A Look Into The Past

Posted By From On High
Date Saturday, 12 October 2019, at 9:26 a.m.

Check out this photo that I took the other day when I was bicycling the New River Trail. Unless you know how railroads work and how Norfolk & Western Railroad operated its 57.1 miles of track in southwest Virginia, you wouldn't know what's depicted here.
I've mentioned before the fact that N&W ran trains from Pulaski, Virginia to Galax for almost eighty years (1904 to 1981). It subsequently abandoned the track and turned it over to the commonwealth of Virginia so that a public park could be created. (Thus, the New River Trail.)
I took the photo at the point where the track once came to an end, north of Galax. Did you ever wonder - since the trains ran on a single track - how they turned around once they reached that dead end? There was no loop. There was no locomotive at each end, one pulling cars south, the other north. How did they turn around?
The proper answer is, they didn't.
But the locomotives did.
Norfolk & Western ran this 57.1 mile route twice a day, six days a week, for many years, hitting its peak right at the end of World War II. The company hauled north shipments of livestock, iron ore, zinc, lead, furniture, wood chips, pulp­wood, tan bark, crossties, lumber, cloth from Washington Mills in Galax and milk from the old Carnation plant there. The trains brought in coal, feed, fertilizer, produce and bar­rels of oil.
Brought to a dead end. Hmm...
So how did the locomotive turn around?
Here's how it worked: When the trains reached this point the freight and passenger cars (N&W provided passenger service until the month after Randy Fuhrman, my brother, was born - which means N&W quit hauling humans a long, LONG time ago) were separated from the engine, the cars going onto a siding for unloading and the locomotive brought to this point.
A turntable.
The engine pulled onto a short track in the center of this circle, a steam-powered motor was fired up that turned the track, the track literally revolved 180°, and the locomotive went back the way it came. It then coupled with the freight and passenger cars - all having been unloaded and reloaded - and made its way back north. Twice a day.
In the 18th and 19th centuries - into the 20th century - roads in southwest Virginia were so deplorable that travel was prohibitive, except on horseback. The railroad provided the one means of getting in and out of the area easily. Thus, N&W did a thriving business for decades. But when "modern" roads were laid, and trucks started hauling freight more cheaply (and the iron mines in the area petered out), the railroad became obsolete.

This is the last train to leave Galax, Virginia. October 15, 1985.

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People riding by on their bikes who didn't know the history of the N&W railroad would miss an important part of history (probably thinking that this area surrounded by a circular stone wall, almost hidden now in a wild forest of Viburnum, Arrowwood, Blackhaw, Gooseberry, Maples, Walnuts, Oaks … was some kind of ancient Satan-worshipping site). Too bad for them.****
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* Note: In 1945, N&W moved 8,282 cars to and from Galax, an average of 26 cars a day.
** Note: There was a daily passen­ger train that ran between Pulaski and Galax. The passenger train made its final run on Sept. 5, 1951.
*** Note: The last passenger was a woman traveling the 9.4 miles from Galax to Gambetta, the exact route that I biked the other day.
**** Note: Despite the name given to a nearby creek - Chestnut Creek - there are no chestnut trees here. Or most anywhere else. All the American Chestnut trees in the area - and across the entire United States - were killed off by blight around the time that the railroad was built. 30 million trees. A species that survived three thousand years and was destroyed in three.

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