Downgrading Norfolk Southern's Asheville line: This time it's personal

Posted by Jim Wrinn
on Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Most of you know that North Carolina is my home state. Most of you know that I was blessed to grow up in the western part of the state, where mountains touch the sky and railroads follow. Railroading there has been an art form for 141 years, since the first railroad arrived in Asheville. The names and places are legendary: Saluda, Murphy Branch, Clinchfield Loops. Many of you know I have a special affinity for the Loops near Old Fort, N.C. This is a love letter to that line at a critical point in its history. Later this week, an engineer at Spencer Yard near Linwood, N.C., will knock off the 26 brake and begin his westward trek with manifest through train 135 for the last time. The hump yard built in 1979 is closing, due to weak traffic, and through freights on Norfolk Southern’s S-line will no longer run. It is a sad day in Tar Heel railroad history. A sad day for me, as a fan, and on a personal level.


If you have never been to the loops, I pity that you’ve never had the experience. It is a 13-mile section of railroad built to twist, and wind, and curl from the foothills of the rolling Carolina Piedmont to the summit of the Blue Ridge. It follows Mill Creek to a point marked by the railroad-made Andrews Geyser, where three loops climb the mountain and trains on High Fill tower over the tracks directly below. And then it’s tunnel after tunnel to the top. It’s a model railroad come to life. Seven tunnels and as many bridges and carry the rails to the summit at appropriately named Ridgecrest. This is the land of 2-10-2s on freights, 4-8-2s on passenger trains, and a whole lot of diesel horsepower for almost 70 years. It’s been retainers and dynamics on the downhill and reducing tonnage and breaking knuckles or pulling drawbars on the climb. It is scenery, and mountain views, and nature at every bend. Bears and deer. Lavender rhododendron and flame azalea galore in the spring, a rainbow of colors in the fall. That’s the quick story. That’s the fan story.


Now this is where it gets personal. I grew up knowing that my great-grandfather had been a construction laborer on what is now the NS mainline through northeastern Georgia through Gainesville and Toccoa. But what I did not know until recently when my wife, Cate, went looking into my ancestry that he and his father had both worked on the loops near Old Fort in the 1870s. I don’t know exactly that they did, but I suspect it was hard labor alongside the many convicts who helped build this line. A lot of sweat, a lot of dirt, a lot of profanity as men struggled to build a railroad where there was none. I have always admired this railroad and the people who run it with such professionalism, but now I think about standing at Jarretts Tunnel or atop High Fill and wondering if Jeremiah or Cornelius may have stood in the same places admiring their work. I hope they did.


After this week, there will only be locals on this crossing of the Appalachians. Industry in Western North Carolina has long ago faded away, and all that is left is the paper mill at Canton that Watco’s Blue Ridge Southern serves. NS will run fewer mountain miles. Fans will snap fewer pixels at Point Tunnel, Graphite, and the geyser. But my ancestors will always be a part of this route no matter how many trains polish its rails. And the Loops at Old Fort, humming with six-axle motors or quiet without the joyous noise of a passing train, will always be a part of me.





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