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Edition #147, April 1, 2011
Mountain State Stories – Rowlesburg, Rooms 9 & 10
Photographer: Kevin Scanlon
Photo by Kevin Scanlon
Mountain State Stories – Rowlesburg, Rooms 9 & 10
One of the Last American Railroad Hotels was the title of the article in West Virginia’s Goldenseal Magazine in 1975. The subject was the Howard Hotel in Rowlesburg (pronounced rollsburg). In October of that year I made a call to the hotel to reserve two rooms for an autumn weekend. Mrs. Anita Howard, owner of the establishment answered the phone and said that yes, she could rent a couple of rooms to my friends and I. Her next question took me by surprise, “Are you boys railfans?” I told her that we were and she said that she would put is in her railfan rooms on the third floor. Railfan rooms? Railfan was not a term familiar to the general public in those days, let alone finding a hotel that had special rooms for them.
We got to Rowlesburg on Friday evening and found the hotel. It wasn’t on the main street. In fact, it wasn’t on a street at all. You had to kind of drive into a gas station and follow a dirt road around the back to the hotel’s parking lot. The building was an old three-story wooden structure. A long front porch faced away from the rest of the town and toward the Mountain Subdivision, the former Baltimore and Ohio’s West End mainline. A porch swing faced the tracks and board walkway led 20 feet to a set of wooden steps up to the tracks.
The paned-glass door in the middle of the porch opened into the front entryway, swirling green floral print carpeting invited you inside. To the right was a small sitting room with a fireplace. Directly ahead was the large dining room. We found Mrs. Howard seated back in the kitchen, working on the evening meal. She was a small, frail looking woman with a warm smile. She welcomed us and directed us to the two rooms on the third floor. I can see why they were the railfan rooms. You could raise your head from the pillow and watch the coal drags roar by.
After stowing our duffels and walking around town a little it was time for dinner. There was a table set for us in the dining room. We sat down and Mrs. Howard’s assistant started bringing the food out. Salad with homemade dressing, fresh bread and butter, homemade stewed tomatoes, cabbage cassarole, potatoes and huge t-bone steaks. The hotel had been built to accommodate B&O officials visiting M&K Junction. Mrs. Howard and her husband had run the place for many years and she still treated all of her guests as those officials were treated.We polished it off, had some coffee then wallowed out into the darkness to take some night photos at the M&K Junction enginehouse just up the tracks.
I don’t think we got much sleep that night, it would get pretty loud outside. Rowlesburg sits in the valley of the Cheat River. If you imagine a railroad gradient map shaped like the letter “M” the town and M&K Junction sit in the middle at the bottom of the V. To the west was Newburg grade out of Grafton, then Cheat River Grade down into Rowlesburg, Cranberry Grade up out of town then a little further-on 17 Mile Grade dropped down out of the mountains. The enginehouse and facility serviced a fleet of helper engines because trains had to be pushed in both directions out of Rowlesburg. The helpers at the time were sets of four SD35s. They did a good job leaning into those hoppers and rattling the windows of our rooms throughout the night.
We were up early and ready to check out for a day of photography, but Mrs. Howard already had breakfast started. We needed some coffee anyway so we sat down at the table. Trays of eggs, sausage and buckwheat pancakes were brought out for us. Since we were first time visitors it was explained that you had to tell them ahead of time when to stop cooking. As you were working on a plate of those buckwheat cakes, Mrs. Howard was already cooking up the next plateful. We were also told that regular visitors had to be careful because sometimes as a joke she would put a circle of muslin onto the griddle then pour the batter over it. She enjoyed watching from the kitchen doorway as you tried to cut through the cakes.
We were fueled up, rested and eager to burn some Kodachrome so we headed into the kitchen to pay our bill. “What do we owe you, Mrs. Howard?” I asked. She made a tally on a slip of paper and said, “Let’s see. You boys had the steak dinner last night, the rooms and breakfast. That will be $15.05 each.”
“You’re kidding!” I exclaimed.
“No, I’m sorry boys. I just had to raise the rates.”
My photography at the time was almost exclusively trains, but something inside me made me ask, “Do you mind if I take your picture?” “Oh, but I’m a mess right now.” “No you’re not, you look beautiful.” I raised the camera and pressed the shutter. Mrs. Howard was sitting at the spot where she ran the hotel, the large wooden work table in the kitchen. The cash we’d given her was on the table, the aftermath of the breakfast preparation all around her. Not many months after this weekend she wasn’t able to keep up with the demands of the hotel and moved into a home. Although I stayed in the Howard Hotel a few more times it wasn’t as magical as that first visit. The hotel was taken over by a couple subsequent owners and ended up burning down. I have taken hundreds of photographs in that area, had some great times shooting the M&K Helpers and found some incredible spots on those grades. But if someone mentions the Mountain Sub or Rowlesburg, the image in my mind will always be the one above.
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