The last Norfolk Southern train to ply the West Virginia Secondary on Feb. 4 was front page news in the edition of The Athens News that was distributed this past Monday.
It was one of those “end of an era” stories that don’t happen often.
In this case, a ritual that had scarcely been noticed because it played out for more than a century had ended.
The rail line remains in place and perhaps business will change and trains will once again travel the former New York Central route between Columbus and Charleston, West Virginia.
Another scenario is that the line will be sold to a short line or regional railroad.
Then again, perhaps the next train to use the line will be a work train lifting rail.
So, for the time being, freight trains aren’t passing through the Southern Ohio towns of Athens, Glouster, Chauncey, Albany and Point Pleasant. Along the way the West Virginia Secondary runs parallel with the Hocking River as well as Sunday, Margaret and Leading creeks.
The newspaper noted that although the rail line skirted the western edge of Athens, on a quiet day you could hear the NS locomotive horns from downtown. At one time those were Conrail locomotives being heard.
The last train, which had originated near Charleston, passed through Athens County around 5 p.m. and at least one railfan went out to photograph it.
Once the crew tied up in Watkins Yard in Columbus, it was taken back to Charleston by motor vehicle.
“While environmentally progressive residents of Athens County probably won’t grieve the elimination of chemical- and coal-filled railroad cars speeding past small local communities, the end of an iconic era dating back well into the 19th century prompted many expressions of sadness on Facebook when The Athens News posted the news over the weekend,” the newspaper reported.
Local railroad historian Ryan Dupler told the News that he and others feel a sense of loss.
“Students at Morrison-Gordon Elementary will no longer see and hear the rumbling of trains passing by the playground (near Margaret Creek), which is where my interest was piqued,” he said. “For places such as Glouster, Chauncey and many others along Route 13 the railroad has been a part of everyday life since the towns themselves have existed. For the first time in over 100 years, children will no longer grow up with memories of trains rolling through town.”
The newspaper story lamented the potential lack of economic development opportunities for the region, noting that large-scale manufacturing required rail service.
Another railroad enthusiast expressed similar sentiments.
“I’ve watched trains pass through Athens since before I could talk, so it’s sad to see the rails growing rusty,” said Peter Hayes, a student at Athens High School. “I hope someone can step in and take over operations.”
It was Hayes who make the photograph that appeared in the newspaper.
The Ohio Central uses the West Virginia Secondary north of Glouster, raising speculation that its parent company, Genesee & Wyoming, might be interested in the line south of there.
The OC uses a portion of the 253-mile West Virginia Secondary to haul coal from from Buckingham Coal Company near Glouster to a power plant near Coshocton (Conesville-AEP).
Reporter Terry Smith noted that he lives a few hundred yards above Margaret Creek. “I got used to hearing freight trains roll by on the Norfolk Southern line that parallels the creek,” he wrote in the paper back in January after NS announced that it would mothball the line. “At different times of day and night over the years, the train would announce itself with a faint shaking of the earth, a deep, far-off rumbling, then the tell-tale whistle as the train approached the Hebbardsville Road crossing.
“The train would chug past loudly and quickly, then gradually recede into the distance. During night runs, it would cede the outdoors concert stage back to the cicadas, spring peepers, barking dogs, and speeding cars shifting gears on the Fisher Road straightaway.’
Smith said he had a soft spot for trains and remembered watching them pass through Athens on the Baltimore & Ohio route between Parkersburg, West Virginia, and Cincinnati during his days at Ohio University in the early 1970s.
That line once hosted the B&O’s National Limited and for a while Amtrak’s Cincinnati-Washington Shenandoah.
The line was abandoned in the mid-1980s by CSX and its through traffic shifted to other routes, including the Chicago-Pittsburgh mainline that serves Akron.
Smith spoke of watching what he described as a massive ghost train announce itself with its whistle, then broke through the fog and rattled past on an autumn evening.
“The next year, while some friends and I lived in nearby Gamertsfelder Hall, our assigned dining hall was Nelson Commons. Every day we crossed the tracks several times for meals. Quite frequently, we’d have to wait while a train slowly lumbered past. Some extremely reckless students, growing impatient, would crawl under the moving train rather than wait for it to move past.”
Smith said it was common for OU students to hop aboard B&O trains for short trips across campus. Two of his friend even took trips east to Belpre or Marietta.
Upon realizing that the train was being followed by railroad police in a jeep and knowing the railroad cops were known to place a phone book flush against the head of a trespasser and hit it with a hammer, the scared students jumped off the train.
One slid face-first on the ballast and the other wrenched his shoulder.
“That night, while we Gam Hall residents were preparing to go uptown, our friend showed up with a raw, open sore where his face had been,” Smith wrote.
It was, Smith said, “one of the all-time great OU train stories.”
Then there was the time when some OU students on the East Green hopped aboard and found to their amazement that the car they were riding was carrying full of cases of miniature bottles of 100 Pipers Scotch.
“They shoved several cases off the train and for the rest of the school year, a common sight at the uptown bars was students withdrawing miniature bottles from their purses and pockets and discreetly pouring them into a 7-Up or Sprite,” Smith said.