Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Columns

July 11, 2013

Trains inspire awe and provide economic development opportunities

— — Back when my nephew A.J. was a toddler, he quickly developed a fascination for trains. My parents’ home in Fayette County isn’t far from some railroad tracks, so you can hear freight trains rumbling through the countryside. A.J. quickly determined what this sound meant. He couldn’t talk, but he would get this longing expression and point in the sound’s direction. And naturally, his Mawmaw and Pawpaw would get his car seat and take him to the rails so he could watch the train go by. One of my favorite pictures of A.J. and Dad shows Dad holding his little grandson and pointing as the train goes by.

The love of trains extended to Thomas the Train. When he was a little older, my sister Karen’s family went to a park featuring a full-size locomotive decked out like Thomas. Mom listened to A.J. describe the whole experience; of course, he couldn’t say anything by “choo-choo,” but she understood. Dad built a small table where A.J. could put his Thomas train set. Being an engineer, Dad enjoyed setting up tracks as much as A.J. did.

Now A.J. is in high school and thinking about colleges and careers. He has his own car now, so he isn’t the little train enthusiast he used to be. I still can’t help but think of the old days when a train goes by. It’s a common sound in the Daily Telegraph newsroom. Some evenings you hear and feel the trains going past our building.

I’m not the biggest train fan in the world, but I understand the fascination with locomotives. You could say it runs in the family. I had a great-uncle, Earl, who had records with nothing but train sounds. Later in life, I learned my great-grandfather Jordan was a train engineer.

Dad once told me the story about how great-grandpa got drunk and wrecked a locomotive. Nobody was hurt, but he somehow managed to take the wrong side rail and overturned the engine. I’m not sure what happened to his railroad career after the incident.

I’m not sure if my grandpa worked on the railroads, but he was a mechanic. We still have some of the tools he used during the 1930s and 1940s. He had screwdrivers almost 4 feet long and tiny oil cans you would swear belonged in a child’s tool chest, but there was a purpose for such odd-sized implements. They were designed so he could reach into machinery and service it without taking it all apart.

Seeing all the tools and the machinery involved in railroads reminds anyone why there is such a fascination with railroads. There is still something magical about seeing machines weighing hundreds of tons going by at a high speed. Train enthusiasts who are also photographers frequently shoot pictures of the trains going through the rail yard in Bluefield and other parts of the region. When I drive home from work, I see the rail yard’s light blazing bright as day.

One idea to bring more railroad lovers to Bluefield is to create viewing platforms where visitors can watch the rail yard. People who don’t see such a big example of industry every day find such things amazing. I remember visiting Jacksonville, Fla., and seeing the big shipyards there.

 A friend of mine, Amanda, told me the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce wanted to build big fences to screen off the drydocks because they thought it was an ugly view. The restaurant and bar owners along the bay were outraged by the idea. Many of their guests had never seen oceangoing ships before and thought the view was fascinating. The fact that work continued there all night made the view even better.

The Princeton Railroad Museum has had visitors from all over the world, so railroading does give visitors something new to see. The fact railroads and the region’s coal history are so closely intertwined is another benefit.

The way interest in railroads covers young and old alike is evident by the success of the Ridge Runner in Bluefield’s Lotito Park. Volunteers quickly stepped up when the little train needed renovations, and today it’s carrying children and adults around the park. An annual model train show always attracts plenty of visitors, too.

Another idea is to create a tourist train capable of taking visitors to several towns in southern West Virginia and neighboring Southwest Virginia. That idea’s much more ambitious and costly than a museum, but it’s still worth thinking about if the national economy bounces back and money becomes more available.

 I rode a scenic train in the Canaan Valley years ago, and it was quite a trip. We even saw bald eagle nests up in the mountains as well as some historic sites. And there’s something fun about riding a train, period. I’ve taken several trips in my lifetime, and I can’t remember a time when I didn’t enjoy the experience. The big steam engines still amaze me. Yes, they’re technically outdated, but they radiate the mechanical charisma of battleships and ocean liners.

With hope, we will have a place where small children can look in awe as a mighty train goes by and even take a ride on one. Trains still offer economic development opportunities for all ages.

Greg Jordan is senior reporter at the Daily Telegraph. Contact him at gjordan@bdtonline.com.

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