On Sunday, the second of our two-day adventure of the mountains of West Virginia, the sound of a train whistle quickly woke us from our late morning slumber.
Still fairly tired from the night before we slowly prepared ourselves for the day ahead. Once we had showered and packed up, we sought out food. The owners of the hotel also owned a restaurant in the small town of 294 persons, and complimentary meals were included with our reservation.
We found the restaurant but quickly became perplexed when the only door we could find into the building had a poster with “Keep Door Closed” handwritten and taped to a storm door. Obviously, diners were gaining access as we could them seated at tables. We were stumped and afraid to open doors we shouldn’t, so we headed for a gas station a couple of miles north of town that had fresh food. I binged on two pieces of breakfast pizza while my cousin and her boyfriend settled for waiting on fresh pepperoni pizza.
It soon became apparent that I had drank or eaten the wrong thing as my stomach bothered me for the rest of the day and for several days into the next week.
Determined not to let an upset stomach ruin my fun, we pushed on and waited on the train for which we had purchased tickets to ride. We had a 2 p.m. ticket for the Durbin and Greenbrier Valley Railroad’s (D&GV) Durbin Rocket. With a little time before departure, we explored the ticket station which also contained a gift shop featuring all sorts of West Virginia and train-themed knick-knacks and souvenirs.
Fast-forward about an hour, the train had already returned to the station from its morning run and we were ready to load for its second and final trip of the day. I was lucky enough to know a friend who worked on the railroad who secured passage for us and a special treat for me.
The railroad rents out cabooses for a prolonged period of time and drops them on a remote section of the line and allows persons to experience a quiet and peaceful time along the Greenbrier River. The program is called “Castaway Caboose.”
My friend is a conductor and allowed me to ride the “shove”, the reverse move to push the train to the end of the line, where he explained to me a lot of local history on industries that were once dotted along the railroad.
In this area of the state, coal was not the economic driving force, lumber was. He pointed out the ruins of a now non-existant sawmill.
Along the way, you could see where the railroad right-of-way used to branch off, cross the Greenbrier River, and serve numerous industries. Total towns have seemingly been wiped from the face of the Earth after the decline of the logging industry. Little or no visual evidence would suggest that any form of organized human development had once existed in the area.
We arrived at the location in which we could cast off the privately rented cabooses and pull the train ahead for a brief stop before returning back to the station. The engineer, Ross Harrison, entertained guests with the history of the railroad and other local historical facts.
Once we loaded up, it was time for my special ride. My friend had arranged for me a ride in the cab of the Heisler locomotive. A cab ride in a steam locomotive has long been a dream of mine and it was finally realized on this very pleasant day.
With a roaring hot fire just a few feet away inside the boiler, it was notably hotter inside the cab than outside. For some reason, given my stomach ailment, I felt better being next to the heat – still not sure why.
I did not say much as the crew had their job to do and I’m often left speechless in these kinds of the instances and I’m just grateful to be along for the ride.
I was impressed with our fireman, Noah Barkley, as he is a fresh high school graduate and has taken up the responsibility of keeping the fire hot in these historic time machines. Railroading runs in his family and he continues the tradition by firing for the D&GV this summer before starting college later this month.
We stopped to add water to the tender on our way back. Harrison (pictured above) used this is a moment to educate those who chose to stand in the open air car, the first car behind the locomotive, about the workings of a steam locomotive and let the passengers get a first-hand look at how loggers used to water these kinds of locomotives. Water was pumped from a creek located along the tracks and it supplied us with water for our return trip.
The ride was certainly bouncy, but that is expected given the current track conditions and the build of the locomotive.
Shays, Hieslers, and Climaxes are different types of geared logging locomotives.
Instead of having a rod attached directly to the wheels, like a regular steam locomotive, these engines turn a crankshaft which turns the wheels. They were developed to haul logs from the mountains on rough track over rough terrain with steep grades.
I was given the opportunity to blow the whistle. With the power to sound whatever I wanted, I chose a simple grade crossing signal of two long blasts, a short blast, and a long blast. This combination of sounds is used where roads cross railroads to warn motorists of a train’s presence. It was a simple action with an awesome impact as it echoed across the hills.
Without too much excitement, we arrived back in the station ready to depart the train and start making our tracks for home, but not before we made one last stop — the Green Bank Observatory.
Find out more in the third and final part of this series next week!