Cradled by the green-carpeted, wave-resembling ridges forming the Tygart Valley, Elkins, located in the West Virginia Highlands, representations down-home America. From the historic, red brick railroad depot, two barely visible, gravel-imbedded tracks stretch out of town, their direction indicated by the girder-resembling bridge ahead, and to the right, of them.
Proudly and powerfully led by the black Western Maryland number 82 and dark blue Baltimore and Ohio number 6641 diesel engines, the six-car complement complying the late-May New Tygart Flyer stood poised atop the slender rails next to the 1908 depot, the locomotives humming with deep, throaty, journey-anticipatory vibration on the hot, power blue morning. The passengers, most of whom considered school bus-deposited groups, progressively crowded the red-brick, track-level platform as the sun and temperature inched higher. The steel Pullman coaches, internally air conditioned, entrenched the throng inside during the 1045 boarding, the passengers recollecting into smaller groups as they gravitated towards their assigned cars.
Although the railroad's physical journey had been scheduled to depart at 1100, its historical one had begun more than a century ago, in 1880, and the "Western Maryland" and "Baltimore and Ohio" railroads, the names displayed by the current engines, had played crucial roles in it.
Principally hauling freight and coal, along with limited passenger service, the Western Maryland Railway itself, whose line entailed a six-year construction period beginning in 1906, had served the three states of Maryland, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania, with two major track subdivisions : the Connellsville Subdivision, primarily engaging in easterly and westerly freight traffic flows, connected Cumberland, Maryland, with Connellsville, Pennsylvania, while the Thomas Subdivision, also originating in Cumberland, threaded its way through densely-forested, coal- and timber-rich West Virginia to Elkins.
The latter subdivision, however, had actually begun in 1880 when the West Virginia Central and Pittsburgh Railway had contemplated laying narrow-gauge track, but almost immediately elected to employ the more widely used standard gauge, for the purpose of providing access to the Allegheny Highlands 'abundant, hitherto untapped resources, itself sparking the establishment of several towns, inclusive of Davis, Thomas, Parsons, and Elkins.
The Coal and Iron Railway, established in 1899 to facilitate logging operations, originated in Elkins, cycling through the Cheat Mountain Tunnel and following the Shavers Fork of the Cheat River and the West Fork of the Greenbrier River into Durbin, where it connected with the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad's Greenbrier Division. Although construction had been completed in 1903, the Western Maryland's acquisition of the West Virginia Central and Pittsburgh only two years later resolved in the Coal and Iron Railway's redesignation as the "Durbin Subdivision."
Elkins, located at the mouth of the Leading Creek and Tygart Valley rivers, was named after investor and Senator Stephen B. Elkins, who, along with Senator Henry Gassaway Davis, had been instrumental in both the railroad's and the town's growth. Originating to serve the work needed to maintain and operate the line, the expanding town had once featured maintenance shops and "Wild Mary's" freight yard, the staging area and western terminus of the many coal operations which had fanned out from the Elkins area, supported by a 900-strong team.
Threshold to some of the world's richest timber and natural resources, and the transportation hub of the Appalachian Mountains, it became home of the Davis and Elkins College and Davis's Graceland Inn summer residence, where invited guests would escape the Washington heat and humidity in order to enjoy its higher-elevation, cooler-climate location. Elkins became the Western Maryland Railway's southern hub, its Thomas Subdivision connecting with its main line at Maryland Junction, south of Cumberland.
Although its service had been consistently ranked as fast, efficient, and of significant quality, it significantly competed with the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, but was fraught with several obstacles, including a proliferation of costly, high-maintenance tunnels and bridges; use of a single, as opposed to the B & O's double, main line track; and service to only two major cities-namely, Baltimore and Cumberland.
The Baltimore and Ohio, having already established an affiliation with the Chesapeake and Ohio in 1962, petitioned the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) to gain control of the Western Maryland two years later, which it granted, but the line had continued to operate independently until 1972, at which time all three rail companies were merged into the Chessie System. Further amalgamated with the Seaboard Coast Line and The Family Line ten years later, it briefly operated the Seaboard System, but was remorphized into the CSX Corporation, whose railroad division was designated "CSX Transportation," in 1987. The town of Elkins, which growth had peaked in 1920, began a resource depletion-sparked decline and progressive rail service reduction until the tracks witnessed their last operation in 1959, thereafter lying barren and unused for some four decades.
In 1997, the Interstate Commerce Commission granted CSX Transportation permission to abandon the track it owned, but no longer used for coal carriage, below Elkins, which was subdivided into the still-active Elkins-Tygart Junction portion and the inactive Elkins-Bergoo section, provided that the West Virginia State Rail Authority could acquire both for a $ 6 million fee.
The line, encompassing some 140 miles of Elkins Division track and managed by the West Virginia Central Railroad, is now operated by the Durbin and Greenbrier Valley Railroad, a short-line owned by John and Kathy Smith. Originating service on May 16, 1998 during the annual Cass Scenic Railroad railfan weekend, it initially operated from Durbin until the Randolph County Development Authority reconstructed the old Western Maryland bridge, allowing it to re-establish rail access to the Elkins train depot abandoned by CSX in 1992, once the location of its 22-acre, roundhouse-equipped yard.
The restored depot, site of the Durbin and Greenbrier Valley Railroad's headquarters, is the departure point for three of its four excursion trains-the "New Tygart Flyer," the "Cheat Mountain Salamander," and the "Mountain Express Dinner Train" -while the "Durbin Rocket" continues to depart from the town of Durbin itself. The Elkins depot once again serves as a railroad departure point and the town is once again the shopping, dining, hotel, and transportation hub of the east Central Appalachian Mountains-but now for tourists. A piercing whistle warned of the New Tygart Flyer's imminent departure on that late-May day.
Nudged by the two diesel engines in pusher-mode, the train inched rearward as the car couplings accordioned into each other. Plying the tracks of the former Cheat Subdivision, which is really curved to the right, it trundled over the rust-colored, girder-resembling bridge and the green reflective surface of the river, the individual structures of Elkin's historic district incorporating into motion, and parallel several stationary coal cars until it briefly suspended its own travel.
Threading to the right on the switchback, and now rolled by its locomotives, the New Tygart Flyer departed the Elkin's yard limits at milepost 30.0, plunging through density vegetation, as if the tracks provided a parting path through it. Negotiating the horseshoe-shaped Isner Loop two miles later, the snaking chain commenced its 2.8-percent graduated ascent up Cheat Mountain. Seemingly brushing the slanted dirt and shale rock faces, it follows the arching, climbing rails, cradled by a deep ravine.
Reaching the summit at the Cheat Mountain Tunnel, the dual-locomotive, six-car chain plunged into the 1,717-foot-long, hand-carved, s-curved passage under the mountain's ridge, the light-outlined portal representing its entrance progressively decreasing in size until it flicked out behind the last car, and the forest-green views through the side windows, as if shades had suddenly been rolled over them, transformed into blackness. The narrow rock tunnel provided as much clearance as a hand in a glove.
After reducing its momentum to a snail's pace, the train reinitiated determined momentum. The layers of step-resembling shale rock showcased earth's evolutionary, millennia-carved artist, expressed in geological style. Redescending into the Cheat River Valley at a two-percent graduated rate, it reached the mountain's base at the small community of Bowden. A short, out-of-service track siding passed by at milepost 38.4. The cars lurched and swayed as they snaked behind and mimicked the Western Maryland and Baltimore and Ohio locomotives, their whistles cracking open the gentle, pre-summer morning with every road-crossing traverse, momentarily intercepting, and then paralleling, the Shavers Fork of the Cheat River.
Located in the eastern Allegheny Mountains, the 88.5-mile-long river itself, flowing through Monongahela National Forest and primarily draining a 214-square-mile basin in rural and forested areas, is part of the mighty Mississippi by means of the Cheat, Monongahela , and Ohio rivers. Rising in north-central Pocahontas County at Thorny Flat, itself located on 4,848-foot Cheat Mountain, it flows through the abandoned logging town of Spruce, location of its headwaters, before moving in a north-northeasterly direction through Randolph and Tucker Counties. Its valley is formed by Cheat Mountain in the west and Shavers Mountain in the east. Joining Black Fork at Parsons, the Shavers Fork forms the Cheat River at a 1,621-foot elevation.
The river's prevalent, white-capped, mini-rapids, indicating their negotiation of the rocks and pebbles numbering in the hundreds of thousands encountered in their paths, representated obstacles the water's forces painstakingly down into smooth, almost polished brown opals. Would that force ever succeed in reducing them to nonexistence? Which entity, or state, could then be considered the conqueror-the liquid or the solid?
The 1922-era, deluxe Pullman Palace parlor car in which I rode, the most luxurious of the train's coaches, featured a wooden bar and pantry; individual tables and black vinyl chairs; wooden sidewall paneling; laced window curtains; ceiling fans; and red, floral-patterned carpeting. A buffet lunch was served in the standard cars, but the parlor car offered more formal, menu and table service, and included a turkey, lettuce, and tomato croissant; a tri-color pasta salad; potato chips; apple pie a la mode; and iced tea. Catering had been provided by the Railyard Restaurant located in the historic Elkins Rileyard, but entrees were made on board.
Cheat Mountain, draped in multiple shades of green, majesticly rose in front of the locomotives. Bemis, a camping community of some 200, was represented by a scatter of farmhouses and mobile homes off the left side. The track, sandwiched between Glady Fork on the left and Cheat Mountain on the right, re-elevated and passed over High Bridge, under which the glistening water appeared a motionless, velvet sheen surface. Curving over and between sand-colored boulders, the river descended under the trestle in an inverted s-pattern.
The screeching, snaking chain of steel cars, imitating their life-providing, parental engines, somehow appeared infinitesimal amidst the mountains, progressing like a thread through the eye of a needle, over a path veritably swallowed by the tree-carpeted peaks towering above them . Decelerating to a crawl at 1230 and paralleling the 4,200-foot track siding at milepost 42.6, the New Tygart Flyer arrested its motion, the two diesel engines disconnecting from the parlor car and rounding the train to reattach themselves as pushers.
The parlor car itself, no longer obstructed by the locomotives, now became the lead coach, negotiating the high road bed which gravel steeply angled downward. A final screech, replaced by a thunderous roar only nature could ironically have made, indicated arrival at milepost 50.6 and the High Falls of Cheat, the New Tygart Flyer's terminus, before it would later recommence its return journey. Pouring, like a Herculean-sized faucet of white, unharnassed energy, the 18-foot-high, 150-foot-wide, horseshoe-shaped waterfall streamed over the flat step of rock to the collecting pool below it and thethen into the Shavers Fork of the Cheat River.
The covered, wooden platform, which was barely long enough to stretch between a few seat rows of a single coach, somehow represented a link with humanity, while the track curving at 33 degrees toward the green confines of the isolating forest served as the path to that link. The air transported an inexpensive spray of photographed vegetation and the sound waves of the now-fault rushing water. The gray parlor car, currently considered the last in the chain, was visible to the left and represented the means by which humanity link was transported, a lifeline forged once per day during the summer and only in one's imagination during the winter.
The similarities were many at this remote, isolated, end-of-the-world location. The track formed a path to it. The river formed a path to it. The track transported life. The river transported life. The track paralleled and reflected the river, as if there were two parallel, but very close, worlds of different properties and forms. The river continued its journey. And, with a brief lurch as the car couplings tightened, so, too, did the train. Only one location could represent both their destinies-their origins.