Mountain Railroad Memories
Sometimes you can almost hear the lonesome steam whistle, echoing through the mountains. Mountain railroading is almost a thing of the past. The glory days of the railroads here ended almost a generation ago, but the memories - and the traces still remain.
Three railroads dominated the mountain scene from the turn of the century on. To the north, the Norfolk & Western ran the legendary Virginia Creeper from Abingdon, Va., all the way to Todd on the Ashe/Watauga line. In the middle, the East Tennessee and Western North Carolina - ET&WNC, Tweetsie for short - ran from Johnson City to Boone. Farther south, the Clinchfield and Ohio's track ran from Erwin, Tenn., to Spruce Pine and beyond to Marion, N.C. Of these three, only the C&O is still running, and only offer freight service. Yet there are still traces of the glory days all around us. It just takes a little looking.
N&W's Virginia Creeper:
The Norfolk & Western Railroad opened Ashe County to the rest of the world when it arrived in 1915. Its nickname, the "Virginia Creeper" came about because its often slow service. In its heyday, the train was a familiar site between Abingdon, Va., and Todd, which is on the border of Ashe and Watauga counties.
You get a glimpse of the old Virginia Creeper on Railroad Grade Road in Ashe County. To get there, travel north on U.S. 221 from Deep Gap north towards West Jefferson. Along the way, watch for two bridges in a broad valley where the South Fork of the New River runs through. On your right, you'll see the remains of a railroad bridge. Just north of there, past Fleetwood School, you will see a road sign for "Railroad Grade Road" on the left. This is your ticket for the past.
The first stop is the small community of Fleet wood. Across a field from the post office, there are remains of a large railroad bridge. The road itself is the old railroad grade, and it runs all the way to Todd, offering beautiful views of the New River. Along the way, watch for a weather-worn old building with a large front porch, almost in the road. That's the old Brown wood Depot.
When you reach Todd, be sure to stop and take a look at the old Elkland Railroad Depot, once the end of the N&W line. It is now home to Appalachian Adventures, an outfitting company. A caboose, not part of the N&W's original rolling stock, stands nearby.
Farther north in Ashe County, there are more signs of the Creeper. In West Jefferson, turn off Jefferson Ave. (the main road ) left on Main Street (the town hall is on your right) and one block and up a sort of bump. On both sides, you can see the old railroad grade. On the right stands the old railroad depot, which will likely be restored in the near future.
Go back to Jefferson Ave., again West Jefferson's main road, and continue north over a mountain, locally called Radio Hill and follow N.C. 88 north. The railroad line follows N.C. 88 into Warrensville. If you watch closely after you pass the Oak Grove Baptist Church (on the left), you can see the grade as it twists and turns into town.
Just as you enter Warrensville, after passing through the gorge of Buffalo Creek, you will see a short bridge that is now gated. This was once used as railroad bridge. So is another, longer, one-lane bridge that is nearby.
In Warrensville, leave N.C. 88 and turn right on N.C. 194 (the turn is clearly marked). Follow 194 north to Lansing, which was a railroad boom town. It is easy to see that a railroad once ran through what is now the main street.
One last landmark: North of Lansing, where 194 runs along Big Horse Creek, there is a marker commemorating Wilburn Waters, a famous local hunter, that stood near where the railroad ran.
The East Tennessee & Western North Carolina Railroad, ET&WNC for short and Tweetsie to everyone who lives here, served portions of Watauga and Avery counties.
Traces of the original Tweetsie are harder to find than those of the Virginia Creeper. This is in part because the train has been gone so long: much of the track washed away in the Flood of 1940. One place where the grade survives is as a road just north of the intersection of N.C. 105 and Broadstone Road at Valle Crucis. Much of the rest of the old grade is covered by highways and other development.
In Boone, the tracks ran along what is now Rivers Street. One old building on West Howard Street, now being restored by Wilcox Warehouse Emporium, was used by the railroad in its heyday. There are other traces in Avery County, especially near Cranberry. There, the railroad served the iron mines that operated for many years.
Sadly, the original Tweetsie and the Virginia Creeper are now just memories. There is one line, however, that still keeps alive the traditions of mountain railroading. The old Clinchfield & Ohio still has a line running over the mountains, from Erwin, Tenn., into Spruce Pine in Mitchell County, and beyond.
Unfortunately, the trains today haul only freight. Other than some rail fan excursions held in the spring, the C&O offers has no passenger traffic on the line.
The ride is spectacular. From Erwin, the tracks head through Unaka Springs community and into the 2,000-foot deep Nolichucky River Gorge with its famed whitewater rapids.
The train then crosses the North Carolina line, heading through the towns of Popular, Relief, Green Mountain, Toecane, Kona and Spruce Pine. The climb from the valley floor to Spruce Pine through a series of dramatic loops and 16 tunnels. From the Blue Ridge Parkway, it is possible to listen and watch as the trains fight their way up the mountains. It is a struggle, as the climb is 63.36 feet per mile for 20 miles. If you want to, you can follow the train through Altavista, which is on the crest of the Blue Ridge, into Spruce Pine.
Mountain railroading also lives, in another way, at Tweetsie Railroad, a popular attraction on U.S. 321 between Blowing Rock and Boone. Here, it is possible to get on an old steam train, to listen to the long, lonely roar of a whistle, and enjoy the feel of the wheels on the rails. Some of Tweetsie's original equipment is still in service, hauling people almost 60 years after the "old" Tweetsie ran for the last time.
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