Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

July 8, 2013

Ridge Runner on track for a banner year even with rain showers

By BILL ARCHER
Bluefield Daily Telegraph

BLUEFIELD, Va. — This weekend was typical of the 2013 Ridge Runner season.

“We had 401 people on Saturday when it didn’t rain, but we won’t get that many today,” Shirley Blankenship said. “Back in April, we had one day with 503 riders, but we think that if the weather clears up, July will be our best month ever.”

Even with the rain, riders came out on Sunday, and pushed the season ridership totals over the 6,000 mark to 6,029 as of 3:30 p.m. Lotito Park was busy Sunday afternoon with at least two reunions taking place, and when the rain stopped falling, several people who were attending the reunions made their way over to the Ridge Runner station to ride the train.

Trina Foster graduated from Northfork High School in 1985. “I was in the last graduating class,” she said. While Foster now lives in Columbus, Ohio, she returned for the school reunion and walked over some of her family members to ride the Ridge Runner.

“The first time I rode this train was when it was up on the top of the mountain,” she said. “I rode it when it was down here in the park too.”

The Ridge Runner was located on top of East River Mountain near the present overlook. The Ridge Runner was built in 1963, and went into service in 1964 as an interstate railroad that operated between Virginia and West Virginia. When the H. Edward Steele Tunnel through East River Mountain opened in 1974, the number of vehicles traveling over the mountain on the old road declined almost overnight. In a few years, the Ridge Runner ceased operations and was parked in a tunnel where it was essentially exposed to the elements.

In the early 1980s, the city of Bluefield acquired the train, moved it to Lotito Park and after making some repairs, reopened it to the public in 1984. The little train operated in the park for several years, but track and rolling stock maintenance issues prompted its closure in the 1990s. It remained closed until a grassroots organization launched a fundraising effort that ultimately resulted in the reopening of the Ridge Runner in May 2011.

Trina Foster, her sister, Tonya Foster of Groveport, Ohio, their sister-in-law, Amelia Foster and her daughter, Allison Foster, all rode the Ridge Runner with their mother, Patricia Foster. “My son, William Foster is here, but he didn’t come over to ride the train,” Patricia Foster said.

“People come here and brag on this little train,” Tim Blankenship, engineer of the Ridge Runner said. Tim operates the train and his wife, Shirley Blankenship, sells the tickets and staffs the souvenir shop. Their grandson, Zack Moses, was helping take tickets on Sunday.

“When they make reservations for the park, people usually ask if the train will be running,” Tim Blankenship said. “It is powered by an old Ford tractor motor, and you have to baby it along some but it was built in 1963, started running in 1964 and is still running. It’s pretty advanced. It drops sand on the tracks for better traction and has brakes on all the wheels including the passenger cars. That’s important when it rains.”

The Ridge Runner operates every Saturday and Sunday from noon to 6 p.m. each day, and can be rented out for private parties for a modest fee.

— Contact Bill Archer at barcher@bdtonline.com