Unfinished business on my list of sacred places

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Crawford Notch in New Hampshire made Kevin Keefe's list of places he'd like to visit thanks in part to this flavorful Frank Clodfelter photo of a Maine Central mixed train passing the Mount Willard Section House in the 1940s.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to stand in famous places. Some of that came from my parents, who loved to do “heritage tourism” long before the term was invented. Within the tight limits of a family budget of the early 1960s, the six of us got to see Independence Hall, Gettysburg, Fort Niagara, and a few more notable spots in the East.

I began to dream about railroad places around 1961, when I was 10. One day my mother returned from the library with a little book she thought I might like. It was called True Adventures of Railroaders, one in a series of books aimed at young people, published in 1954. Other “true adventures” books told tales of spies, doctors, etc.

I didn’t care about the other books, only the railroader title. Someone named David P. Morgan wrote it.

Not surprisingly, given the author, I got hooked on vivid stories about the wreck of Casey Jones, the daredevil ride of Death Valley Scotty on the Santa Fe, the Civil War’s Andrews Raid, the making of Baldwin 4-10-2 60000, the heroism of Kate Shelley, the massive 1952 Tehachapi earthquake, and many more.

Decades later, events conspired to allow me to visit many of what I call “railroading’s sacred places.” I began making a list — all railfans make lists, don’t they? Mine gradually filled up with memorable check marks, each one usually accompanied by a fair amount of historical research, the key to really enjoying the experience. Some of them were definitely inspired by that long-ago book by D.P.M.

Florida East Coast abandoned its remarkable Key West Extension in 1935, but remnants of it still exist today.
Many of these visits were part of being a staffer at Trains for 13 years. That got me to Tehachapi, Cajon, Horseshoe Curve, Hoosac Tunnel, Milepost One in Sacramento, the B&O’s first stone, “Big Shanty,” Shaffer’s Crossing, Sherman Hill, the top of Cumbres Pass . . . too many to list, really.

Some came on family trips, even if it meant testing the patience of a spouse and two teenage kids. I remember Promontory, Utah, on a hot, dusty day in summer, where we lingered in the Golden Spike museum but mostly enjoyed the view of the amazingly intact Union Pacific and Central Pacific rights of way out on the high desert. Or an autumn detour to the rusty Illinois Central tracks at Vaughan, Miss., where I was disappointed to see absolutely no evidence that Casey Jones once crashed on that gentle curve through the abandoned village.

I haven’t stopped making the list, and there are some big ones still out there for me. To wit:

Craigellachie, B.C. This wide spot on the Trans-Canada Highway, hard by the Canadian Pacific main line, is mythic in Canadian history, the place where CPR drove the last spike on November 7, 1885. It is named for a town in Scotland, ancestral home of Sir George Stephen, first president of the CPR, who, upon securing financing for the railway in London, England, telegraphed back “Stand fast, Craigellachie!” invoking a Scottish clan motto. Today a stone obelisk marks the spot, part of a small visitor center maintained as a satellite of the Revelstoke Railway Museum.

Southern Railway's 'Rathole' line in Tennessee and Kentucky, once a nightmare for steam-engine crews, became an engineering triumph when the road rebuilt it in the 1960s.
The Rathole. I’ve done a fair amount of train chasing in Kentucky and Tennessee, but it was all on CSX’s old Louisville & Nashville. How could I miss Southern’s “Rathole”? This tortuous section of the old Cincinnati, New Orleans & Texas Pacific between Danville, Ky., and Oakdale, Tenn., earned its nickname from frazzled engine crews, but things changed dramatically in 1963 when Southern opened its $32 million realignment, reducing the line’s numerous tunnels down to 4, creating gargantuan new cuts, plus a heck of a bridge across the New River at Helenwood, Tenn. I want to stand near that bridge and witness some of the 40 to 50 trains Norfolk Southern runs across it every day.

Crawford Notch. For a long time I’ve been telling myself I need to get to this quintessential location in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, but my determination spiked a year or so ago when, working on a book project, I encountered a haunting photograph. It shows a Maine Central mixed train ambling up toward the notch as it passes the stately Mount Willard Section House. The photo was taken by, of all people, Southern Railway locomotive engineer Frank Clodfelter. It tells you everything need to know about the difficulty MEC must have encountered building its Mountain Division. 

Florida East Coast Overseas Railway. Yes, I realize the railroad is long gone from the 130-mile stretch of causeways and bridges that once carried the tracks of the FEC to Key West. But some of the original bridges from “Flagler’s Folly” still exist, and I want to see them. There’s something distinctly American about the hubris Henry Flagler summoned to build this railroad wonder of the world, and also something darkly poetic about the way the Labor Day hurricane of 1935 reduced it to ruins. 

Anywhere on the Milwaukee’s Pacific Extension. Every time I see latter-day photos of the Milwaukee’s electrified way across the mountains, I want to kick myself. Photographers were out there in force in the 1970s, witnessing one of railroading’s magical last acts, and I could have been there, too, had I simply made the decision to go. Now, way too late, I still want to see whatever’s left, most likely down in the deep green St. Joe Valley at Avery, Idaho, where I could imagine being surrounded by Little Joes.

Those are some of the places on my list. Come hell or high water, I’ll get to all of them. How about you? What’s on your list of sacred places? 





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