The Durbin Rocket Rail Journey
Although the early-afternoon sun had retreated behind some billowing gray clouds on that hot, late-May day in West Virginia, the actual gray smoke rising above the wooden, yellow depot serving the Tonongahela Forest-nestled, single-street town of Durbin originated from the small, black, Moore-Keppel and Company #3 steam engine, a scene somewhat brightened by the colorful blue, yellow, and red open, roofed, and caboose cars it stood poised to pull on its 11-mile round-trip, afternoon run. The multiply-shaded, green-carpeted Cheat Mountain, like a vast background to a vintage painting, rose from behind the four-car chain, which itself was alive with journey-anticipatory chatter created by its full passenger complement.
The day's train may well have been short, but the historical period which had led to it had, indeed, been long, and carrying fare-paying tourists could not have been further from its original purpose. That purpose had been sparked by the resources the area could yield, the tracks which could facilitate their movement, and the specialized steam locomotive which could pull them.
Timber, cut from pine plantations located along the Greenbrier River, had traditionally been river-transported in the form of log drives during high tide levels in the spring to Ronceverte mills, but higher-elevation spruce forests remained inaccessible, and the high cost of rail line construction, despite some 20 post-Civil War attempts, never proceeded, leaving mountain obstacle-laden Upper Greenbrier Valley the last area of the state to be so connected.
The Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad, which had been formed as a result of the 1868 amalgamation of the Virginia Central and Covington and Ohio railroads, had, by 1873, already carried passengers, freight, and coal on track which stretched from Richmond, Virginia, to Huntington, West Virginia, and therefore seemed the most logical company to forge this last link, especially since it had two water-level routes at its disposal: the first followed the Greenbrier River from Ronceverte, while the second followed both Anthony's and Knapps Creeks from White Sulphur Springs.
Urgency for either line had been sparked by the West Virginia Pulp and Paper Company's contemplated, but yet unbuilt, mill in the town of Cass.
Surveys of the latter route, conducted in 1896, and from Durbin, at the forks of the Greenbrier River, to Marlinton, the following year, resulted in the decision to construct a line in a northerly direction, from Ronceverte into Pocahontas County. It would be an extension of the Chesapeake and Ohio's existing track, operated by a subsidiary incorporated in 1897 and designated the "Greenbrier Railway Company." It later became known as the "Durbin Route."
Work commenced two years later, on August 5, in Burnside and had reached Marlinton 23 days later. Construction members, housed in strategically located camps, numbered some 1,500 by September, and actual track laying occurred by the end of the year, extending four miles north of Renick in northern Greenbrier County by means of the newly-completed Knapps Creek Bridge in Marlinton and officially opening to this destination on October 26, 1900. Service to Cass followed in December.
Durbin, rapidly expanding into a boom town because of prevalent logging, sawmill, and railroading ventures, received its inaugural Greenbrier Railway Company service on May 26, 1902, sprouting stores, saloons, and hotels, in order to cater to the workforce needed to sustain the local operations. When Henry G. Davis and Stephen B. Elkins, US Senators and business partners, completed their own rail line there the following year, it served as the junction between the Chesapeake and Ohio and Western Maryland railroads on track which connected Lewisburg, West Virginia, with Cumberland, Maryland. Crew changes occurred in Durbin.
The Greenbrier Railway Company, which was also known as the "Greenbrier Division" of the Chesapeake and Ohio, operated over a branch line from Whitcomb which extended northward and then entered Pocahontas County, with stations in Droop Mountain, Beard, Seebert, Watoga, Buckeye, Marlinton, Clawson, Clover Link, Sitlington, Cass, Hosterman, Boyer, Durbin itself, Bartow, and Winterburn along the Greenbrier River, facilitating industrial development in the area for the first time.
One of the local logging operations had been run by the Moore-Keppel Lumber Company. Founded in 1902 by John B. Moore and Henry Keppel, two lumbermen from Pennsylvania, the enterprise began with 9,440 acres in Randolph County, West Virginia, but later expanded to 29,640 acres. A logging railroad, constructed in 1905, utilized track in Midvale which the Coal and Coke Railroad had already laid, but the Moore-Keppel main line portion stretched 19 miles to Ellamore and Adolph, from where several other branches were established. One, radiating out from Lindale, lay one-and-a-half miles to the north and followed the Middle Fork River.
Characteristic of its logging rail system had been extremely steep grades only a specialized steam locomotive design could surmount. That locomotive had been built by Climax.
Unlike conventional rod-type engines, those engaged in logging operations needed to generate significant tractive power and rail adhesion in order to effectively run on crude, uneven, and hastily and temporarily laid rail which often lacked a roadbed, featured steep grades and hairpin turns, and was often partially covered with stream and creek water in the summer and snow and ice in the winter.
Charles Darwin Scott, a lumberman with mechanical aptitude, designed such a locomotive to haul timber to the Scott and Akin Mill in Spartansburg, Pennsylvania, between 1875 and 1878. Subsequently patented and built by the Climax Manufacturing Company in Corry, Pennsylvania, it featured a canopy-type cab; a two-cylinder, marine-type engine mounted on a platform frame; a round water tank on one side; a fuel bin on the other; and a vertical boiler, all supported by two four-wheel, wooden trucks. Power of the ten-ton engine was transmitted to the axles by gears, resulting in the "geared locomotive" classification.
Subsequent development, with progressively higher weights, yielded three classes of Climax engines: Class A, B, and C.
Designed for any practical gauge, and wood, steel, and even pole roads, the geared locomotive featured drivers on all of its wheels and put the entire weight of its engine and fuel on the rails, enabling it to effectively ply light, cheaply constructed, rough, and uneven track with positive traction, yet inherent flexibility.
The later, more advanced steam engines, optimized for more modest logging operations with their comparatively smaller sizes and lower gross weights, usually sported two, longitudinally-inclined cylinders at 25 degrees and located on either side of the boiler, Stephenson or Walschaerts valve gear, and piston rod-to-line shaft connections under the boiler itself. These line shafts then powered both axles of each truck.
A 55-ton steam locomotive built for the Moore-Keppel Lumber Company and one of only three remaining geared, Climax engines, stood poised to pull the late-May Durbin Rocket excursion train.
The Durbin Rocket itself, one of four such tourist trains operated by the Durbin and Greenbrier Valley Railroad, was made possible when the West Virginia State Rail Authority purchased some 140 miles of abandoned CSX Transportation track and contracted management of it to the West Virginia Central Railroad. Service began on May 16, 1998.
Preceded by a whistle and nudged by the locomotive, which assumed an initial pusher configuration, the Durbin Rocket, trailing steam and coal-created soot, inched into laborious momentum on the grass-overgrown rails past the restored Chesapeake and Ohio depot, the single main street town, and the orange mail and C & O coal cars stationary on the parallel track.
The short, four-car and caboose train moved over the trestle before being swallowed by a tunnel of tall, cool trees. Interspersed campfires released their own smoke plumes, which unimpededly wafted into the windowless coaches.
The track, still grass camouflaged, arced into a gentle left curve until it intercepted the river bank, the chain of cars seemingly suspended above the water's mirror-reflective surface.
Screeching and swaying, the train, still moving at a lumbering pace on its 5.5-mile outbound leg, was reswallowed by the vegetation, moving inland, before once again intercepting the Greenbrier River as it plied the Chesapeake and Ohio's Greenbrier Division track through the Monongahela National Forest.
The river itself, in places so shallow that its marbleized mosaic bed rendered it a coffee-brown, was formed in Durbin by the confluence of the East and West Forks and entirely flowed within northern Pocahontas County. The largest, untamed waterway east of the Mississippi, it was actually a tributary of the 173-mile-long New River which, by means of the Kanawha and Ohio rivers, drained a 1,656-square-mile area. Branching into short steams above 3,300 feet, it flowed through the Monongahela National Forest at its upper reaches.
Shattered by the piercing engine whistle, the expanse ahead appeared a canyon of dense, sky-stretching trees protruding from either bank. Would it have been composed of shale rock instead, I thought, the whistle's sound waves would assuredly have loosened a few of its layers.
A scatter of wooden, decaying barns and houses on the light green grass canvas, formed by the gently descending base of the mountain on the far side, indicated human life—or former human life—once rooted within this pristine isolation.
The five-unit steam engine, coach, and caboose chain comprising the day's Durbin Rocket was a colorful, converted collection of cars. The engine, constructed in 1910 by Climax for the Moore-Keppel Lumber Company, had hauled timber until loads had exceeded its capability in 1940. The caboose immediately behind it had been intended for disconnection and an overnight stay at the train's turn-around point. The roofless car, made of wood and painted a bright blue, had once been a log-carrying flat car used during the 1920s, but was converted for passenger purposes with two side-facing benches. The yellow coach attached behind it had been built in 1898 and was used by the elevated railway in Manhattan, but now sported four-abreast, forward-facing seats and a roof. The caboose, constructed in 1926, had served the Baltimore and Ohio, but was acquired by the Durbin and Greenbrier Valley Railroad in 1997.
The sun, periodically piercing the white and gray cloud quilt, instantaneously brightened the forest and hinted of imminent summer, highlighting low-growth bush where it had succeeded in penetrating the forest's secondary canopy cover.
Terminating its outbound journey, the Durbin Rocket screeched to a halt at Piney island, an equally vegetation-dense patch in the middle of the Greenbrier River which caused it to split into dual, circumventing branches, while the forward caboose, serving as an overnight respite for its renters, was disconnected and pushed on to a very short spur track known as "Heavener Station."
Spitting fierce streams of white, hissing steam, the geared Climax locomotive disappendaged itself from the "castaway caboose" and recoupled with the slightly shorter chain of cars with almost geyser-emitting eruptions from its stack, shattering the Monongahela National Forest's serenity like cracked glass. The roofed, but windowless, bench-provisioned yellow car, still part of the train, responded with its own belching hiss of released air, leaving no doubt of the railed interloper's intrusion.
Projecting a thick, black, volcanic explosion and pelting its trailing cars with an unceasing cascade of coal-burning ash, the Moore-Keppel locomotive bit into the rails and yanked its three coaches and cabooses into abrupt, forward motion, shattering nature's tranquillity with a "blast off" more synonymous with a rocket launch. Initially oblivious, its passengers soon discovered that they wore frocks of soot.
Chugging parallel to the river, now on its return journey, the train passed a series of canoes plying their own water "tracks," although with nary a sound save for the rhythmic splash of the paddles as they slapped the water to create their own propulsive force. There obviously had been a direct ratio between speed and sound.
Nottingham, once comprised of 40 houses, moved by on the opposite bank, but had since been reduced to a half-dozen.
Stopping in Whiting, once a bonafide railroad station from which residents took the train to sawmill- and tannery-related employment on a daily basis between 1904 and 1957, the locomotive replenished itself with water from the Greenbrier River by means of a hose under the bridge on which it now stood. It drank 600 gallons, shortly to be reconverted into steam.
Once again moving past the river's rock obstacle-created rapids, although they were of infinitesimal size, the cars were momentarily encased in night-transforming smoke, the eyes blinded by thick, black soot and the throat choked by hot ash. The sounds and smells experienced as a result of the steam locomotive may well have been the equivalent of a present-day assault, but at the turn of the 20th century they had been equated with power, transportation, and speed, facilitating life at its slightly earlier stage of evolution.
The river, narrowing into nonexistence on the right side and terminating in mud, appeared a pour of molasses and failed to reflect the blue, late-afternoon sky now only dotted with cotton candy puffs. Nevertheless, the sky provided space toward which the Appalachian Mountains could stretch their limbless bodies.
Recrossing the river-traversing bridge, which now served as the threshold to the town of Durbin, the Durbin Rocket chugged past its first few structures, its billowing black boil assuredly warning of its approach.
Reducing speed to but a crawl, and negotiating the tripling tracks, it birthed abreast of the yellow, wooden boardwalk-surrounded depot, emitting its shrilling whistle, clanging its bell, and breathing a final, steam-belching hiss. Detraining, its passengers emerged from a raw, return-to-history rail ride experienced by all five senses--and that elusively-definable sixth one which allows one to temporarily disconnect from time--stepping back on to the platform—and into the present.
About the Author
A graduate of Long Island University-C.W. Post Campus with a summa-cum-laude Bachelor of Arts Degree in Comparative Languages and Journalism, I have subsequently earned the Associate in Applied Science Degree in Aerospace Technology at the State University of New York - College of Technology at Farmingdale. I have also earned the Continuing Community Education Teaching Certificate from the Nassau Association for Continuing Community Education (NACCE) at Molloy College, the Travel Career Development Certificate from the Institute of Certified Travel Agents (ICTA) at LIU, the Art and Science of Teaching Certificate at Long Island University, and completed a Multi-Genre Writing Program at Hofstra University. At SUNY Farmingdale Aerospace I completed some 30 hours of Private Pilot Flight Training in Cessna C-152 and -172 aircraft.
Having amassed almost three decades in the airline industry, I managed the New York-JFK and Washington-Dulles stations at Austrian Airlines, created the North American Station Training Program, served as an Aviation Advisor to Farmingdale State University of New York, and devised and taught the Airline Management Certificate Program at the Long Island Educational Opportunity Center.
A freelance author, I have written some 70 books of the short story, novel, nonfiction, essay, poetry, article, log, curriculum, training manual, and textbook genre in English, German, and Spanish, having principally focused on aviation and travel, and I have been published in book, magazine, newsletter, and electronic Web site form. I am a writer for Cole Palen's Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome in New York. I have made some 350 lifetime trips by air, sea, rail, and road.