Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Broken Wheel - Appalachian Railroad Tale

My family, like many in this area, we have those who worked in various, notorious, (legal) occupations Appalachia is known for. "You had really only 4 choices in Appalachia as a laborer," my dad would say, "You could farm, you could timber, you could be a coal miner, or you could work on the railroad."  He didn't like neither of them so he had a 30 year, 3 war career, in the military.  This blog post is about our family who worked for an Appalachian railroad. 

Train in the Bluefield WV Yard
Railroad workers are a special breed. It was a challenging and rewarding job but it was never an easy job, and always the potential to be a dangerous job. It created men who were tough and harden because the job required it. These workers worked to control massive, huge, machinery, hauling freight and coal cars on steep mountain tracks. Working in all kinds of weather, daylight and pitch black of night.  Hot sun that warped the rails, heavy rains that caused flooded tracks and landslides, deep snow and ice covering everything freezing switches, it required grit to get the job done. Imagine climbing a coal car on tracks situated on the side of a steep mountain, sheathed in ice, in pitch black darkness, with only a small lantern and hopefully a radio that works. When they didn't have radios, it was much worse!

Minnie Belle Stevenson Bowling
It was a good paying job but always a dangerous job. I can tell you from once being married to a railroad brakeman, you sent them out the door with a kiss and prayer and hope they would come home safe with all their limbs or life, every time. Because you never knew.

I attended a few "broken wheel" funerals. Some of the railroad workers who left way before their time, and it was always a wake up call to how dangerous the occupation could be. The "Broken Wheel" came from where the union would always buy a flower arrangement in the shape of a broken train wheel for the funeral of a fallen fellow railroad worker.

I have many a railroad tale and the railroad affected our family deeply. All our Appalachian family members worked for Norfolk and Western Railway, mostly out of Bluefield, WV.

Charles W. Bowling second from right
My grandfather, Charles Washington Bowling worked for Norfolk and Western for 50 years, with the Maintenance of Way folks. He built bridges and tracks and retired. He had scars but had all his fingernails, limbs, etc. when he died, which was an accomplishment.

My Uncle Howard Davis was an engineer first with the Virginian Railroad and then with Norfolk and Western, when they merged. A kind man that also lived to retire that I just loved to hear him tell tales about the railroad. One of the best tales I remember him telling was on his self. Sometimes railroad crews would sit in a siding waiting for hours for a special train to pass or other reasons.

Uncle Howard Davis
During that time you were not to sleep, or even close your eyes. You could get written up and fired for that negligence. Sometimes the bosses would sneak around and try to catch the men taking a nap in the sidings. Uncle Howard said he'd been sitting in the siding for 2 hours and been out there over 12 on the shift. He had his hands folded and just closed his eyes and bowed his head for a minute sitting in his engineers chair. He heard someone step on the platform of the engine and open the door.  It was the boss.  As the door opened, he just looked up and said, "Amen", and grabbed his lunch pail like he had been praying instead of napping.

My son's father, grandfather and 2 great grandfathers all worked for Norfolk and Western.  Beginning with John Imhoff who was born in Gretna, VA outside of Lynchburg. His birth certificate is written in French which is an odd story.  He began working on the railroad in 1905 and retired as an engineer off the old steam trains in the 1950s.

His regular run by the time he retired was on the steam train the Powhatan Arrow which ran from Norfolk, Virginia to Portsmouth, Ohio. His part of that run was between Bluefield and Williamson WV. A tall man whose ears were scalded and scarred by cinders and the steam from the old steam trains. We had his jacket that his wife Maggie had starched so much it stood up by itself 30 years after he died. The starch prevented the cinders from burning through the material too quickly. We still have his tin coffee pot that would hang next to the tank and cook on the train engine.

Then Carl J. Smith. He was born in Williamson, WV and was the son of Samuel J. Smith (who also worked for the railroad and lost his leg in a railroad accident) and Lula Belle Gibson Smith.  Carl married John and Maggie Stinson Imhoff's daughter, Margaret.  In World War II he served in the Marines in the Pacific. He began as a brakeman with Norfolk and Western after WWII and was promoted to an engineer. Yet he did not retire. 43 years ago this year Carl J. Smith actually lost his life on the railroad.
Carl J. Smith
It was late summer, August 26, 1970.  He was the engineer of an east bound freight train with 116 cars. At about 1:45 in the morning near Finney, VA in Russell County, something went terribly wrong. The freight train was traveling east at 10 mph and hit 3 single diesel engine units head on, on the same track, traveling west at 20 mph. The long east bound freight train had four diesels units pushing from behind, so that even at that slow a speed the massive power behind that crash was immense.

What was left of the locomotive Carl was on.
The force of the crash sheared off the top of the lead diesel of the east bound freight and killed Carl Smith and his brakeman Joe Popp. There had been a switch failure earlier that summer that killed 2 other railroaders, but the railroad being the railroad, never admitted there was something wrong with the switch system that put two trains, twice that summer, on the same track. And the railroad being the railroad, had a claim agent at the door of the family before the body was even cold.

Such is the life of railroad people. The rewards were to see country most people never see and to ride on some of the most powerful machinery man has ever invented on the planet.

I never met the man that would have been a father-in-law and my son never met his grandfather. The tradition today has been broken for this family to be working on the railroad. My son, whose father was injured and disabled on the railroad, his grandfather who was killed, his great grandfather who lost his leg on the son decided this family, especially with the Smith name, has not much luck working for the railroad and he wasn't pushing his. I certainly don't blame him. But I still love trains!

Life is Like A Mountain Railway one of my favorites.

Copyright 2007-2016 Denise A. Smith