By LARRY HYPES
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
Tourism in Tazewell County is not a new idea but it has long been one difficult to encourage among many citizens. I have long told my high school students that there are five incorporated towns in the county — Cedar Bluff, Pocahontas, Bluefield, Richlands, and Tazewell. I sometimes ask for a show of hands from those who have visited all five and it is not often that many hands are raised. There were years I joked (painfully, inside) that more people from Tazewell County had been to Myrtle Beach than their own backyards. I remember once that a student said there is more to do in Myrtle Beach than there is around here.
There is no longer such a deep division in diversity for the fun seekers. From the Historic Crab Orchard Museum’s year-round endeavors to provide entertainment to the autumn festival in Bluefield or the town festival in Cedar Bluff or Indian Run events in Pocahontas, a trickle of activities is growing into a steady flow. Recently, the annual Tazewell County Air Show up on Kent’s Ridge at the county airport announced renewed plans for a bigger and better family event after a year off taken to make necessary preparations for the long-time local favorite show. There is also serious talk about upgrading the Cavitt’s Creek facility between North Tazewell and Adria into a Virginia State Park.
The Tazewell County Industrial Development Authority, combined with efforts from the board of supervisors and county administrator Jim Spencer, has been active in promoting the Spearhead Trail and related concepts for an outdoor recreational area linking southern West Virginia (and hopefully, much of the southeastern U.S.) into a place where enthusiasts can bring all-terrain vehicles, horses, and walking to the forefront.
As the legal arrangements are being worked out, entrepreneurs are being asked to step up. Hotels, beds and breakfasts, restaurants, stores, and shops will be needed. People must eat, sleep, and find supplies for themselves and their transportation when they come here. Opportunity is knocking and Tazewell County, among others, needs those with vision and deep pockets — or good credit — to put those related necessities in place.
As a lifelong train fan I still remember being pleased when the rails were not removed when the old Norfolk & Western facilities were largely removed from the town of Pocahontas.
Although the former Bluestone line is reduced to one weed-filled stretch of rail out to the main line between Columbus and Norfolk (let’s think big here!) it is still there, complete with a tunnel and easy links to local Mercer County towns beginning with historic Bramwell.
Conventional wisdom a few years back pegged the cost of building a railroad in the mountains at $3 million per mile. Well, the line from Pocahontas is already there, it’s been graded and leveled and some new ties and rail would make it usable fairly soon. Officials could begin working seriously on this plan by conferencing with Norfolk Southern, of course, and enthusiasts from the Pocahontas Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society, continuing into Roanoke for the next chapter of the NRHS, and beyond.
NS already has a program called 21st Century Steam and if you have not heard of it, it is worthwhile to research. Chairman Charles “Wick” Moorman and his Norfolk Southern Corporation have within their domain an impressive facility and believe me when I tell you that many, many individuals from Alabama to Maryland know how to help with a steam operation. Yes, insurance is a concern but the folks at TVR and Western Maryland, among others including the operation at Strasburg, Pa., have found ways to make it happen. Now, although the big engines including No. 611 and No. 1218 currently resting in Roanoke are too big to idle along as locals running 10 to 20 miles per hour. They were designed for more high speed runs.
However, think back over the past couple of years to the excitement generated by the Ridge Runner Railroad now thankfully back as an integral member of the Lotitio Park area here in Bluefield. It attracts an impressive number of riders. That little train does not have a huge area to travel, there is no fancy souvenir shop or restaurant on its run but people show up simply for the experience of getting to be part of a train ride. It is grand for everyone involved.
Now, just a short whistle blast up the line on the other side of Bowen Field sits a real possibility. It’s Old No. 7, waiting patiently for a new assignment.
Many of you have seen the photos of this engine being transported over to the park a couple of generations ago. Technically, it is a “G-1” with a 2-8-0 wheel arrangement meaning it has two wheels up front with four driving wheels, each with a 50-inch diameter, and no trailing wheels under the tender. A railroad rule of thumb says that for every inch of an engine’s driving wheels, that could translate into a mile per hour so it might be possible for excursion fans who don’t always want to move at a crawl, this engine could move rapidly if need be.
As the powers that be from Richmond to Charleston begin to show renewed interest, think about it. There are many passenger cars available. It would take a dedicated effort but the parts could be reproduced. Lots of people said the N&W and Virginian could never travel through the mountains. Graded rights of way are already in place in 2013.
Now perhaps all we need are the right people to “spearhead” a grand addition to an already great idea combining ATVs, horses, runners, walkers, bike riders, fishermen, and paddle boaters into a national tourist attraction. All aboard for those who have never visited Montcalm or Matoaka via Pocahontas and Bramwell.
Larry Hypes, a teacher at Tazewell High School, is a Daily Telegraph columnist.