Riding the Rails
I needed a break from retirement; actually just some time away from the routine and to take myself out of the house. A friend and I drove to Elkins, West Virginia to ride the rails. In Elkins, they have several trips that leave the train station. The trips last from four hours to six and one half hours. The ride we made passed through the Monongahela National Forest, a wilderness area. This train ride as several unusual aspects.
Not too far into our ride, we went into a tunnel. It was a surprise for the passengers in our car; the tour guide was announcing, but for some reason her description hadn’t gone through the address system. The tunnel was very dark, but we could see the walls seemingly close to the sides of the cars. Later we found that the rail cars were a scant five inches from the walls of the tunnel. Another unique aspect of the tunnel under Cheat Mountain is that it has an “S” curve between the entrance and egress portals.
There is one stop at the Cheat River Falls for photographs and shortly afterwards the Salamander Train traverses a sharp curve. It is the sharpest curve east of the Rocky Mountains at 36 degrees. Other train cars can’t maneuver it. The Salamander can because its cars are only sixty feet long, while other cars are eighty feet long and the radius is too tight for them to make the turn.
The High Falls of the Cheat River drops about twenty feet from multiple places along a rock ledge. The multiple streams of water made interesting views to photograph from above and below. The water was clear with a deep pool below.
There were three cars attached to a work diesel engine. One was a pale gray utility car and the other two were passenger cars. The “younger car” was built in 1939 with dark green plush seats. The “older car” which was the one that we rode in was built in 1919. The seats were of short-napped lighter green velvet and the backs of the seats swiveled up and over to change which way the passengers would sit. These seats were more comfortable than the “younger car.”
On the way to the ghost town of Spruce, we saw a bald eagle fly along the river and land in the snag of a dead tree. There was also a short stop at the metal truss Cheat Bridge.
We were served a hearty bag lunch and non-alcoholic drinks were available throughout the six hour trip. It was a relief to be able walk around the site of Spruce. None of the buildings were left, but photographs with descriptions of the hotel, homes, store, and the coal tipple were noted on the photo boards. For some reason, the engineer decided to back the train into the “Big Cut.” Our tour guide shared that we were getting to see something that passengers rarely get to see. “I’ve guided since April and this is only the second time that he’s done this.” A sidebar: the engineer is a registered pharmacist as well as an engineer. He works one week at each job rotating them.
On the trip back to Elkins, the locomotive was on the other end of our car and we were able to stand in the open at the end of the car. The one thing that surprised me was the altitude that we climbed from Elkins to Spruce. The altitude at Elkins is 1930 and I was told by the tour guide that the Big Cut is nearly 4400 feet. It became obvious as we descended along the tracks. It was a remarkable ride hitting thirty miles per hour at some places and much slower through the sharp curves and the tunnel.
The line is called the “Durbin & Greenbriar Valley Railroad.” The tour guide, conductor, and the engineer couldn’t have been more friendly and cordial. I enjoyed the other riders and spoke and teased with some of the others. One gentleman was from Ontario, a couple was from York PA, and two men were from the Johnstown/ Somerset PA area. All in all, it was a pleasurable relaxing get-away.