TRAINS chase guide: Norfolk & Western No. 611 Spencer-Asheville, N.C., April 10, 2016

Posted by Jim Wrinn
on Tuesday, January 19, 2016

One of the most incredible railroad journeys in the Eastern U.S. is about to see big steam for the first time in 22 years. Norfolk & Western No. 611 will traverse the famous Southern Railway Loops near Old Fort, N.C., on April 10. This offers an incredible opportunity for those who want to experience a true engineering feat from on board, and those who want to photograph this legendary 4-8-4 in a unique and amazingly scenic area.


I grew up not far away from the Loops, and for the last 38 years, I’ve been drawn to this mountain route with its 2.2 percent grades, 13 track miles, seven tunnels, and a man-made geyser erected by the railroad as a tribute to its first leader. Model railroaders would be envious. It’s a show any day with diesel-powered freights, but it’s spectacular on those rare occasions when steam returns. The last time we were this lucky was in April 2013, when Southern Railway 2-8-0 No. 630 traversed the Loops.


The quick history on this route into Western North Carolina is that it didn’t get completed to the economic hub of the region, Asheville, until 1879, a full 10 years after the completion of the first transcontinental railroad. There were various reasons for the years of struggle and delay, not the least of which was the difficult terrain presented by the Blue Ridge.


The trip from Salisbury to Old Fort, 111 miles, offers good photographic opportunities from U.S. 70, especially just east of Statesville and near Morganton. Bostian Bridge, just west of Statesville, and the massive Catawba River bridge between Statesville and Hickory are landmark locations. Carefully chose a few places along the way as motorcade traffic will be heavy.


At Old Fort, Mill Creek Road, just west of the preserved depot, is your gateway to the Loops. There are several curves, bridges and Point Tunnel along the way until you reach Dendron. Just ahead are the Loops and Andrews Geyser, built to honor A.B. Andrews, the first president of the Western North Carolina Railroad. The tracks follow a serpentine route up the mountain. It is a spiral staircase of rails to the top of High Fill, which is 200 feet higher than the rails below it at Dendron.


Beyond High Fill, the tracks wind into the hollows at Graphite and the passing siding at Coleman, pierce short but photogenic Jarretts Tunnel, and climb the mountain through four more tunnels, Lick Log, McElroy, High Ridge, and Burgin. A portion of old U.S. 70 has been turned into a hiking trail called Point Lookout Trail and provides photo vantage points for the upper tunnels. All you have to do is park your car at the gate near the junction with the old stagecoach road and do some walking.


At the top of the grade is 1,800-foot Swannanoa Tunnel, which is visible from the west end at the old Ridgecrest station site. This is public property so there’s no need to go on railroad land, but do bring a long lens, at least 200mm or more.


I expect the Loops to be well populated with railfan photographers on April 10. My advice is to carefully choose one location in each direction and let No. 611 and her train come to you. Chasing will be just about impossible. If it’s a dry spell, the old dirt road will be dusty and visibility will be poor, and if it’s rainy, the mud can be something. Some locations worthy of your consideration are Dendron, just below High Fill; Andrews Geyser, with the fountain in the foreground and the train behind; and High Fill, which is reached by walking up a steep dirt road. The upper series of tunnels are accessible but some place will be cramped if more than a dozen people show up, so go early and claim a spot. In fact, that’s good advice for this whole adventure.

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