Murphy Branch memories: A Norfolk Southern train departs Andrews, N.C., July 1986

Posted by Jim Wrinn
on Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Like you, I love contemporary railroad action, and my favorite photo or riding expedition is the next one ahead of me. But I am developing a great affinity for some of the images I made earlier in my life. This picture is one of them. It depicts an eastbound freight on Norfolk Southern’s scenic and celebrated Murphy Branch. The train has just left Andrews, N.C., where it tied up the night before on a turn out of Waynesville. There was no more traffic west of Andrews, so it was the Murphy Branch in name only. The only traffic was sand for a contractor and feed for Parker & Reichman, a chicken egg farm. Thus, this train of eight empties, split between the customers, tagging along behind the three high-nosed GP38-2s, all originally Southern Railway units. The Geeps are about to begin working their guts out, climbing the western slope of the 4 grade up Red Marble Gap, full of curves, bridges, and a solitary tunnel. But for this moment they’re still enjoying the last stretch of relatively level track in the Valley River basin.

In July 1986, NS had only recently broken with its long-standing operational pattern of running the western end of the branch out of Bryson City, N.C. That arrangement called for a five-day a week westbound train late in the afternoon that wouldn’t reach Murphy until dusk, even on the longest day of the year. Regardless of the time of the year, it returned to Bryson in the dead of night, arriving before dawn to continue on with a new crew to Waynesville. With the change, it was possible to get something that hadn’t been possible in ages: An eastbound train and full daylight images on the western end of the branch. I recall having learned of the change and making a special trip from eastern N.C., where I was living at the time, to see this as I knew it would not last long in that Post-Staggers Act era of Class I railroads downsizing or abandoning lightly used branches and main lines. Leaving my parents’ house in Franklin, N.C., early that morning, I stopped at an overlook to make a fantastic dawn shot with fog on U.S. 64 at Winding Stairs Gap, and then proceeded on to Andrews to follow the local eastbound.

The train left, and I remember pulling up to this spot on Stewart Road with not much time to spare – the train got out of Andrews much faster than I’d expected. I hurriedly set up and only at the last minute realized what a dramatic backdrop I’d been given: Fog lifting from the Snowbird Mountains that form a border between Cherokee and Graham counties in western North Carolina. In the early part of the 20th century, a narrow gauge logging railroad, the Snowbird Valley, tackled those peaks in search of timber. On this day, this NS train was all there was of railroading for miles around.

Not far from here is where H. Reid, the legendary photographer of Southern short lines, made his famous 1960s photo “Milking time on the Graham County,” in which Shay No. 1925 passes a dairy cow being milked in a field. I’d like to think that he sent the cattle as a last-minute gift to provide a bit more life to this picture.

Today, Great Smoky Mountains Railroad owns this track, which hasn’t seen a freight or passenger train since 2012. The state of North Carolina has railbanked the Andrews-Murphy section. The current western end of the Murphy Branch is Nantahala, at the foot of the steep 4 percent grade across Red Marble Gap. The Geeps are either gone or on borrowed time as NS whittles away at its fleet of high nosed diesels. The Snowbird Mountains remain, as do good memories of this morning that can never be repeated.

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