Glory Days?

Posted by George Hamlin
on Monday, January 15, 2018

Since this shot, of C&O’s train 4, the eastbound “Sportsman” departing Clifton Forge, Virginia was taken on January 26, 1967, I suspect that some readers will quarrel with the description contained in the title; hence, the question mark following the words.

By this time in the 1960s passenger trains were in serious trouble virtually nationwide in the U.S., and in many cases, freight railroading was under considerable pressure, as well.  In fact, in just over a year, the most ostensible sign of a railroad apocalypse, in the form of the Penn Central merger on February 1, 1968, would become a reality.

However, notwithstanding these negative factors, I’d submit that this photo could have been taken, for all practical purposes, a decade earlier, in what is generally viewed as a happier time in railroading’s history by many observers.

Exhibit A:  the “Sport” is still a healthy-looking passenger train.  My recollection is that it had 14 cars, broken down into 7 head-end (baggage, mail, express) and 7 streamlined passenger cars, including a diner and 3 sleepers, one each from Chicago, Cincinnati and Detroit.  The October 1956 Official Guide indicates that a decade prior there was only one additional sleeper in the consist of this train at this location.

The coal train at the left, headed for the James River line (rather than the Mountain Sub that number 4 will utilize) is emblematic of the Chesapeake and Ohio, its positive economics largely responsible for the still healthy-looking passenger consist shown here.  While the motive power isn’t visible, there is little chance that it’s anything except multiple GP-7s and 9s, just as it would have been in the post-steam portion of the 1950s.

The freight yard at right is fascinating, in that it hosts a plethora of boxcars, and even some intermodal equipment, in the form of piggyback, as well as pulpwood flats.  Interestingly, none of the names on the boxcars depicted here represent railroads that are still present today (2018), since I don’t discern any Canadian National/Pacific, KCS or Union Pacific equipment present. 

The “modern” merger movement has begun, via L&N/NC&StL; N&W/Virginian; and, followed by Norfolk & Western’s acquisition of the Nickel Plate, Wabash, AC&Y (and a piece of the PRR in Ohio, from Columbus to Sandusky), but you wouldn’t know that from what’s visible here.  That ACL boxcar will represent a fallen flag in a little over six months, but that hasn’t occurred yet.

Clifton Forge continues to look like a thriving railroad town, as well.  If you look carefully above the area between the second and third E8s, and just to the right of the building with the white wall, you can also spot a postwar A&P supermarket. 

Alas, all of this won’t last much longer. The Sportsman will be gone in about a year.  The beautiful tri-color paint (blue/gray/yellow) scheme on the E units will begin to be replaced by simplified, i.e. less colorful, designs.  Penn Central green boxcars will almost undoubtedly become visible in the yard in the not distant future, and the inexorable decline of single carload service will accelerate in the coming years.  Eventually, even the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company (A&P’s formal name) will succumb, as well.

So, maybe the ‘glory days’ attribution isn’t that far off the mark.  What would you give to have been in a seat in one of the 1600-series Pullman-Standard coaches, or even better, having a late breakfast in the diner, as the three E8s up front contend with pulling this still-impressive train through the rolling terrain ahead?  I feel lucky just to have seen, and photographed, it.

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