Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Local News

May 5, 2014

Ridge Runner Railway ready for start of new season on May 10

BLUEFIELD, Va. — After several months of work including a completely rebuilt engine and transmission, a new radiator as well as re-worked track and a retaining wall to bolster a small section of the railroad line — Bluefield’s popular Ridge Runner Railway is about to open for the 2014 season next weekend on May 10, according to Lori Mills, a member of the Save the Ridge Runner Committee who continues to work tirelessly to keep the railroad on track.

“I call her Little Precious,” Mills said. “Last week, after Jamie Clark brought her from RJ Mine Services after all of the work was done, Tim Blankenship took her for a trip around the track. When I heard Tim sound her horn, I said to myself: ‘There’s Little Precious. She’s back home again.’ It’s a labor of love for all of us.”

Mills ignited the grassroots efforts to save the Ridge Runner in the summer of 2009 when the city considered taking the popular attraction out of service forever, and bringing the locomotive to the downtown as a static display. Once the ball got rolling, the Save the Ridge Runner campaign took off in a big way and raised enough money to restore the locomotive and cars as well as to repair the track that had fallen into disrepair.

The committee was able to get the train back on track by May 12, 2011, and thousands of people — young and old — came out to enjoy a ride around Lotito Park on the train that started hauling passengers at the East River Mountain Overlook in the summer of 1964. The opening of I-77 in the late 1970s reduced the traffic over the mountain, and the attraction faded away with little fanfare. In 1984, the City of Bluefield, acquired the train and brought it to Bluefield City Park, where it served a few years until repair costs of the track and train made operations prohibitive.

Mills said that during the last three years, the committee has learned a great deal about how to keep the train running. “The train is 50 years old and Lecia Smith is working to get it placed on the historical register,” Mills said. “I have spent five years of my life working on this project, but when I hear Little Precious going over the grade crossings, I still get teary-eyed.

“I’m so thankful for everything Jamie (Clark), Anthony (Hawks), Lecia (Smith), Raymond Woody, the Blankenships — Tim and his wife — Art Riley and everyone on the committee has done,” Mills said. “We’re all excited about season four. We carried 42,500 passengers in our first three seasons. We think this year, that we’ll go over the 400,000 mark for the 50 years that the Ridge Runner has been serving the area.”

Mills said that thanks to the efforts of Lecia and her husband, Danny Smith, the Norfolk Southern Foundation has donated $25,000 to install new grade crossings with signals and operating gates. “That project probably won’t be ready until the middle of the year,” she said. “New Image Signs is helping us upgrade our signage. Everyone is excited.”

Mills expressed the committee’s appreciation to the public for their patience while they have been testing the track as well as the rebuilt engine and transmission in the locomotive. “Back in 2009, I knew I was in it for the long haul, and that is what is happening,” she said.

Listen for the Ridge Runner whistle on May 10, for the start of a new season. The train runs each Saturday and Sunday from noon to 6 p.m.

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