Q&A with owners of a West Virginia railfan inn

Posted by Jim Wrinn
on Sunday, August 06, 2017

One of the good things about editing Trains magazine is the travel. We get to visit a lot of places. The biggest problem is that some of the most interesting places are what I call “one and done” – we don’t get back to them for long periods of time – or ever. One such place is Norfolk Southern’s main line in West Virginia, which I first encountered in January 1985. I was on the way home from chasing Chesapeake & Ohio 4-8-4 No. 614 in the snow, and friends Jim Fetchero and Chris Bost and I followed the Norfolk & Western main line all the way from the Ohio River to Bluefield, W.Va. I visited last in 2013 with good friend and photographer Samuel Phillips. But the visit that stands out is a January 2009 trip that included a visit to the O. Winston Link Museum in Roanoke, a tour of Heartland Corridor tunnel clearance project, and a stay at the Elkhorn Inn in Landgraf, W.Va., between Northfork and Kimball, W.Va. I enjoyed a long weekend at the inn that year, but I need to get back. So I asked owners Elisse and Dan Clark to play 10 questions with me, and here’s what they said. Thanks to Travis Dewitz for the great photo of an NS heritage unit passing the inn.

What trains do you see from the inn, how many, and how often do they run? 

The Elkhorn Inn www.elkhorninnwv.com is on the double-track Pocahontas Norfolk Southern main line.  Fans know it best as the Pokey, the former Norfolk & Western main line across West Virginia. About 30-40 trains pass each day. We see coal trains, stacks, and pushers. Oddities include heritage units and on track maintenance equipment. We’ve got a crossing nearby, so there’s plenty of sound, and if you wave, you’ll get a shave and a haircut or a couple of toots on the horn like we did today.

Was there a railroad connection for the building prior to the inn’s inception?

The Elkhorn Inn was designed by the renowned regional architect, Alex B. Mahood, and built in 1922 by the Empire Coal & Coke Co. as its Miner’s Clubhouse. (We recently received documentation on the architect from the West Virginia Humanities Council, solving what was, for us, a 14-year mystery.) Our structure was built to replace two wooden buildings which had burned down, and was thus built solidly of brick and concrete, which enabled it to survive the epic floods of 2001 and 2002 which devastated southern West Virginia. When we bought it in 2002, it was a flood-damaged shell with no doors, but Dan wanted to restore what was the last surviving historic building in this area, so we could open the Elkhorn Inn in 2003 and provide tourism lodging and dining.

You have a webcam; what is the vantage point?

About 2.5 years ago we got high speed internet that was high speed enough to support a www.Railstream.net railcam, and Michael Kisser installed a webcam on the balcony, which broadcasts the trains passing the inn 24/7. Our railcam points east, towards Bluefield, and covers both tracks. We have had a ATCS monitor and scanner for our railfan guests for many years.

Who comes to the inn? 

I would say that at least half our guests are railfans, and they come from across the country and overseas. We also get trout fishing enthusiasts and ATV riders, golfers, and hikers.

What is the railfan experience like in this part of the world? 

Because the inn is on the mainline, you can watch trains day and night from our covered porch, even when it’s raining. We have a balcony and also rail-view guest rooms. We’ve still got lots of old signals, and 12 tunnels. Control Point Farm, which has an old coal tower, is a spot many railfans like to go to take photographs, as pushers often park there, waiting on trains. A great photo op can be had in the town of Elkhorn, 5 minutes from the inn; if you climb up the hill in back of the caboose, you’re above the tracks, and eye-level with the train’s engineer. In Cooper, W.Va., there’s a spot where the mainline crosses over another track, which makes for a great photo when two trains go by. In Maybeury, W.Va., the trestle crosses above Route 52, which also makes for some great photos. Many of the places in our area where O. Winston Link took photos from are accessible, and the book “Following The OWLs Footsteps” gives the coordinates for them. There are many cabooses in nearby towns, and the beautifully restored “Merci” Railroad Car given to West Virginia by France after WWI is in Welch, W.Va., 8 miles from the Elkhorn Inn.  

What’s the most unusual thing that has gone by? 

In our 14 years here we’ve seen a lot of very trains, and we (and our guests) constantly post photos of them on our Facebook page www.facebook.com/elkhorninnandtheatre; we’ve even made some YouTube videos, as have our guests! We’ve seen a steam locomotive in tow, Norfolk Southern office cars, military trains, Saudi Arabian locomotives, and the Ringling Bros. Barnum and Bailey Circus train. Short line locomotives on their way for repair often pass the inn, we seem to have a lot of heritage units. Recently Norfolk Southern No. 911, a unit saluting First Responders, passed the inn a number of times.

What would you love to see pass by? 

An excursion train that stops at the Inn to take our guests on a wonderful ride through McDowell County, as they dine in gorgeous, Tuscan red Norfolk & Western dining cars!

Do the trains ever stop there? 

Yes. The area in front of the inn is one of the few places where a train can be parked without blocking a road, so there are often crew changes that take place right in front of the inn. The trains will often slow and stop in front of the Inn and then reverse, as they build a coal train from the yard in nearby Keystone, W.Va.

How near or far are you to other railroad attractions?

Bramwell, about 15 minutes away, has a restored train station/museum, as well as the historic Coal Baron Mansions, and a cute café in the beautifully restored Soda Fountain, and on the other side of Bramwell is the Exhibition Coal Mine in Pocahontas, Va., and Cooper, WV. Bluefield, WV has a steam locomotive on display, and the fun "Ridge Runner" train ride http://theridgerunner.org/php/. Princeton, W.Va., has a restored train station museum, as well.  The nearest excursion trains are in Cass, W.Va., (3.5 hours), and Elkins, W.Va. (3 hours, 45 minutes). We are working on setting up “Railfan Road Trip” packages with lodging and attractions in Elkins, W.Va., Marysville, Pa., and Chattanooga, Tenn., as we think trips like that, with lodging, dining, and fun things to see and do along the way, would be a lot of fun for our railfan guests.

What’s new or ahead for the Inn? 

Thanks to Dan, the Elkhorn Inn is now on Bon Appetit Appalachia: http://visitappalachia.com/bonappetitappalachia/item/elkhorn-inn-theatre/ a 13-state “foodie” map of farm-to-table and artisan restaurants, distilleries, wineries, breweries, farms, and markets. The Elkhorn Inn was also recently honored to have won the 2017 SCORE Business Champion Award for West Virginia. When we first opened in 2003, and saw that railfans were going to be a huge (and delightful) part of our business and life, we tried to explain “railroad tourism” to tourism professionals and officials in our region, but their eyes rolled and glazed over, and they looked at us like we were mad. So, we just plugged away on our own these last 14 years … and winning the SCORE Award was, in a sense, a vindication that we’ve been on the right path all along.

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