. His mother said, "If you don't have a track, you don't need a choo-choo train."

He finally found a home for the 100-ton engine in May 2003 at a railroad museum in Foley.

"The problem was, you couldn't hook onto it and pull it over the rails," Brian Johnston said. "The museum paid $28,000 to truck it to Foley."

Brian Johnston said the two wheel sets weigh 14 tons each.

"They transported them on flatbed trailers and the rest of the engine on a lowboy flatbed heavy duty trailer," he said. "They used two 65-ton cranes to load the parts. The company did a remarkable job, moving them the 75 miles in one day."

And thanks to his son, Richard Johnston went to Foley and compared his 1941 L&N model steam engine with the 1941 diesel.

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Ronnie Thomas Ronnie Thomas
DAILY Staff Writer

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