"If you want to see the last Interstate unit to leave Andover, you'd better get up here!" The voice on the other end of the phone was Sonny Burchfield, an operator for the Southern at the newly combined Interstate-Southern yard at Andover.
As the evening sun set behind the southwestern Virginia hills on Oct. 5, 1965, I drove up to the engine facility to find a single Alco RS-3-Interstate Railroad No. 32 burbling away all by itself. Her nine sister units were already in Atlanta, or en route soon to be repainted in Southern's black-and-off-white livery and placed in yard and transfer service. The Tri-X Pan black-and-white film in my camera was just barely fast enough to record a handheld shot in the fading light, but this was history, and I had to have a photo.
The Interstate Railroad was created in 1896 by its original owner, the Virginia Coal & Iron Co., primarily to serve the developing coal mines and coke ovens in Wise County, Va. As the region's bituminous coal business grew, so did the Interstate, with more than 80 miles of trackage by 1950. The Interstate was confronted with the same dilemma of every coal-hauling railroad, but in 1953 the company could turn away from the economics of dieselization no longer. After trying out both EMD and Alco units, eight Alco RS-3s (augmented by two more in 1956 when business increased) replaced the short line's eclectic roster of steam power. The Alcos were painted in a colorful paint scheme of orange, gray, cream, silvered trucks and fuel tank, and black pilot ends with large diagonal safety stripes. Southern crewmen in Appalachia nicknamed the RS-3s "Yellow Jackets."
Faced with an aging fleet of 50-ton hoppers with friction bearings, and a management team at retirement age, the Interstate was merged into Southern Railway in 1960 (after also considering a proposal from the Louisville & Nashville). There were some immediate economies of scale with the closure of the line's general office and much of its staff, but the Interstate retained most of its autonomy until 1965-when the terminal facilities were merged in the Appalachia/Andover area. Southern GP7s and F units replaced the colorful RS-3s on the Interstate's several mine runs and overhead traffic hauls from the L&N to a Clinchfield connection at Miller Yard, Va. Most of the displaced Alcos would stay in service in Georgia and the Carolinas until 1974-76, but they never came home again.
The likelihood of ever seeing a full-sized locomotive painted in Interstate colors again seemed unfathomable not that many months ago. Then, the art work of Andy Fletcher was circulated, and word leaked out of Norfolk Southern's "heritage" locomotive paint scheme program to help celebrate the 30th anniversary of NS. But where was an Interstate locomotive on Andy's poster?
In short order, I floated an inquiry to my long-time friend (and recently retired NS executive) Bill Schafer. Bill responded that he felt it was an excellent suggestion, so he presented it to Wick Moorman and his staff. The response was encouraging: they loved the idea, but NS had no Interstate paint diagram or specifications on the colors. Within an hour, I had scanned my copy of the original Alco paint diagram from 1953 and several color photos of the RS-3s. Over the next few weeks, emails and attachments flew back and forth to Allen Rider, NS' manager of locomotive engineering in Atlanta. Rather than custom mix the paint, BNSF orange, UP Harbor Mist Gray, and a cream color NS uses to paint locomotive cab interiors were chosen as the primary colors-all very close to the Interstate hues.
All the hard work paid off the morning of Thursday, April 19, 2012, when the door of the NS paint shop at Chattanooga rolled up to reveal the nose of NS 8105 resplendent in its Interstate paint scheme. Through the courtesy and generosity of NS, I was there to join company photographer Casey Thomason and a few others to photograph what was the seventh of an eventual 19 "heritage" units.
From 1968 to 1970, I worked at night (attending college by day) as a janitor for the Interstate (and Southern) at Andover ("Memoirs of a Railroad Janitor," Spring 2001 Classic Trains). Of course the colorful Alcos had been gone from Andover three years by then, but the vision of NS 8105 brought me full circle to that October evening in Andover nearly 47 years earlier. I couldn't help but think of all the Interstate employees I had known, particularly those who had sadly passed on. I'm sure they would have been as emotionally touched by this as I was, if not more so. They had made this little railroad such a prodigious money-maker for Southern, and then NS. This was their moment, not mine.
Thank you Wick Moorman (and thank you Bill and Allen, as well as all the others I didn't meet who worked on "Interstate" 8105). I applaud a company that values its proud corporate history in this manner. And, I also know there are so many others who will have similar "moments" for the heritage units of the Nickel Plate, the Lehigh Valley, the Pennsy, the New York Central, and so many others (and yes, the original Norfolk Southern engine). Among the much larger roads that made up today's Norfolk Southern, the Interstate may not be a household name, but thousands will come to know of its importance when NS 8105, the newest "Yellow Jacket," rolls by.
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Also, see Editor Jim Wrinn's blog: Norfolk Southern's heritage units sure are gorgeous, but they need nicknames; also the story behind 8099's odd suffix
Art Director Tom Danneman's blog: BNSF: It's time for heritage locomotives