Sunday, February 18, 2007

‘I Hear The Train A Comin’ It's Rollin’ ‘Round the Bend. . . Childhood Reminiscence of Trains in Orlando

By Tom Jeffries

My first memories of my early years in Orlando involve the sights, sounds and smells of the B & O Railroad whose tracks and trains passed through the town of Orlando.

To the left is a steam locomotive coming into Orlando.

I recall lying in bed on a foggy night in our home on the hill in Orlando when the sound would travel well and hearing the sound of a coal freight train lead by three large steam engines, whistles sounding, for each of the five road crossings between Burnsville and Orlando. At the crossing at the Rush Hotel the engine whistle would repeat its two longs and a short warning. I could smell the coal fumes as the engines huffed and puffed their way on the upgrade run to Frenchton.

The roar of the exhaust from the stack and the hiss of steam along with the clack-ity-clack of the rail joints was somewhat scary and yet somewhat comforting as the train made its way through town. Soon I would hear the huffing and puffing of the three drag engines as they pushed against their heavy load of coal cars. As soon as they passed by, I could hear the clicking of the rails joints fade away and see in my young mind’s eye the green and red lights of the caboose fade into the distance.

To me, a four year old, they seemed like monsters that were alive. Fierce, scary, but somewhat inviting as they came from somewhere I knew not and were going to somewhere I knew not, I just wanted to go along!

As I looked from our house which stood on the hill above the home of my grandmother, I had a good view of every passing train. Most of the trains were laden with coal from mines in Webster, Braxton and Gilmer Counties, but occasionally there would be logs and sawed lumber, boxcars containing who knows what, and once I remember, army tanks! I have yet to understand how they appeared on a dead end branch line. I never missed an opportunity to watch the train and see what cars it was pulling.

Sometimes, as with machinery, there were accidents and derailments. While I don’t personally remember any of them happening in Orlando, I was told one crash that happened in the early 1960s was so severe the concussion knocked down the old red garage in which Mike Moran kept his funeral car.

About once a day a “local” mixed freight would run, and sometimes stop at the short siding next to the wholesale building to set off a boxcar of feed or to set off a flatcar for some of the local sawmill operators to stack crossties for shipment.

At noon the passenger train would arrive. Most of the time it would stop to discharge passengers and mail. Usually there was a mailcar and a passenger car pulled by a smaller but faster locomotive. The engineer seemed to always be in a hurry because he would invariably spin the wheels on the engine as he pulled out of the station.. I loved to see the sparks fly off the drive wheels. One of the engineers was Mr. Groves from Gassaway who had the nickname of “Rounder”. Years later I learned that he was the father of Dr. Blaine Groves of Martinsburg.

I don’t recall when the last passenger train ran through Orlando but it had to be in the mid 1950s. I do remember that some of the older men were somewhat upset at the passing of that era.

There was a fairly long passing sidetrack which began just north of the railroad bridge over Oil Creek and ended just north of the home of Homer Mitchell on Clover Fork which was about a mile and a half from downtown Orlando. This sidetrack was removed in the mid 1950s.

I used to walk the old B & O railroad grade that was removed in the early 1940s to downtown Orlando from my grandmother’s home to get the mail. I remember that some of the ties were still present and the path was not level because of the imprint of the ties in the ballast. I suspect that rails were removed and the old ties were left when the Company abandoned the track. Over the course of years thereafter many of the ties were removed for fence posts and firewood. The pilings from the old abandoned railroad bridge over Clover Fork were still present in the early 1950s. John Gibson who lived on the hill, or perhaps someone else, had built a walkway across them for foot traffic.

Several people in Orlando worked for the railroad including many of the people mentioned in the Orlando website. Most of them were trackmen including my father, Coleman Jeffries. The section gang had a shed and garage for their motorcar located just south of the Fred Bee residence. At one time a water tower was also there. It was torn down in the 1950s. I can still remember the trackmen starting the motorcar and its strange singing noise as it made its way down the rails.

Arden Thomas was a brakeman or fireman, I’m not sure which. He often worked the “local” between Burnsville and Grafton. I can remember at least once the train stopped in front of the Matthews house so that Arden’s wife could bring his lunch down the hill to him.

My mother Helen and my dad Coleman did not share my interest in the railroad. To mom it meant a lot of soot and dirt that she had to clean. She complained about not being able to keep the family laundry clean as it was drying on the clothes line.. She was glad to see the coming of the diesels. To dad, who worked for the B & O, the railroad was just a dangerous place, a lot of hard work when he worked, and layoffs when times were slow.

All too soon the steam engines were replaced by General Motors diesels. Slowly the breathing monsters of the rails wee replaced by FA7’s, GP7’s and GP9’s. I think that by 1959 or 1960 all the steam was gone. I still enjoy watching the new diesels push their way up the hill from Burnsville to Frenchton and Buckhannon, but it is just not the same!

Today, I and many others travel long distances, such as to Colorado and New Mexico, to ride and experience once again the sights, sounds and smells or the steam engines as they demonstrate what was so commonplace in my childhood and in my hometown of Orlando . Perhaps we are trying to recapture a time when life was much safer and simpler. I take my grandchildren to explain to and to show them a little bit of history that passed in my lifetime so they might also experience the thrill and scariness of a steam locomotive.

Once in the early 1970s the B & O Railroad ran an excursion passenger train from Grafton to Cowen. I did not become aware of the event in time to join the passengers in this once-in-a-lifetime experience and I was so disappointed. I hope in my lifetime another excursion takes place so that I can ride the train through my hometown of Orlando and I can look out the window to the place on the hill where my love of railroads began.

The title of this entry includes a line from the song Folsom Prison Blues by Johnny Cash

1 comment:

  1. I should have titled this article "Hear That Lonesome Whistle Blow" a line from a Hank Williams song from about the same era. TJ