Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Columns

January 27, 2014

‘What hath God wrought’ launched a communications revolution

— — My wife and I drove out to Appalachia, Va., a couple of weeks ago. She’s good to tolerate my spontaneity and my unexpected trips to unknown places. We have enjoyed many adventures together through the years. One of my favorites was the time we drove up to Matewan and visited with a lady who was a little girl during the West Virginia Mine Wars. When we walked in her living room, she immediately asked me, “Are you union?”

I didn’t hesitate for too long before answering, “Yes.” I went on to say that when I worked for a broker who had several trucks leased on with Ohio Fast Freight, all of us were required to be in the Teamsters union for a while. I worked out of the Canton, Ohio, Local 92. Although I was only with the Teamsters for a few months until I bought my own truck, I carried my inactive card with me until recent years. I had it with me at that time.

I offered to show the lady my card, but she accepted me at my word and proceeded to tell me an incredible story about gunshots ringing out all around her, hiding in a shed, seeing death and thinking it would never stop. That was 20 years ago and I still remember the interview in great detail. I wondered what might have happened if I had answered “No” to the union question.

As we were leaving Appalachia, my wife asked me if I found what I was looking for, and I was able to say that I gained an incredible amount of insights in a relatively short period of time. Without any additional prompting, I started telling her about the old Southern Railway passenger station, the police department logo, the power of the Powell River and more. A couple of hours worth of looking around gave me several weeks worth of mental images to digest, research and understand.

I grew up on a farm, but our farm was close enough to the Baltimore & Ohio Railway’s main line through southwestern Pennsylvania that I could hear the whistles blow on passing trains. My Uncle Vernie Archer took me on the last B&O steam locomotive passenger train from Claysville, Pa., to Wheeling. The main thing I remember from that ride was that I stepped in a big puddle of tar that ruined my church shoes.

By the time we moved in town, the B&O track was less than 100 yards from our house, and the 1860s vintage house we lived in shook, rattled and rocked when the 4:05 a.m., westbound fast freight rolled through town. I had always been an early riser, but I found myself waking up before the train rolled through because I didn’t want the surprise. I can still hear the roar of the diesel locomotive in my memories sometimes when I wake up in the early morning hours.

I thought the B&O Railroad was a permanent fixture because it existed with such clarity in my memories. In truth, it didn’t survive the period of railroad mergers a few years ago that ended a lot of lines. When the B&O trains stopped running, it seemed like nature slowly reclaimed the old roadbed. It had followed the old National Pike and the B&O was a primary artery for travel into the Midwest.

After the old B&O tracks and cross-ties were pulled up and the hump that supported the track was planted with grass, the old utility poles with their wooden cross-bars and glass insulators remained to rot away.

In the spring of 1844, the B&O let the federal government and Samuel F.B. Morse use a portion of the railroad’s right-of-way between Washington, D.C., and Baltimore to string a wire and send a telegraph message — in Morse Code — that revolutionized communications.

The only thing that B&O provided in that event was the level path that facilitated the installation of a wire to carry Morse’s message: “What hath God wrought,” from the Book of Numbers 23:23; “Surely there is no enchantment against Jacob, neither is there any divination against Israel: According to this time it shall be said of Jacob and of Israel, What hath God wrought!”

My brother salvaged a few glass insulators from the old B&O utility poles, but only from the cross members that had already fallen to the ground. They weren’t rare at the time, but they were still interesting.

Following the old Norfolk Southern Clinch Valley line out to Norton, Va., and ultimately to Appalachia, I saw a still-vibrant coal economy that is at least in part driven by the new Dominion Power Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center that can fuel new generations of technological breakthroughs and supply energy in an efficient way with a minimal impact on the environment.

The tracks to Appalachia were still shiny and still in use — just like the ones here in Bluefield. I saw that too during out trip, but I failed to mention it to my wife. I hope she will understand.

Bill Archer is senior editor at the Daily Telegraph. Contact him at barcher@bdtonline.com.

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