Across the Mountain and Back Again

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An article from the Washington County News, Abingdon, Virginia - Thursday, July 22, 1965

The small mountain town of Abingdon, Virginia, shares a strange bond with the smaller mountain town of West Jefferson, North Carolina. That bond is a railroad that doesn't make any money, a railroad that runs through a beautiful and ageless land, a railroad that carries no passengers, no mail, and very little freight.

Yet it is a railroad loved by everyone who knows it, and to a fortunate few it offers an ever-changing spectacle of scenery.

But something that doesn't pay cannot exist forever. And when this train ceases to run Abingdon and the world of railroading will have lost something it cannot replace.

In the early 1890s it was the Abingdon Coal and Iron Company Railroad and that was its beginning. Then, in 1900, it became the Virginia-Carolina Railroad and its tracks ran 16 miles into Damascus. It slowly grew into the mountains, following the booming lumber industry, and in 1918 it became a part of the Norfolk and Western system, and its name was changed to the Abingdon Branch, although people still called it the Virginia Creeper. Seven trains a day wound into the hills. People depended upon the railroad for mail, for news, for goods, for transportation.

But the depression came and lumber industry faltered. Freight business dropped. The automobile became the method of transportation.

Engineer Hughes

Then new kinds of passengers came aboard the train, people not interested in going to a particular place, but people wanting to see an unspoiled countryside. And the train carried tourists into the waiting mountains, carried them by cascading waterways, across 101 high wooden trestles, and hoisted them up to the highest point on rails in Easter North America, 3, 557 feet into the sky. The steam billowed from the engine as it huffed its way toward White Top Mountain.

In 1957 the huffing and puffing of the steam engine was replaced with the whine and roar of a diesel. One train a day ran now. Trucks took over carrying the mail and freight over new highways into the hills. Soon the train ran only three times a week, tourists were carried only on special excursions. It became necessary to get special permission to ride the train.

So we wrote to Norfolk and Western in Roanoke and asked if we could take a trip on the Virginia Creeper. Ben Dulaney, manager of news and community services, wrote back and told us our trip had been approved, and that he was coming down to see his mother in Glade Springs and was going to go along with us. My cousin Preston Wolfe and I met Dulaney and Paul Kabiness, the assistant road foreman, in Abingdon on a cloudy-bright July morning, and when the train came along we all climbed aboard.

Crossing Holston Lake.
Click on the photo for a comparison between 1965 and 2002.

We left Abingdon and wound through the Knobs and soon came to the middle fork of the Holston, then crossed the lake and rolled toward Damascus. The crew of the train, engineer Hughes, brakemen Davis and Akers, and conductor Rodenberry, went about their work with an an enjoyment few working men have. They liked what they were doing, and took pride in their job. When we left Damascus and started into the mountains I saw one of the reasons.

There is a world of shadow and light, of flickering water and enfolding mountains, that few people have the chance to see. Most of us are restricted to highways, with billboards blocking the landscape and other drivers lunging at us from all directions, or we take occasional walks into areas where the magnificence of the scenery is rivaled by the abundance of discarded beer cans.

Damascus station

This train follows its twin ribbons of steel into a land inaccessible by road, where man has not yet brought his questionable improvements. Around a bend a startled deer will bound into the woods, and high in a tree a blacksnake will stretch lazily in the summer heat. You can watch the movement of wind along the side of a hill, the foaming water of a stream as it falls down the mountain. Cattle will be grazing in the near fields, and in the tiny villages along the way there are always children waving. There is a tranquility to this landscape, and the men who make this journey seem to have absorbed something of what they constantly pass through.

West Jefferson station

We moved our way up through the mountains, circling and climbing and sometimes looking back and seeing the track below us. Soon we were on the side of White Top, going up a steep three-percent grade, and then we were across the top and slanting down into North Carolina. There were more roads to cross here, and the whistle shrieked to warn approaching traffic. Eventually we came to West Jefferson. The train switched a few cars and turned around, and we started back.

On the way back I kept thinking of one thing. This train has been running for more than 60 years, but the reasons for its existence are becoming fewer. In another 60 years the Eastern Seaboard will be one great city, and people will be crowded into smaller and smaller spaces. These people will be wanting a place to go to be alone, they will be seeking a private land where they can escape the crush of their cities.

And I wondered where, in 60 years, this train will be.

Richard Smith, July 1965

Link to more photos from 1965

Virginia Creeper Trail website