Dispatches from the Boomer

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Tuesday, January 03, 2017

One of my favorite railroad writers is the great E. W. “Ed” King Jr., better known as the Boomer. A lot of railroaders call themselves boomers, but I like to think we sanctified it for Ed when he became the bimonthly columnist in Trains under the rubric “The Boomer.” For a little over five years, from the January 1996 issue through November 2001, Ed regaled readers with trainloads of anecdotes from a long career, not to mention plenty of pithy and sometimes provocative opinions about the state of things.

Ed King in Soo Line's Rondout Tower.

Ed’s career was one of astonishing variety. He managed to run diesels for Norfolk & Western and Seaboard Air Line, think big thoughts at the United States Railroad Association in the run-up to Conrail, oversee Rock Island’s last passenger service in Chicago, then move over to the North Western and, finally, Soo Line before retiring in 1997 while working the famed tower at Rondout, Ill.

All this while compiling a list of magazine articles and books for various publishers, including his masterpiece, The A: Norfolk & Western’s Mercedes of Steam, about his beloved N&W 1200-class 2-6-6-4s. 

I caught up with Ed not long ago in his home in Largo, Fla., far from the railroad wars of his earlier days. He and his wife Barb live in a quiet neighborhood where the hubbub of Pinellas County’s infamous traffic is muffled by the big palm fronds and bougainvillea sheltering his house. There he tends to his impressive railroad archives, still turning out great railroad writing, much of it these days for Ties, the publication of the Southern Railway Historical Association.

Hang out long enough with Ed and a whole bunch of topics will start popping up. I made mental notes on a number of them, and plan to pass them along in this space from time to time. Call them “dispatches from the Boomer.”

For some reason, our mood led us to talking about long-lost main lines we wish we could ride again, if only some of them hadn’t been turned over to hikers and bicyclists. Not that either of us has anything against the rails-to-trails phenomenon. Most of the time a preserved hiking trail is better than nothing at all. But when you’ve ridden a nifty piece of railroad, and now it’s paved for Schwinns and Skechers, well . . . it hurts.

The sting hit me last summer when I drove through Indiana on I-65 and near Crown Point looked down on the abandoned Chesapeake & Ohio, now just a grassy strip. I remembered one of my smarter train-riding decisions, in 1976 I believe, when I rode Amtrak’s Cardinal over the ex-C&O east from Hammond, 262 pleasant miles across the Hoosier cornfields topped off by the vertigo-inducing ride over the spindly Cheviot Hill trestles into Cincinnati. It’s almost unfathomable to me that this railroad is mostly gone.

Ed’s got way better examples than me, so I asked him to share some of them. He came up with five goodies.  

Number one is a favorite of a lot of people, I suspect: N&W’s old Abingdon Branch in southwest Virginia, a 55-mile fantasy land of M-class 4-8-0s, mountain folk, and exquisite O. Winston Link photographs, much of it now the Virginia Creeper National Recreational Trail. Ed’s memory of it is especially fragrant.

“It was a total anachronism to end all anachronisms,” he says. “It had no business even existing; the N&W had tried every way they could think of to be rid of it, but its remoteness kept the ICC from letting it go. There hadn’t been enough business up there to wad a shotgun since the lumber played out before World War II. The railroad decreed that no car heavier than 50-ton capacity could be allowed up there over all those timber trestles, even though an M weighed 100 tons and its tender weighed almost as much. If a heavily loaded 70-ton boxcar came into Bristol destined for the branch, its load would have to be divided into two 50-ton cars. But they did not, as H Reid stated, have to have spacers between double-headed 4-8-0s.”

Where Ed King rode N&W's Abdingdon Branch mixed, only hikers and bikers pass today.

Another favorite: the former SAL Birmingham District to Atlanta, a busy, scenic line that was, as the Boomer puts it, “a hell of a fun railroad on which to run a train.” Some of it is now known as the Silver Comet Trail, after a fine old Seaboard passenger train. For Ed, the fun had to do with the district’s sawtooth profile. He elaborates:

“Somewhere I wrote about the first eastbound I rode out of Birmingham. We had five GP40s and our rating was 10,000 tons. We got the train up Divide Hill and were in the crooked up-and-down track around Dallas; the engineer had ’em in run 8 and they’d been there for several miles. We were making about 35 mph and the conductor called on the radio and told the engineer ‘slack’s in.’ I hadn’t felt anything, and the engineer didn’t touch anything. About a half-mile farther, the conductor told us ‘the slack’s out’ and I haven’t felt anything YET!”

Ed thought of three more he really misses:

• The old Norfolk Southern main south out of Norfolk across Albemarle Sound “on a pile of sticks.” Much of this railroad is still in, but not across the best part, the spindly five-mile causeway and bridge that linked Mackeys with Edenton, N.C.

A ride over the old Norfolk Southern's Albermarle Trestle is a pleasure we'll never know.

• The Wabash’s former Gary District across northern Indiana, “one of the lonesome-est, darkest peavine railroads that ever was.” Small portions of the line appear to be unofficial, strictly local trails, and in a subdivision near Chesterton a short section of right of way is a street called Rail Road.

•  The old Wabash Chicago main line out of Decatur, Ill., some of which at the north end is now the Wauponsee Glacial Trail. “I was pulled across there checking the speed from a dome car on the old Blue Bird, clicking off the miles in 32 seconds, 33 seconds, 32 seconds, which translates into 105 mph and some change.”

I never came within a whiff of riding any one of these railroads, let alone ride a dome car at or near the century mark, which makes Ed’s memories all the more poignant. We all have them, those big pieces of the railroad map we missed. I’d love to hear about some of yours.

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