This coal-fired locomotive was built in 1910 and designed for the steep grades servicing logging operations, featuring driveshafts and beveled gears powering all of the wheels for maximum traction. It sat puffing smoke and hissing steam as it calmly idled prior to our trip—its rhythmic pulsing made it seem as if it were breathing. Whenever the throaty steam whistle was blown, it reverberated off the nearby mountainsides.
Unlike its glory days hauling timber off the mountains, this remnant from the past merely takes a few antique passenger cars and a caboose down the narrow valley of the upper Greenbrier River. The roundtrip journey only covers about twenty miles, but it is very scenic. The clear waters of the Greenbrier River allow one to see the scattered flat rocks along the river bottom, in a variety of irregular polygon shapes. Whitewater rapids interrupt the river’s flow at various points. A beaver dam was visible on one side-section of the river. I also saw deer raise their heads, perk their ears, and stare at the “iron horse” that noisily rolled down the tracks. A kingfisher on a branch overlooking the river opted to fly further downstream to escape our commotion.
There were four passenger cars this day—a completely open car directly behind the locomotive; an old enclosed railway post office car with some seats and windows; an open car with conventional seating plus a roof; and a traditional red caboose. Both the caboose and the enclosed car had coal-fired stoves to provide some heat on this cold day. I chose to ride in the caboose, where I could climb up the ladder and into the cupola to see in all directions. It was a unique spot in which to sit.
The train stops for about 15 minutes on the far end of the line to allow passengers to get off and take pictures and/or explore the river. It also made a brief stop on the way back at a creek bridge to lower a siphon hose and take on water from a pure mountain stream. This was apparently a common method in the old days, but I was more familiar with the elevated water towers that once provided steam engines with refills.
Eventually, our slow and steady pace brought us back to the station in the heart of Durbin (just because it is nicknamed the “Rocket” doesn’t mean it runs fast). I had a great time going back in time and riding the rails that day! There is just something exciting about the sights, the sounds, and even the smells of an old coal-powered steam engine. It truly is a living fossil from a bygone era.
[This story was published in the January issue of Two-Lane Livin' magazine.]