As he drove slowly past the gray monuments and gravestones of St. Elmo's Forest Hills Cemetery, Douglas Carson's storytelling brought history back to life.
"This cemetery has everybody who was anybody in the 1800s and early 1900s buried out here," said Carson, a local historian who works with the Walker County Historical Society.
His brief tales of battles, betrayals and business empires only scratched the surface of all the lives memorialized there, but he stopped purposefully at the grave of Thomas and Caroline Park. Dr. Thomas Park was a key player in the Great Locomotive Chase — a daring, behind-enemy-lines Union Army mission during the Civil War that ended in Northwest Georgia.
A mention of Park in another history project led Carson and his friends on a five-month-long research spree that turned up unpublicized information on the doctor who was reluctantly recruited into helping capture several of Andrews' Raiders — the group of Union soldiers who stole a train engine in Big Shanty, Georgia (now Kennesaw), and chugged north until they ran out of fuel north of Ringgold.
Doing their best to sabotage the crucial Confederate rail line that ran through Chattanooga, the raiders were chased by Confederates on foot and on a commandeered train, Carson said. Once the raiders abandoned the locomotive known as The General and scattered on foot, it sparked the biggest manhunt in Georgia's history, he said.
The event now known as the Great Locomotive Chase happened on April 12, 1862, and a presentation Sunday by Carson will celebrate its 160th anniversary.
Carson works in a printing shop, and for his presentation, he's printed out many photographs of the raiders and their pursuers, whose part of the great chase ended right there on the property now occupied by Eagle's Rest Ranch. He also has a photograph of Thomas and Caroline Park given to him by Park's great-grandson. The doctor's descendant was the fifth Park that Carson called in the phone book, he said.
Along with online and phone book searches, Carson said he and his friends chopped their way through brush in old cemeteries on the side of Lookout Mountain to find inscriptions on gravestones of those involved in the chase. One friend wanted to postpone the cemetery searches until winter because they were turning up more snakes than leads, Carson said with a grin.
"We have a pretty extensive program and we're going to have three groups of descendants (of participants) there" at Sunday's presentation, Carson said.
Several of the descendants didn't even know they were related to the train raiders until a few weeks ago, he said.
Once Chattanooga was seized by Union troops, Park was court-martialed for his role in capturing the raiders. Park bought several of the raiders' guns and hid one among the rocks of Lookout Mountain, worried it would be used as evidence against him. Carson said that weapon was never found. Many details of Park's trial and the fate of the raiders' firearms are new additions to the known historical record, Carson said.
Carson said he recently found a book in the Georgia archives that tells about the court-martial and the firearms. It's since been put online.
"Nobody's even mentioned it in 60 years," he said. "... I don't think that's ever been published since 1891."
Carson said Park was ordered by Confederate troops to help with the search because he was familiar with the landscape, and that command led to his acquittal, he said. Park died May 24, 1898, at the age of 79.
Maurice Bandy, president of the Catoosa County Historical Society, said he plans to attend the presentation in Flintstone, Georgia. He wanted to make sure the historians in Walker County received due credit for all their work researching and organizing the presentation.
He also discussed the first part of the dramatic chase that ended on the railroad tracks north of Ringgold in Catoosa County.
The raiders made it north of Ringgold, but Bandy said they ran out of fuel and couldn't go any further.
"And here came the conductor of the train (William Allen Fuller), he had gotten another engine and was right on his tail," forcing the raiders to flee, Bandy said.
"When they got off, they ran in every direction," he said. "Most of 'em ran toward Chattanooga, or in that general direction, but some of 'em ended up in Walker County. And that's what this story's about, apparently."
Several books have been written about the incident, as well as a 1965 Disney movie called "The Great Locomotive Chase," Bandy said. The locomotive stolen by the raiders now resides at the Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History in Kennesaw, Georgia, Bandy said.
It's an incident a lot of people find interesting, he said.
"It was a major event during the war, and it happened right here," Bandy said.
Carson said the raiders planned to destroy the crucial rail line as they went, but it was raining and they couldn't get a fire started. The raiders cut the telegraph lines as they went, making it more difficult for the Confederates to warn that The General and its Union crew were coming.
Brimming with fascinating details of the chase and capture, Carson said there'll be a lot to learn. A capacity crowd is expected, he said. Burton Brown, who raised bison and cattle on the 400-acre ranch where the capture took place, is an enthusiastic host as well, Carson promised.
"He's an old friend of mine. I've known him for almost 40 years," Carson said. "Even though he's 90 years old, he loves to have stuff going on at his place. Especially when stuff actually went on at his place — 160 years ago."
Hosted by the Walker County Historical Society, Carson's presentation will be at 3 p.m. Sunday at the Eagle's Rest Ranch, 690 Eagle Cliff Drive, in Flintstone, Georgia. Attendees are asked to bring their own folding chairs. For more information, call 706-764-2801.