Most of a lifetime ago in a village far, far away the Kansas City Southern Railroad ran trains through my home town headed south to New Orleans or north to Kansas City, and a hundred points in between. Our town of 800 living souls had a rail terminal where passengers could buy tickets and board or disembark from their comfortable travels (at least compared to airlines). Freight trains rumbled through at all hours of the day and night, but the fast passenger came through like clockwork at 7:30 a.m. southbound and 5:55 p.m. northbound. The passengers were pulled by diesel locomotives but some of the freights still followed coal-burning steam engines. For them, Mooringsport Station had a fully functional water tank, a necessity for steam powered engines.
My mom taught school and dad worked construction. Five out of seven days each week of my early years were spent with my grandmother “Big” (named for the Cat on a Hot Tin Roof character Big Mama). On school days in 1952 I’d hear a steam engine coming and cry out “Noo-noo nain!” In a minute Big’s old ears would catch the sound, and she’d mimic it with words reflecting the historic place of the railroad in American life: “Black and dirty, makin’ money. Black and dirty, makin’ money.”
West Virginia has built its tourism industry around fishing, snow skiing, and old time railroads. Cass Scenic RR is 50 miles south of Elkins. They take you up the mountain in rebuilt cars pulled by ancient steam engines. Our engine was a Shays geared locomotive with ten driving wheels. It and the rails were built over a hundred years ago to haul logs down from the mountains on a line of at most fifteen miles. The roadbed was short but steep; those 9% grades demanded powerful engines to haul the huge green logs. Our engine was built in 1905 and has been in operation ever since; its first 55 years pulling wood, and its last 55 pulling tourists.
It didn’t go fast enough to say “Black and dirty, makin’ money”. Starting up its sound was an accelerating chuff-chuff-chuff. Later it was just plain loud going five miles an hour. We had to cross highways twice each way, both giving the engineer an opportunity to play his blues music on the steam whistle. Every engineer tries to invent a signature riff, as whistles are capable of varied tones, attacks, and slurs. When you’re in the car right behind the engine their volume is unspeakable.
Our weather was perfect with a few clouds and some fog, but no wind or rain. The temperature was a luxurious 60 at our 11:00 a.m. departure, a tad higher three hours later, and yes, this was July 1. We saw a huge deer of at least 8 points, a wild turkey leading three chicken-sized chicks, and 20 kinds of wild flowers. At the halfway point our train side-tracked at a rebuilt logging camp with reproductions of logger’s cabins, the saw-sharpener’s shop, and the kitchen/dining room. The engineer spent his 20 minutes of quiet oiling a hundred moving parts. The fireman rested after shoveling 1,000 pounds of coal on the way up; down would require half that (brakes need steam too).
Today we were time travelers. I’m so glad we went. And here’s another of my favorite train songs! (Close that stupid ad.)