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Edition #123, April 1, 2010

Train Chase

Photographer: Kevin Scanlon

                                                                                 Photo by Kevin Scanlon

Train Chase

I had driven this road maybe 200 times, a sweet half-hour trip following the abandoned Chesapeake & Ohio Loup Creek Branch down the hollow to the CSX mainline on the New River in West Virginia. I loved looking at the little hamlets along the way, the waterfalls in the creek, the remains of the railroad branch with impossibly photogenic scenes that I would never hope to photograph with a train. Then a few years ago something unheard of happened, the branchline reopened! A local guy made a go of it with some little engines, but then he died and a bigger shortline operator took over. Even more surprising, a coal mine up on the mountain reopened so the little railroad found itself hauling large coal trains down to the mainline connection.

Late on a warm August afternoon in 2007 I was driving down to the road in hopes of seeing something moving on the branch or on the mainline. I rounded a curve just a half-mile from the river and found myself face to face with a hopper train headed up the branch to the mine. I quickly turned around, excited at finally getting the chance to photograph a big train at all of those beautiful spots I’d been picking out over the years.

It was an easy, slow chase and I was able to catch the train at a bunch of spots. One location I always had an eye on was a small board & batten cabin with an old car out in the yard. I pulled into the yard and was surprised to see an old man sitting on the cabin porch.

“Mind if I take a picture of the car and the train?”

“Go ahead,” he replied.

I got the shot as the train passed then walked to the porch to thank him before taking off for the next spot. My plan was to follow the train all the way to the mine; there were a lot of great locations still ahead.

“Thanks, I’ve been looking for an excuse to take a picture of that car for years.”

“Yeah, a lot of people stop to take a picture of it. Still in pretty good shape for a 1959. I have the owners manual inside, but I’m not interested in selling her.”

“Don’t see many Edsels like that, she’s a beauty!”

I couldn’t leave. The man started telling stories, his life story. The train was rolling past, then long gone. It didn’t matter, there would be other trains. He told me that he had hired out on the Chesapeake & Ohio in 1946. He went to high school while working for the railroad until he earned his diploma. In 1949 he married his sweetheart and they raised three kids. The little cabin was their homeplace. One son has a PhD in Organic Chemistry and does research for Temple University. The other son works in real estate in Charleston and a daughter lives not far away in Beckley.

He told me about the cabin next door, where an earlier family kept chickens in the crawlspace underneath and used a kerosene heater to keep the hens warm until they burned the place down. He told me about his job for the C&O working out of Thurmond, Hinton, Quinnimont, Raleigh and Montgomery.

As the darkness settled over the valley I listened to the stories, smiled at the sweet remembrances and came to realize that I came home richer for not bolting off to take even more train pictures. The best picture I got that day is the one in my mind, of my new friend sweeping through the curves of West Virginia Rt41, rolling down Batoff Mountain toward his job at Quinnimont Yard in a shiny new President Red Edsel.

Kevin Scanlon

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