Appalachia Logging Music

Logging Railroads

Sunburst logging town (present day Lake Logan)


Sunburst logging town (present day Lake Logan)

I became interested in logging railroads when I worked at Lake Logan in Haywood County, NC. At the time, the lake was owned by Champion International (a paper manufacturing company). Champion used Lake Logan as a meeting facility. Folks would come for a conference or a workshop and while they were there they got to enjoy a little R&R in the form of fishing, golfing, canoeing, hiking, and party time in the bar which was called the Boojum Cave.

train on steep mountain grade


When I worked at the lake there were amazing photos of tough logging crews from the early 1900s enlarged to 3 or 4 feet in length. The photos showed trains hanging on to steep mountainsides, hauling logs bigger than any I’ve ever seen.

tipper at lake logan


During my days of boat house attending, I was also being smitten by The Deer Hunter. We spent many days tramping through the Middle Prong Wilderness. In places you could see the remnants of the railroad, still lingering after all those years.

I’m still drawn to the picture of the railroad logging operation. At that point in history it was modern technology, it provided work for hundreds of loggers and for folks who serviced the loggers, it was loud, it drastically changed the landscape of the mountains, and a whole town sprung up around it, in other words it was the biggest thing going.

Along side the first picture is a newer one. Most of the acreage logged in that area is now protected land, the timber is once again impressive in size, the town is gone. All that’s left of the railroad are a few pictures and a few memories. Small fragments from a time in history.

The forests are now silent except for the occasional hunter, fisherman, or hiker. It’s almost like the logging railroad at Sunburst never existed.

The comparison between the two pictures is why I find history so fascinating. What once was in now gone, but sometimes if you look closely you can still see the imprint of it.

For this week’s Pickin’ & Grinnin’ In The Kitchen Spot I’ve got a train song for you- Gordon Lightfoot’s Big Steel Rail Blues. A song about a man wanting the big steel rail to carry him home to the one he loves.

Hope you enjoyed the song!


This post was originally published here on the Blind Pig in January of 2009.


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  • Reply
    December 19, 2016 at 5:39 pm

    My great grandfather was at Sunburst in its prime. He was like a foreman and his wife ran the store, so I have been told. He was killed when a train he was on going back to Sunburst toppled off the tracks. He and another man were crushed to death. I have newspaper articles about the wreck. His name was Tom Queen.

  • Reply
    George Pettie
    October 18, 2015 at 10:31 pm

    A fine post about logging railroads. I know that’s you in the photo,Tipper, for the resemblance to the Pressley twins is unmistakable.
    Dating from 1901, the Cass, West Virginia, mountain logging railroad is still operating, albeit for tourists as the Cass Scenic Railway State Park rather than as a logging operation. The Cass lumber mill is long gone, but the company town of Cass is preserved, with many of the old company houses available for visitors to rent for overnight stays. The original Shay and Heisler steam locomotives still pull the tourists up mountain in converted old log cars, all the way up to the top of Bald Knob at 4,700 feet. There, a century ago, the vast stands of red pine were cut and railroaded down the mountain to be sawed into untold millions of board feet of lumber used to build the multitudinous dwellings of the burgeoning east coast cities and towns.
    I’m reminded of the well-known gospel song, Life is Like a Mountain Railroad, wherein we are all metaphorical locomotive engineers making our way through life’s arduous journey, and who ultimately cast ourselves into the arms of Jesus and to a fine place in heaven. The song can be heard in the clarion voice of country legend Patsy Cline, and also with Patsy and the iconic Willie Nelson, as well as from the lips of Dick Corless and Boxcar Willie, or from the magic piano and vocal cords of the inimitable Jerry Lee Lewis. My favorite Bluegrass rendition of this song is by the Amazing Rhythm Aces in their 1975 album Stacked Deck. The rendition by the Black Irish Band is pretty good, too.
    Life is Like a Mountain railroad is a song that Pap and Paul could do well. It would be like the guitar strumming version by the Old Ridge Ramblers, with the added element of heart that Paul puts into all his songs. Oh how I do love those kitchen strummers! All three generations of them–Pap, Paul and…who is the young chap?

  • Reply
    Rev. Rose Marie "RB" Redmond
    October 18, 2015 at 10:11 pm

    We once lived in a house across the street from the tracks that ran through Apex, Cary & Raleigh, NC. For a time after we moved in, the noise was annoying and woke us up at all odd hours, but we not only became use to it, we came to miss it when it didn’t come for a while. And there was always the excitement of seeing the Circus and State Fair trains come by, as well as the ones carrying military equipment.
    Hearing that train coming in the night became a comfort, the rattle and horn an assurance that though you were asleep, life was still continuing normally right outside your door.
    Now that I live in the country, I miss it from time to time.
    God bless.

  • Reply
    Phyllis S
    October 18, 2015 at 9:21 pm

    Great music as always!

  • Reply
    Bill Burnett
    October 18, 2015 at 5:48 pm

    I used to hunt around Sunburst up toward the Blue Ridge Parkway, the rough country gives one respect for the Old Shay Locomotives and the power they had to climb the narrow gauge rails hung on the mountainsides. The Shay was a stout little engine and I’ve seen pictures taken in what is now the Great Smoky Mountain Park where they were pulling loads of logs where one log was almost as large as the Locomotive. Paul did well “Singing the Blues”.

  • Reply
    October 18, 2015 at 5:48 pm

    Today would have made my brother
    Harold 70. He was closest to me in

  • Reply
    October 18, 2015 at 5:08 pm

    I don’t take CHANGE well, ever if
    it is sometimes for the best. But
    I’ve been walking in the woods and find where a thriving community once was, and it makes me sad. I remember my mama telling me when she was just a teenager about the section crew houses that were all along the Nantahala River. Her dad was the Railroad foreman from
    Asheville to Murphy…Ken

  • Reply
    Pamela Danner
    October 18, 2015 at 3:31 pm

    It amazes me how those huge trains hauling those humongous logs around the edge of a mountain and not go tumbling down!

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    October 18, 2015 at 2:40 pm

    Old towns, old trains and a pretty young lady. And some good old time music to boot. Now, it don’t get no better than that!

  • Reply
    October 18, 2015 at 10:23 am

    I’ve done numerous hikes in the Middle Prong/ Shining Rock area and never knew there was a town at Lake Logan. I am familiar with the Sunburst Campground, but have never noticed the old logging RR or any other signs of logging. Thanks for the info. I like to speculate on what went on the remote areas at an earlier time.

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    October 18, 2015 at 10:20 am

    Tip, I can remember walking those same mountains and seeing those logging roads, or I should say seeing what is left of them. I always found it interesting how they wind back and forth across the side of hills.
    I could stop and feel the history. Knowing that there had been a whole community there at one time then it was gone leaving nothing but a few trails in the hills. I’m talking about 40 years ago and your talking about 20 years ago, even those trails are probably gone now. Wonder what will be left when we are gone.

  • Reply
    Ron Stephens
    October 18, 2015 at 8:34 am

    I know so many towns that were; coal camps, logging camps and railroad depots. An era came, briefly boomed and faded away. Nature covers the disturbance so swiftly and so completely it is for most people as if it never was.
    A lot of your posts tend to make me wax philosophical, about change mostly. When we live long enough we see much of what was in its time a ‘big deal’ become minor ‘stuff’. I’ve never quite reconciled myself to that transition. I’m not sure I can.
    The coal camp my Mom was born in is completely gone. My father-in-law loaded the last three cars of coal at the old tipple, presserved now in a National Recreation Area. Too much change and all in one direction.

  • Reply
    October 18, 2015 at 7:34 am

    When My Wife and I first married I had never been much past the rock road I lived on, We went to the Smokies one year, walked past Laurel Falls Trail, past the falls is old growth forest, and I was just amazed at the size of the Timber, it would make a Logger drull all over his overalls, unbelievable, just beautiful.. Nice job on the song..

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