Written by Roger McCredie
“ … with short explosive thunders, ripping the lilac night, 36 began to climb Saluda. She bucked helplessly, like a goat, her wheels spun furiously on the rails, Tom Cline stared seriously down into the milky boiling creek, and waited. She slipped, held, plowed slowly up, like a straining mule, into the dark. Content, he leaned far out the cab and looked: the starlight glimmered faintly on the rails. He ate a thick sandwich of cold buttered fried meat, tearing it raggedly and gluily staining it under his big black fingers. There was a smell of dogwood and laurel in the cool slow passage of the world.”
—Thomas Wolfe, Look Homeward, Angel
Young Thomas Wolfe used to lie awake in bed in the big, rambling house on Woodfin Street in Asheville and listen to the whistle of the night train as it passed through the silent town, drifting up from the tracks at the Biltmore crossing a couple of miles away. The sound was, to him, as hypnotic and sleep-inducing as a lullaby. As he grew older and restless, the whistle became for him the siren song of a world beyond the mountains; when he grew up, it became in his books an often-used metaphor for the explosion of travel and commerce taking place across the whole American continent.
When Wolfe was born, in 1900, the locomotive—from Latin “locus,” meaning “place”; and “motivus,” meaning “causing movement”—was less than a century old. But since 1804, when Cornish engineer Richard Trevithick built the first practical one for the purpose of hauling iron ore, steam-powered engines moving product and people along steel rails had literally changed the course of history. Railway lines became arteries of commerce and travel, stitching together the patchwork squares that made up America (as well as giving rise to a whole stack of laborious metaphors, like these). The Industrial Revolution began to take hold in America in the first decade of the nineteenth century, and the railroad became its handmaiden.
In 1828, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad emerged from among its fledgling competitors to become the first truly “modern” railroad in terms of types of service, management, and expansion methods. The B&O became the model for both smaller, local lines and such emerging titans as the New York Central and the Pennsylvania. The fire of railroad mania was temporarily muted by the financial Panic of 1873; but by 1878, the nation had shaken off its fiscal skittishness and railway construction shifted into high gear again.
Well, actually, except in the South, where as usual, things were a little different.
The South had been right in there along with everybody else when the railroad push first started, but it had concentrated its efforts on developing short lines designed to carry its cotton to river cities and seaports. So whereas by 1860, northern railroads had established links to every major city as far as the Midwest, the South’s railway activity was largely self-contained.
North Carolina, in fact, lagged behind both Virginia and South Carolina in railway development. Detractors called North Carolina “the Rip Van Winkle state,” implying that it was sleeping through the march of technology. The General Assembly had managed, in 1849, to charter a state railroad system, and the Southern Railway, a conglomerate based in Charleston, became its largest user until the War Between The States began, at which point all bets were off.
When war came, it served only to accelerate northern rail growth and development, but by 1865 the South’s railway system, which had been targeted for destruction early on as part of the North’s war strategy, was in ruins. Not to worry, though: One nation’s loss is often another’s opportunity, and the rejuvenated railway industry turned its face southward.
Passenger trains were glamorized in the newfangled motion pictures. Political candidates crisscrossed the country, speaking from railway cars at whistle stops all along the line.
Shipping & Transportation
Down from the new northern railheads the network fanned out, eventually reaching North Carolina, where it began to creep westward, kudzu-like, until it reached the Eastern Continental Divide, the watershed where the Blue Ridge Mountains begin. The principal rail line bumped up against the mountains at the town of Old Fort, and if you wanted to go further west, you had to ride a horse or take a stagecoach from there on.
This would never do. This was the age of “Manifest Destiny,” when American capitalism was in the first bloom of youth and everybody was being urged to Go West and make America thoroughly American from Sea to Shining Sea. Well, you can’t manifest much destiny when the door of westward expansion—at least in North Carolina—is jammed at the hinge.
But American ingenuity was not to be trifled with. As one writer put it, “Cross ties and rails were laid across almost every conceivable terrain, [even] piedmont, and mountain grades.” And when they couldn’t go up or around, railroaders just dug plumb through; eventually, there were seven tunnels on the new line from Old Fort to Asheville, with the longest of these at Swannanoa. It reached 1,800 feet through the mountain, and its completion, in March of 1879, marked the overcoming of the last real obstacle to the line’s completion. The attainment of this milestone was even captured in song. If you look it up on YouTube, you can hear “The Minstrel of the Appalachians,” Bascom Lunsford, sing “Swannanoa Tunnel”:
I’m a-goin’ back to Swannanoa Tunnel
That’s my home, baby, that’s my home.
On October 3, 1880, a Western North Carolina Railroad train passed through Swannanoa Tunnel and stopped at the new station just south of Asheville, where the little village known as Best would eventually be bought up in its entirety by Mr. George Vanderbilt, from New York, and renamed Biltmore. The Continental Divide had been conquered, and the door to far Western North Carolina lay wide open. Past Asheville lay Balsam Gap, which, at 3,100 feet, became the highest railroad pass east of the Rocky Mountains. After that, it was downhill all the way, literally. The land dropped away to Dillsboro, Bryson City, and finally to Murphy, where the town celebrated by laying the cornerstone of the Cherokee County Courthouse on the same day train service started. The West was won. Now, timber and minerals could be hauled out of the mountains and tourists could be hauled in.
For the next half century, that was how it was. In Western North Carolina, as in the rest of the nation, goods and people traveled most quickly and dependably by train. Freight train engineers became folk heroes. Passenger trains were glamorized in the newfangled motion pictures. Political candidates crisscrossed the country, speaking from railway cars at whistle stops all along the line. And Thomas Wolfe, now grown to be a novelist, set whole chapters of his books in railway cars and used trains in general as symbol for both his own wanderlust and the restless, adventuresome spirit of America. In fact, in his last novel, You Can’t Go Home Again, he says of his protagonist and alter ego:
“Perhaps this is our strange and haunting paradox here in America—that we are fixed and certain only when we are in movement. At any rate, that is how it seemed to young George Webber, who was never so assured of his purpose as when he was going somewhere on a train.”
The Second World War put an even higher demand on rail services. Trains were needed in nearly every logistics component of the war effort, from transporting troops to shipping supplies and equipment to carrying raw material. In the North Carolina mountains, though, the crowning achievement of rail service was its multifaceted role in the construction of Fontana Dam. From 1942 until 1945, the Western North Carolina Railroad served not only the construction site but also the former town of Welch Cove, which was rechristened Fontana Village, and which was swollen by workforce numbers until it became, for a time, the largest city west of Asheville.
Ironically, instead of taking railroading to new levels of sophistication and efficiency, peace and postwar prosperity pushed it into decline. The advances took place in rival modes of transportation instead. Aviation companies that had cranked out warplanes switched easily enough to building cargo and passenger aircraft, and planes were now anointed as the glamor mode of transport. As above, so below: Transcontinental bus coaches, less romantic, perhaps, but more affordable than trains, now crosshatched the country; America resumed its love affair with the automobile; and the family car, which could be parked in the driveway at night and did not require rails to run on, became a standard accessory of America’s ever-expanding middle class.
In little more than a century, the American railroad system had gone from fair-haired queen of commerce to redheaded stepchild. Railroad job numbers fell from a high of 2.1 million in 1920 to 1.2 million in 1950; by 2010, as computers came to do the work once done by people, this figure had fallen to 215,000. The proud Western North Carolina Railroad discontinued its passenger service in 1948; in fact, by the late 1960s, only a few major companies continued it, and most of those that did were absorbed into a new, government-operated entity called Amtrak. In the same year, 1971, Arlo Guthrie made what turned out to be a hit recording of a song by folksinger Steve Goodman about the decline of a once-great train, the Illinois Central’s “City of New Orleans”; it summed up the situation in a single sentence: “This train got the disappearin’ railroad blues.”
Grades of Trial
Railroads and their accompanying lore and romance has often proved fodder for songwriters, most of them of the country or folk disciplines. railroads also make for good hymns, as this one from the 1890s —“respectfully dedicatedto the railroad men,” illustrates.
By M. E. Abbey & Charles Davis Tillman (Lyrics sometimes attributed to Eliza R. Snow); copyright 1891 by Charlie D. Tillman
Life is like a mountain railroad,
with an engineer that’s brave;
We must make the run successful, from the cradle to the grave;
Watch the curves, the fills, the tunnels; never falter, never quail;
Keep your hand upon the throttle, and your eye upon the rail.
Blessed Savior, Thou wilt guide us,
Till we reach that blissful shore;
Where the angels wait to join us
In Thy praise forevermore.
See that Christ is your Conductor on this lightning train of life;
Always mindful of obstruction,
do your duty, never fail;
Keep your hand upon the throttle, and your eye upon the rail.
You will often find obstructions; look for storms of wind and rain;
On a fill, or curve, or trestle, they will almost ditch your train;
Put your trust alone in Jesus;
never falter, never fail;
Keep your hand upon the throttle, and your eye upon the rail.
Tourism & Preservation
But something in the American psyche would not turn loose of railroads and railroading—not the humdrum, barely-hanging-on present of it, but the magic and magnificence of what had been. Americans who had had the magical train experience wanted to relive it, and even to show their kids and grandkids what it was like. And nowhere was this more the case than in North Carolina, where the railroad saga had been so unique. “The industrial focus of the rails,” one historian said, “now shifted to tourism and preservation.” Thanks to both private enterprise and public nonprofit support, there are now several places in and near the North Carolina mountains where young and old alike can partake of railroad history and legend, first-hand.
>The North Carolina Transportation Museum
Museum Hours: 9AM-5PM (Tues-Sat); Noon-5PM (Sun)
411 S. Salisbury Ave., Spencer, NC
704-636-2889 | www.NCtrans.org
Spencer, North Carolina, isn’t in the mountains itself, but it lies between two sets of mountains, and the town is famous in song and story for being a destination that was never reached. On September 27, 1903, Southern Railway’s fast mail train, pulled by an engine known affectionately as “Old 97,” left Monroe, Virginia, nearly an hour late and headed for Spencer. It never got there. Speeding in order to make up time, engineer “Steve” Broadie lost control of his engine and plunged off the 45-foot-high Stillhouse Trestle near Danville, killing himself and ten other people and giving rise to the second most popular train ballad (after “Casey Jones”) in American folk song, “Wreck of the Old 97.”
Spencer is home to the North Carolina Transportation Museum, which is housed in what used to be the Spencer Shops, once Southern Railway’s largest steam engine servicing center. In the late 1970s, Southern donated the land and buildings to the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources. The museum was opened in 1983 and now hosts, on average, more than a hundred thousand visitors a year. Automobiles and planes are also on exhibit, but the museum’s main focus is on trains. Visitors can ride a steam locomotive as well as the 100-foot “turntable,” which was used to move mechanics and their tools and equipment from one engine to another inside the roundhouse.
Hours: April 8 – May 22: 9AM-6PM (Fri-Sun); May 27 through August 21: 9AM-6PM (Mon-Sun),
300 Tweetsie Railroad Lane, Blowing Rock, NC
800-526-5740 | www.TweetsieRailroad.com
Tweetsie Railroad is probably Western North Carolina’s senior rail-oriented tourist attraction. This piece of history between Boone and Blowing Rock dates back to the founding, in 1866, of the East Tennessee and Western North Carolina Railroad (known simply as the ET&WNC, which mountaineers claimed stood for “Eat Taters and Wear No Clothes”). In 1956, after the line itself had fallen dormant, cowboy singing tycoon Gene Autry, who had bought Engine Number 12—dubbed “Tweetsie” by locals, for its distinctive whistle—sold it back to Blowing Rock native Grover Robbins, Jr., for a dollar. The following year, Tweetsie Park opened as a steam train excursion venue along what eventually became a three-mile loop of track.
Over time the railroad morphed into a full-fledged theme park. An “authentic western town” was built around the train station. It’s populated by cowboys, gunslingers, and dance-hall girls (from the dance hall, naturally). The town also contains stores and shops, several eating spots, rides, a chairlift, a do-it-yourself gem mine, and a petting zoo. Special events take place all year, a favorite being the annual Halloween Festival, which showcases the Ghost Train, a spookily tricked-out engine driven by Casey Bones.
>Great Smoky Mountains Railroad & Smoky Mountain Trains Museum
Trains Museum Hours: 8AM-5PM (train days). Train Ride Schedule: Nantahala Gorge rides April 1 through May 26 10:30am (Tues-Sat)
3226 Everett St, Bryson City, NC
(Museum: 100 Greenlee St)
800-872-4681 | www.GSMR.com
For a more in-depth experience, there’s the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad, which operates out of Bryson City, along with its stationary companion, the Smoky Mountain Trains Museum. The rail line commands a 53-mile stretch of track along what used to be the Murphy branch of the Western North Carolina Railroad—the same one that was christened the day they laid the courthouse cornerstone. The line takes in two tunnels and 25 bridges along two principal routes, one through Nantahala Gorge and the other along the banks of the Tuckasegee River. The railroad recently acquired a vintage steam engine to add to its diesel rolling stock, and regular steam tours are scheduled to begin this June.
The railroad offers all manner of individual and group packages, many paired with other local attractions and amenities. Riders can also choose between open-air “gondola” seating or first class, which includes closed dining car seating complete with brunch or lunch. New packages and events are constantly being added to the regular schedules, so keeping up with them online is advised.
>Craggy Mountain Line
Current hours: 2nd and 4th Saturdays of each month at 4PM.
111 North Woodfin Avenue, Asheville, NC
828-808-4877 | www.CraggyMountainLine.com
At the old whistle stop of Craggy, just north of Asheville, visitors can get a taste not only of vintage railroading per se, but also of its urbanized offspring, the trolley (or, to be technically correct, a “street railroad”). Ashevillian and former engineer Rocky Hollifield formed Craggy Mountain Line, Inc., in 2001 as a nonprofit in order to acquire the last three existing miles of the line of that name, which ran across Asheville’s northern outskirts and was part of a thriving trolley system in and out of Asheville.
“At one time Asheville had the second largest trolley network in the country,” Hollifield says. “There were eight or ten separate trolley companies operating here. The Craggy Line was founded in 1898 and it ran over to Sunset Mountain and across it.”
The line has been gradually acquiring and restoring cars, including a genuine Asheville trolley and a genuine 1925 Chesapeake & Ohio caboose (yes, it’s red). Plans are also in the works for a new depot building. Excursions on a two-car train take place at 4PM on the second and fourth Saturdays of each month.
The future of railroads, at least in America, is murky, but the past is there in all its glory. And there are vestiges enough of it in the present to call forth the ghosts, sometimes unexpectedly.
Probably no other area of Americana has more passionate devotees than does railroad history. Aficionados collect railroad memorabilia, publish periodicals, hold conventions, and author books and papers on every aspect of American railroading, from the most minute detail to the broadest overview. One such railroad devotee is Fred “Mac” McConnel, who can tell you all about the Western North Carolina Railroad. He knows it intimately. In fact, it’s in his basement.
McConnel, an ear-nose-and-throat surgeon by profession, has spent the past 30 years or so constructing a faithful replica of the railroad line’s operation, circa 1903, downstairs in his home in Decatur, Georgia.
“It’s O gauge, so it’s not to scale,” McConnel explains. “I had to take some liberties with the layout in order get everything I wanted in there. It’s pretty interpretive.” Nevertheless, McConnel’s diorama depicts the railroad’s route around Old Fort and Andrews Geyser in the east, to the Saluda Grade to the southwest. So painstaking is his modeling that a viewer half expects to see Thomas Wolfe’s fictional Tom Cline at the window of his cab, eating a sandwich. As it is, McConnel has mounted tiny GoPro cameras on his engines, which allow him to video “trips” along his railroad for showing during lectures to railroad hobbyists, as well as onsite at exhibits. (Below, watch a video clip of one of McConnel’s presentations at the Historic Saluda Depot that includes some of those tiny videos.)
The future of railroads, at least in America, is murky, but the past is there in all its glory. And there are vestiges enough of it in the present to call forth the ghosts, sometimes unexpectedly. Engines now use horns instead of whistles, and around midnight, regular as clockwork, a train rumbling through the region sounds its claxon as it approaches each crossing. The call is faintly but plainly audible for miles, a drawn-out musical sigh leading down the peaceful tracks into the long tunnel of sleep.
[Note: photos used in this article courtesy Mac McConnel, NC Transportation Museum, Tweetsie Railroad, Great Smoky Mountain Railroad.]
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