A Steam Dream Come True

The steam trains roll again. And fanatic Jefferson Sinclair is on board, rolling from Winston-Salem through the beautiful Blue Ridge to Roanoke, Virginia.

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I’m all about trains.

Ever since I can remember, I’ve been hooked on railroads. From my first train set to my first cross-country train trip, railroading’s been in my blood. I’m a member of countless railroad groups and have ridden behind everything from Amtrak’s Acela to an 100-year-old steam engine. The latter I find particularly interesting. Steam engines have a mechanical complexity and intricacy that is virtually unmatched anywhere in any industry.

There’s something about how it all works: the fire, the steam, the mess of connecting rods and levers that make it all happen. Every time I think about it, I’m bewildered. So when I heard that Norfolk Southern, one of the main Eastern railroad companies, was running an excursion out of Winston-Salem powered by a steam engine, I didn’t hesitate to buy a ticket.

The  morning of June 24th, I was in Winston-Salem waiting on a bus that would take us to the train yard where we would board. As I looked around at my compatriots, I became a bit nervous.

Some “railfans” are real zealots—they’ll argue vehemently about everything from the largest locomotive (clearly Chesapeake and Ohio’s Allegheny) to bizarre details (the correct spacing of grab irons on 1940’s era boxcars). I’m a pretty big hypocrite when it comes to this, but I nevertheless hoped I wouldn’t be sucked into a discussion about the finer points of mallet vs. simple articulated locomotives.

One fellow ticket-holder approached me: “Hi! Where are you from?” He introduced himself as Dave. It turns out that Dave is from Winston-Salem and was eager to ride because the train takes a route never traveled by modern passenger trains, with sights that can only be seen from the tracks. We talked about the train, about college, work, and all sorts of different things, and before long, the journey assumed a very social atmosphere.

The bus got underway, and after a short time, we got to the railyard. We were ushered on to the train and, before long, were heading out.

Leaving Winston-Salem, we were greeted with the sight of hundreds of people from all walks of life along the tracks. Some held cameras, some waved, some did both. This was a Sunday excursion, and every church we passed yielded a large crowd of church-goers in their Sunday best, waving to the train and taking pictures with their iPhones. Norfolk Southern employees got in on the action too: many of them, identifiable by their florescent vests, took photos as the train rolled by. Even some of the crew members paused in their duties to take pictures of the locomotive when the train rounded a curve.

Some of the more hardcore railfans paced the train on the roadway next to the tracks—leading to a traffic mess of epic proportions. Everyone was going about 20 miles an hour under the speed limit, jockeying for position right next to the locomotive. Of course, the locomotive itself was the main attraction—a real, live, breathing steam engine. This was unlike anything else the railroad had to offer—a vintage steam engine with passenger cars straight out of the streamliner era!

Jefferson Sinclair
Our train of vintage 1950’s streamliners was eight cars long.

The train itself is a mish-mash of equipment from different owners. Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum (TVRM) owns most of it, including the locomotive. The TVRM is a partner in Norfolk Southern’s 21st Century Steam Program, the initiative under which Norfolk Southern sponsors this and several other excursions all over the Eastern U.S.. Basically, the TVRM has the equipment and maintenance know-how, and Norfolk Southern has the tracks and a lot of the logistical support. Together, they both get a huge benefit from the program. TVRM gets money and public exposure, and Norfolk Southern gains a unique and exciting form of PR. Chris, our car host, explained that a lot of the news about railroads is negative—accidents, legal battles, property issues, etc. The excursion, he said, could project a positive image by inviting the public onto railroad property and showcasing the railroad. And, he noted, it’s a great example of how businesses can partner with non-profit groups. “How many Fortune 500 companies put their PR dollars in the hands of a nonprofit?” he asked.

We continued on, leaving Winston-Salem behind and heading through the countryside. Along the way, we saw countless spectators, young and old. My favorite had to be the group of teenagers in the Mayo River, who seeing the train passing, immediately jumped for their iDevices and posed, no doubt for a Facebook profile picture. Graham Claytor, once president of the Southern Railroad and a big steam engine fan, once said, “It is a good thing to let another generation know what a steam locomotive is.” I completely agree. The excursion is a moving history lesson. Steam engines haven’t run in regular mainline service since the 1950s, and, sadly, many Americans today have never had the chance to see one for themselves. The steam powered railroads grew up with America, and they’re a vital part of our heritage. As one passenger remarked when we passed an abandoned factory: “That and this train, this steam engine, that’s what made America great.”

Jefferson Sinclair
The train passed a house outside of Henry, Virginia.

I couldn’t help but wonder, though, how a company can justify the cost of this excursion (which they almost certainly operate at a loss). Chris, the ever-helpful car host, had an answer. “Goodwill,” he said. That sentiment created by the train has far more dollar value than any subtraction from the company’s bottom line. Looking out the window at the throngs of spectators, I knew he was right.

We were getting higher into the mountains on Norfolk Southern’s Punkin’ Vine, a line that earns its moniker from the twisting, turning route it takes to climb the Blue Ridge and reach Roanoke. We passed over several large trestles, bringing “Oohs” and “Aahs” from the passengers. Dave and I talked about photography and I ran into a friend from a model railroading group I’m in from Northern Virginia.

Everyone was talking and having a great time with friends new and old. Chris facilitated the jovial atmosphere with his quick wit and conversational skill. Charming though the social atmosphere was, I checked the window as we rounded a large curve to watch the rhythmic rotation of the driving rods as they pounded the rails and listened to the deep echo of the whistle resound in the narrow valley. There’s something about a steam engine….

Wick Moorman, the CEO of Norfolk Southern and a large part of the impetus behind the steam program, is rumored to be a railfan with a particular affinity for steam locomotives. Of course, in my opinion, it’s only natural that the CEO have a genuine interest in the history and mechanical artistry of his business. Some argue that diesels operate just as well to pull these excursion trains; tickets, they say, are sold because of the route, not the locomotive that is almost out of sight at the front.

I disagree. I came for steam, and so did many others. Elderly folks along the route who remember the last time a steam train passed this way, young kids who shout “Thomas!” as the engine thunders by, and everyone in between is here to see this mechanical beauty. The passenger specials that have diesels don’t see half this number of people. In the words of Sarah, a passenger in our car, having a steam engine, well, “that makes it real special.”

Jefferson Sinclair
Bassett, VA turned out in droves for the arrival of the excursion. To the left is the historic depot, which is now used as a community center.

Basset, Virginia, is a town of 1,338 in the Blue Ridge Mountains known for its furniture manufacturing. Today just a shadow of its former industrial self, the town was founded along the railroad line, and the train has been a part of municipal life ever since.

Rail service has always been and still is important for Bassett, but as factories have closed, the railroad’s role in public life is not what it once was. The excursion day, however, was a big exception. As the train rounded the corner into town, hundreds of people lined the streets, waving flags and hands and snapping pictures of the train as it passed by.

It was a veritable parade for the town, complete with live entertainment from local musicians, memorabilia vendors, and naturally the train, which marched proudly down the main street (or at least along the tracks next to it). The train was a celebrity in every small town we passed through. Henry, Rocky Mount, and all the small towns in between were packed with spectators. Brochures were handed out on the train, encouraging the passengers to return some time.

Many of the passengers themselves hailed from these small burgs. A family of 15, riding the train together, explained to me that they were from Henry, Virginia, a town along the route. As we passed through, they grew excited and pointed out all the people they knew: friends, neighbors, family, all had turned out to watch the train go by. And the folks on the train were equally excited. Sarah, one of the family members, said it’s a big deal for people—it’s an exciting and rare opportunity for people to ride the train through their hometown. “Passenger trains don’t pass this way,” though they should, she added. 

Rural stations were the first to be cut by the railroads, and sadly many have not seen a passenger train in decades. Reliving the past of these tiny country towns and seeing your hometown through the very literal window of history adds to the mystique and grandeur of this exceedingly rare event.

Jefferson Sinclair
Southern 829, the car I rode in, was built in 1949, seats 52, and still travels the rails today. Owned by the Southern Appalachia Railroad Museum outside Knoxville, it is a regular on tourist trains.

Higher and higher into the Blue Ridge we climbed. We stopped twice: once for a routine inspection, and once because the A/C on our train car broke down (it was quickly fixed). All the cars were beautifully restored vintage 1950s streamliners that had served on illustrious trains like Norfolk and Western’s Powhatan Arrow and Southern’s Crescent. Having been “worn out several times,” according to Chris, they’ve been painstakingly renovated to their original splendor.

Sitting on board, I couldn’t help but imagine all the people who had sat there before me, whose departures and destinations will forever be unknown but who looked out the same windows and shared a journey not altogether different from mine. The riders on the excursion are just the newest guests and the newest story of a train car better than half a century old.

Jefferson Sinclair
The nominal masters of the beast.

Before long, we were in Roanoke, once home of the Norfolk and Western Railway. In this town, proud of its rail heritage, we were greeted by a sizable crowd. After the train backed up to the platform, the passengers disembarked. Everyone made a beeline for the engine. There it sat, gleaming in the sun—the sides were spotless enough to see my reflection.

It was a giant, black Leviathan, whose running gear was covered in sweaty grease from the hard climb up the mountains. It’s not the biggest engine to ride the rails by any stretch, but it’s nonetheless imposing and proud, and it’s a classic. The men running it were covered in soot and grease, but they were happy. A steam locomotive takes skill to run, and as much as they were notionally in command of the engine, when I look at the machine it’s hard to believe there’s not some kind of independent spirit by which the locomotive propels itself of its own volition, and the men are merely tolerated as accessories to this display of locomotion.

Too soon, it was back to the buses which would take me to Winston-Salem. I watched the train pull away from the platform, confidently striding forward with each “chuff.” It is a strong machine, sauntering forward in the lazy heat of the afternoon to further adventure on the high iron. Some people worry that the company will give up on steam excursions—that it’s too much of a liability, or that it doesn’t do enough for the company’s profits. To any executives considering such a possibility, I would ask them to ride the train, and consider carefully the history of a thousand communities and a million people encapsulated in this machine. Then I’d ask them to consider all the flag waving grandmothers and ecstatic children they see on the journey and weigh the public and the private benefits. Who knows which kid in a Thomas t-shirt is a future President? Which, the next Warren Buffett? Which adults already are? This train isn’t just a nod to a rich history; it’s an investment in a brighter future. Mr. Moorman, you’ve hit the nail on the head. If you wanted a PR tool, well, you’ve got one. If you wanted a train, well, I suspect you’ve done a better job than you imagined.

David Kaplan
People in Boone’s Mill, Virginia, are trying to save their old depot. The passing excusion train helped draw a crowd for the cause.

As for me, I’m not too worried about the corporate justification. Just keep the trains running—that’s all I care about. Not a whole lot of people in my generation are interested in trains, and even fewer in steam. But I love steam trains. They’re something else entirely: history, physics, mechanics, all rolled into a massive, noisy, sooty giant that is endlessly fascinating.

I’m going to chase steam engines as long as they exist—and when I dream of winning the lottery, one of the first questions I ask myself is which historic steamer I’ll restore first. Diesels? They’re alright. But for me, it’s got to be steam. They’re part of us now, ingrained in our culture and inseparable from our civilization. As long as these trains run, and as long as a steam engine snorts and bellows and stomps its way down the track somewhere in the globe, generations will fall asleep with the rhythm of a locomotive in their heads. And they will dream of steam. 

• For more about the 21st Century Steam Program, visit this website.

•For tickets (hurry up, they’re moving quick!) visit here.

Jefferson Sinclair is an intern at the Center for Rural Strategies in Whitesburg, KY, and a student at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill as well as being a self-proclaimed train fanatic.

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