Virginia-Blue Ridge Railway first engine at her coaling dock outside Tye River, Virginia in the summer of 1915.
108 Garfield Ave., Madison, New Jersey 07950
Time finally came for my father. His alloted span came to an end and as I sat at his old roll top desk dreading the job of going through his effects. I noticed a yellowed newspaper clipping dated August 1, 1963, announcing that finally the Virginia Blue Ridge Railway had changed to diesel power. I pulled it out of the cubby-hole and carefully took it out to read the story.
But, an odd thing happened. I found that I was reading the historical background leading up to the change as if I were a proof-reader. I found myself checking the dates and facts for they were all very fresh in my mind. I feel that I have lived all of them. Oddly enough the launching date for the line was within a few days of my own entry into this world. As I grew up and watched my father struggle with the roads problems as its first Superintendent, his dedication to hard work served as guidance for my own life.
So as I went on with the task of sorting out his papers I kept looking for more reminders of the making of a railroad. There were pictures and other things that told the story of those early days of railroad building. It began with the receipt of the first and only new locomotive on the Blue Ridge in March 1915. The 'one spot' was a 2-8-0 Porter with 50 inch drivers and, as I remember it, the pops let go at 125 psi. Some how, as a kid that had the envious privilege of riding in the cab I never did get so that I wouldn't be startled when they let go. But then, when you chanced a ride in the cab of the old 'number one' in the period around 1922 your nerves were cocked for the jump anyway. She spent a fair time on the ground what with the roadbed the way it was, ties with the bark still on two sides and mostly dirt ballast, if any. During the construction period there was one particularly interesting pile-up when, probably for lack of ballast, the track complete with engine just simply slid down the bank.
The original purpose of the road was to act as the common carrier which would serve two saw mills to be built to harvest the vast growth of chestnut timber in Nelson and Amherst Counties of Virginia. One of these was the Leftwich Timber Company at Woodson and the other was the Bee Tree Lumber Company at Massies Mill.
Leftwich built a standard gauge line into the mountains for getting out the logs. They used Shay locomotives, and from time to time could help out the Blue Ridge. One such occasion is very clear in my memory for it was after one of the frequent floods that 'number one' fell through the Piney River trestle carrying the head end brakeman to his death. There she was, jack-knifed in the river bed and how to get her out? One Shay to the rescue and the locomotive was pulled out one way and with the help of a Southern switcher from Monroe, the tender was pulled out the other way.
Bee Tree had to be different. They had two narrow gauge Henssler locomotives. At Massies Mill they shared trackage with the Blue Ridge and this necessitated a mixed gauge crossing of Tye River to reach their mill. The woods trains complete with steam loader would pull around the mill pond and off-load the logs with a mighty splash.
World War I and the chestnut blight put a stop to these two lumber operations, according to the record. However, I can remember that long after the war was over, the mill at Bee Tree stood idle. There being no work, most of the hands moved away except Mr. Teel, their Master Mechanic, who stayed on and looked after the big locomotive type boilers that powered the mill and all of the rest of the machinery. Mr. Crowel, the plant manager, had long since left and by that time I believe that Jack Hagerman, the woods boss, and his crew had pulled up the rails from up on Cub Creek. There came a time when Mr. Teel left for a job as Engineer at the Hotel Richmond in Richmond and that era passed too.
The financial management of the road was not one for extensive spending on amenities. The office at Lowesville is a good example. The Dietz kerosene postlight could light the way for late workers and that was the rule then. My father set the pace with long hours. But, it was a good crew. There was Ashton West as Chief Engineer. Hank Powell, no relation to the road's President, John Powell, came on the scene during the beginning of my memory and there was a 'throttle artist' by the name of McNab. I'll always remember him for his artistry on number one's steam whistle as she climbed the 2% grade through Emly's Gap, thus announcing the trains arrival.
The housing for the influx of people brought on by the building of the road was a problem solved by building shanties complete with canvas awnings to shelter the inhabitants from the hot Virginia summer sun. But it was not all work and no play. There was time for a Sunday picnic down the line to some scenic spot. The company 'speeder' made a good transporter for such occasions, even complete with jug.
I particularly remember that early speeder as its usefulness continued into my boyhood. The engine, which was air-cooled, had a large flat faced flywheel. There was a drive shaft that ran diametrically across the face of the flywheel and it was provided with a rawhide-tired smaller wheel. The engine ran at more or less constant speed, when it ran, and speed change for the car or for that matter added pulling power for starting was obtained by positioning this wheel at various points along this drive shaft and then pressing it tightly against the flywheel face. In effect, this was an infinitely variable drive ratio and at the same time the mechanism for reversing.
One afternoon just before a train was expected at Massies Mill, my father decided that he was going to run out to Parr's siding for some reason and as usual I was on hand to take the ride. I knew that there was a train expected and I also knew that my impatient father was not about to wait its arrival so a 'cornfield meet' was in the making. We topped the grade and headed through Emly's Gap and there big as life coming up the other side was 'number one' blasting cinders skyward and puffing like a fire eating dragon. My muscles had been tensed for just such an eventuality and without a moment's hesitation I jumped. When I had gathered myself up and looked around there was my father struggling to get the speeder off the track and out of the way. In the space of ten seconds I learned more in that cut about loyalty and sticking to your post than some people learn in a lifetime. With a bound I was back at his side helping him lift it out of the way. I can still feel his smile.
Well, as I have said, the chestnut blight put an end to the basic reason for the road. What to do now? Fold up and quit or keep on trying. They kept on trying. About all there was to haul was acid wood and apples. Each fall there was plenty of traffic in apples, but the rest of the year got pretty thin. There was a time that operations were down to three trips to Tye River each week and not much to haul at that. But the fates have been kind to the Blue Ridge. By 1931 when things were looking particularly bad, a new lease on life came in sight in the form of the Southern Minerals plant, later followed by others including American Cyanamid. The later day history has been covered by others that were much nearer to it than I, since my on-the-spot knowledge ended with our leaving in 1927.
There are some things that need to be documented, though, just to keep the record straight. Originally, the line had passenger service through mixed train operation using a second-hand wooden combine complete with Jim Crow section. This old coach with its red plush covered seats lasted until about 1925 and was finally canabalized of its trucks and brake gear to build a wooden caboose.
Of the crew still living in the area from the Bee Tree mill, there was a carpenter of extraordinary ability by the name of Ira Kirk. He & his helper 'Switchjaw' built a most beautiful caboose, complete with cupalo. It was painted bright red and something of which to be proud. So although I noticed in the yellowed newspaper article that passenger service had continued until 1937 this was quite impossible. I would put it it at 1920 at the latest.
The five old steamers that were idled by the coming of the diesels have all found homes. Two of them are really old friends. Renumbered as 385 and 4039 on the Morris County Central they are still active running tourist excursions over an abandoned section of the Susquehanna and Western trackage at Newfoundland, New Jersey. Another is in similar service on the Cooperstown & Charlotte Valley Railroad out of Cooperstown, New York. Unfortunately the two that went to the New Hope & Ivyland Railroad at New Hope, Pennsylvania have fallen on hard times.
Since the Morris County Central is so near to my home, I often go and just sit beside the track and listen to that sound of steam and savor the smell of hot oil as that gallant old lady of Blue Ridge days sweeps past, the rustle of her skirts are but the clanking of the brasses in her side rods. And, when I ride the train, as I often do, as it goes about its tourist business I always try to sit alone in the end coach and let my thoughts drift back to those days of my childhood. Maybe, just maybe, some day I'll get the chance to ride in the cab again.