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  • New River Rails

    April vacation 1997, and I'm headed south to experience some serious coal railroading on CSX'x New River Sub. Being from New England, I rarely get the chance to see railroading on such a grand scale. I was there a year ago, and having been permanently impressed, I vowed to return.

    RIGHT: The Thunder of a CSX coal train breaks through the early morning April stillness at Thurmond West Virginia.
    RailNews - December 1997 - Page 46

    ABOVE: A different view of New River Gorge appears from inside the cab. LEFT: A Loup Creek work train slowly makes its way through the gloom of a west Virginia April.
    RailNews - December 1997 - Page 47

    The New River

    The name is contradictory: The New is believed to be one of the oldest rivers on the continent. It flows straight across the Appalachian Plateau, thus it is older than the mountains at 65 million years. Much of the rock contains coal deposits. Once these deposits were mined, a railroad to transport the coal was needed.

    The gorge is certainly the most dramatic section of the river, with beautiful scenery, whitewater rapids, and a network of trails attracting visitors from rafters and kayakers to bikers and tourists. The original main line of the Chesapeake & Ohio, now CSX, follows the riverbanks through the gorge and sees about 24 trains a day-enough to keep any rialfan happy. The rugged landscape and great train action make the New River Gorge one of my favorite places to watch trains.

    Back Again

    After a three-day layover in Washington. D.C., I set off into the Virginia countryside. On a road that gradually climbed into the Alleghenies, I passed towns of railfan lore, including Clifton Forge and Alleghany, and soon crossed into West Virginia. The land almost instantly became greener and less dry, and after leaving the interstate, I wound up, down, and around on one of the many serpentine roads I would come to know well on my trip. Strange and fascinating sights passed outside the car windows: tiny communities (hardly big enough to justify a post office) tucked away in the hills; old tracks to the coal mines: and rhododendrons growing everywhere. The roads were relentless.

    After checking in at the motel, I drove down to the historic town of Thurmond, where the buildings of the road-less business district face the tracks, testimony to the railroad's importance throughout Thurmond's history. In the coal-bonanza day, the town had a population of a thousand, but that has dwindled over the years to the present 10. But Thurmond is not down for the count yet. The parks service is gradually restoring the town, and CSX still operates the Loup Creek Branch out to Oak Hill.

    Standing above the rolling New River, I recalled how little things had changed since the last time I had been there. I was still as deeply impressed and glad I had vowed to return. The river murmured below, and the sun peeked through the clouds every now and then. The smell of earth and warm creosote filled the air.

    I walked across the parking lot to the venerable yellow depot, still closed for winter, where I could see the signals and saw high orange.

    Sure enough, in 10 minutes I heard the unmistakable rumble. A couple of General Electric locomotives rushed through with 99 empties. What a thrill! I asked a couple of track workers at the depot when the next trains would be coming by. They told me they had pulled track up all day, so traffic should pick up. My usual rail fan luck had changed for the better.

    ABOVE: A unit coal train hurries past Thurmond's road-less business district. BELOW: On April 23, 1997, No. 6916 is shepherding the Loup Creek work train over the crossing.
    RailNews - December 1997 - Page 48

    It wasn't 15 minutes before the signal changed to green, and another train went through with a GP30 slug and three other locomotives trailing 88 empties. Several other trains shook Thurmond that evening, including a caboose-clad work train off the Glen Jean branch. I felt that life was pretty good.


    The alarm clock went off at 5 a.m. I was experiment ing with pre-dawn railfanning, and I wanted to see the gorge at sunrise and catch some morning trains.

    Outside, it was dark and raining, and I had immediate second thoughts. But my non-common sense won out, and I set off groggily for Gauley Bridge and Falls of the Kanahwa, where I hoped to find a good railfanning spot.

    After conquering the notorious roads in the dark, I arrived in Gauley Bridge and stopped to tank up on coffee (it might have been brown water-l couldn't tell).

    A mallard quacked somewhere in the dark as I stood in the rain with the river at my feet and watched a set of lights crawl by on the opposite shore. And that was the problem. The trains were on the other side. I wouldn't discover the bridge at the falls until later in the day. Undaunted, I headed back a few miles to where Route 16 crosses the river at Cotton Hill. The sky was becoming light as I wound down into the bowels of the earth on the narrow road. After a while, you get into a rhythm-lean right, left, right, left. It can numb your mind but, unfortunately, not your stomach.

    At the bottom, a spindly bridge crossed over both the river and the tracks. It turned out to be a great railfanning spot, complete with eastbound signals. I had an orange, which soon turned to green, and a slow coal drag emerged from the fog. Two DASH 9s were struggling up the steepest grade on the New River line (0.5 percent) on wet rail with 152 loads. An impressive sight, indeed.

    Things to Do Between Trains! Southern West Virginia offers visitors a host of attractions, including rail excursions, sightseeing, rock climbing, kayaking, and fishing. A good source of information is the GUIDE TO SOUTHERN WEST VIRGINIA. The Mountain State Mystery Train has boarding locations throughout the state and provides sightseeing, suspense, and out door recreation (304-529-6412). Accommodations are available at such national chains in Beckley as Best Western (800-528-1234); Comfort Inn (800-228-51 50); Holiday Inn (800-233-1466); Howard Johnson Express Inn (800-I GO-HO JO); and Super 8 Motel (800-800-8000). ABOVE: Rounding the curve, CSK GP30 drags Its coal at Thurmond. LEFT: A heavily loaded GP30 Stealth poses with its coal train at Thurmond on AprIl 22, 1887.
    RailNews - December 1997 - Page 49

    Railfanning, wash up, breakfast, railfanning. That's the way every one of my days would start if I had the choice. After a quick stop in Thurmond to visit with the engineer of the day's G len Jean work train, I set off for Hinton.

    Hinton has seen busier days-now it's reduced to just a few passing sidings and the old coal tipple. I waited around for the Cardinal to come through, and after it did, I headed back the way I had come.

    The day passed without significant train action, but I revisited a special place: Hawks Nest. Here, far above the river at the top of a cliff is the Hawks Nest Lodge, a pleasant, unpretentious hotel. I ate dinner in the dining room overlooking the gorge. At the bottom, the main line splits; one track crosses the river, and one remains on the opposite side. After dinner, I left Hawks Nest to do some night railfanning at Prince.

    In The Dark

    In Prince, I stepped up onto the concrete platform and walked over to the tracks. A year ago, I saw a train coming off the branch here and heard its approaching sound for 10 minutes before I could see it. It reminded me of a "diesel age" O. Winston Link recording.

    Now, standing at the same spot, I awaited the train promised by the signals. Two locomotives with a mine run waited patiently on the siding, their gentle throb filling the night. I was thrilled to be back, thrilled that things could be so similar and exciting. The distinctive orange Prince sign hung above the glass station doorway, spilling a pool of light out onto the pavement. It was calm and still save for the occasional bird call, and the warm spring night was tense with a nticipation.

    A faint but perceptible rumble cut through the soft air. The sound came and went, then began growing louder. Presently, from out of the darkness, a headlight came into view, and the train took on a definite form as it emerged from the night.

    I rechecked my camera settings for a timed exposure and clicked open the shutter for about a second as the oncoming train lit up the side of the mine run. The locomotives roared by, leaving behind the metallic slamming of the wheels. The wind almost knocked me over. It was great! In the next half hour, I saw two more trains before retiring for the night.


    The next day I hit the road, and as I looked through the car window, I thought about what a wonderful ad venture it had been. When you see so many trains in such a special place, you think it can't get much better. I don't think it really can. I look forward to coming back and learning more about the area and its many attractions, rail and non-rail. It's trips such as tbis that you can look back on when life gets hum drum and think "I'll go back there sometime." And I sure will.

    This is Ole Bye's first RN byline. He particularly enjoys train-watching in Appalachia and the West.

    Article Details

    • Original Author Ole Bye
    • Source RailNews
    • Publication Date December 1997

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