Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Columns

February 6, 2013

When the old railroad tracks were removed, a flood-free path was created

Flooding is something we have to occasionally deal with in our region. It’s normally more of a spring/summer occurrence, but high water isn’t all that uncommon during the winter months as well. Just look at what happened last week when the SUV in Princeton got trapped in high water at the Athens Crossroads area.

The biggest flooding events in our region occurred back in 2001, 2002 and 2003, as well as the great flood of 1977 in terms of recent history. I was a little too young at the time to remember the 1977 flood in great detail, but I was knee-deep in the mud, and later choking in the massive dust clouds, following the devastating 2001 and 2002 floods in McDowell County.

The ongoing winter of 2012-2013 is proving to be full of surprises. We kicked winter off early with Superstorm Sandy, which brought several inches of accumulating snowfall to our area on the week before Halloween. Since that time it’s been somewhat of a rollercoaster ride going from spring-like temperatures to arctic air and snow and then back to summer-like temperatures again. Scientists and some lawmakers are pointing to climate change, also known as global warming, as a reason for the current seesaw weather pattern. Some disagree with this idea.

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Flooding has always been a problem for our region. I can still clearly remember and see the flood-prone railroad trestle just below my grandmother’s house in McDowell County. Although the trestle itself is now gone — the railroad tracks also were removed years ago — the road itself is still flood prone. As a child, a flooded roadway just below the trestle — where the Tug Fork River touches the small two-lane road connecting the O’toole and Jenkinjones communities — would normally mean the school bus could not pass under the trestle. When the road was flooded, the school bus would normally have to back-up, and turn around at the bottom of grandmother’s house.

Having lived on the other side of the trestle, I was never so lucky as to get the day off from school — as the school bus would still stop for me before reaching the flooded underpass.

But many times the bus would not be able to reach the kids living in the Jenkinjones community — unless it navigated across a narrow and somewhat dangerous mountainous road leading to the small community elementary school.

When heavy rain and flooding would occur in the Anawalt area, the small creek running through grandmother’s yard would often overflow as well. A good decade later, the actual railroad tracks in the community were removed — signaling an end to the daily trains that would travel up and down the road each morning and evening in Anawalt.

That was a truly sad day for folks in the community. No longer would we be stopped at the railroad crossing in Anawalt by a train hauling dozens of loaded coal cars.

As a child, I would watch that train just about everyday from my small bedroom window. Once the trains stopped running, the silence in our close-knit community was deafening.

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Flash forward to 2001. The railroad tracks are long gone, and the path the train once traveled had slowly become a popular walking area — and a driving course of sorts for those with ATVs.

That newly created railroad path came in handy on the fateful morning of July 8, 2001. Those of us who lived in McDowell County at the time remember it as the day of the great flood.

I still remember the day quite well. I was spending the weekend with Mom. It started raining that Sunday morning at around 11 a.m. At first, it was just a few heavy raindrops. Within a matter of minutes, the rain increased in its intensity. No flood warnings or flood watches had been issued by the National Weather Service. So we had no advance warning of what was happening. After about 30 minutes, the intensity of the rain hadn’t diminished. A good hour or so into the downpour, the rain was still unrelenting.

The Tug Fork River had jumped its banks. And the rain was still pouring outside. Soon the main road itself was impassable. In most areas, it was under water.

When all was done and said, the only way in and out of the town — at least until the water finally receded — was through the path where the old railroad tracks used to be. Suddenly, the old railroad track path served an important purpose — again.

 Charles Owens is the Daily Telegraph’s assistant managing editor. Contact him at cowens@bdtonline.com. Follow him @BDTOwens.

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