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Edition #152, June 15, 2011

Mountain State Stories – Bluefield Etude

Photographer: Kevin Scanlon

                                                                            Photo by Kevin Scanlon

Mountain State Stories – Bluefield Etude

The Pocahontas Division of the Norfolk Southern had a reputation as a busy mainline, but my first visit was a huge disappointment. It was dead quiet. Had I been better informed I would have known that the week following Independence Day when I had chosen to visit was the traditional coal miner’s vacation. It took me several years to visit the area again.

US 19 passes right by my house in Pittsburgh. If you follow it south about 300 miles it also passes the Norfolk Southern’s yard in Bluefield, WV. For some reason I have always felt comfort in that direct connection. My second visit to Bluefield was more satisfying. The yard was hopping. Big six-axle diesels were shifting strings of coal hoppers. Trains were passing in both directions and several more were lined up in the departure yards ready to take coal east and empty hoppers west. There was so much going on it was difficult to decide whether to follow a train out or keep photographing all of the yard activity. I ended up following a train west and spent the day driving around the bends to successive photo spots, each better than the last.

As the evening settled in I made my way back to Bluefield to find a motel and something to eat. After dark I found a quiet bridge over the yard and just watched the activity. Railroad operations through the yard seemed to be carefully handled and everything kept moving. The yard was roughly shaped like an hourglass. It was draped over the top of a mountain with the narrow middle at the high point, cleverly called “Top of the Hill” by the crews.

Eastbound coal drags would call on approach to the Top of the Hill and a switchman from the shanty at Mercer Street would come out and walk ahead of the train, manually throwing the switches to route the train onto the appropriate yard track. Often a pusher was leaning into the rear of the train while the head end was over the top and applying brakes. It was all well orchestrated.

So on a warm October evening in 1988 I was on a hillside at the east end of Bluefield yard, a point called RD on the railroad. It had been another busy day for the railroad and for the photographer. The sun had mostly fallen behind the ridge but a few rays still lit the tracks and phone lines. The peeping tree frogs accompanied a rising crescendo of a westbound train upgrade to the yard. Drumming GE locomotives pulling a long string of empties drown all other sounds as they passed, then faded as they curved around the hillside. Sharp ringing notes of steel flanges rubbing steel rail were answered by the cello groans of twisting drawbars. The lines of the yard tracks made me think of the strings of a piano soundboard, that evening playing an etude of coal to an audience of one.

Kevin Scanlon

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