Appalachia Heritage Music

Big Steel Rail

I’ve always wanted to “hop a train”-but have never ridden in a real train-as close as I’ve come is to ride in one of those sight-seeing contraptions at amusement parks.

tipper at 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). Lake Logan was built to facilitate production at the Canton paper mill in the 1930s. In addition, Champion used Lake Logan as a meeting facility. Folks would come for a conference or a workshop and also get to enjoy a little R&R-fishing, canoing, hiking-and party time in the Boojum Cave (the bar).

Along the hallway leading to the cave there were amazing pictures-enlarged to 3 or 4 feet in length-images of tough railroad logging crews from the early 1900s. The pictures defied logic-trains hanging on the steep mountains sides-hauling logs bigger than any I’ve ever seen.

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, 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 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, a few memories-only fragments of a time in history. The forests are now silent except for the occasional hunter, fisherman, or hiker-in other words it’s almost like the logging railroad 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.

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! Have you ever hopped a train?


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  • Reply
    Rodney Brown
    October 15, 2013 at 6:40 am

    I had many a drink @ that bar, Jeff McRae and family were good friends, I speak to Jeff about once weekly or when he’s had a few drinks and its late. George bush was vice pres. And went there to fish, we had horse trip planned for hurricane creek, Jeff’s mom called and wanted him and his boat for secret service to use, Jeff was to drive them around the lake, but he said nope I’m gonna go ridin, but they can use the boat, many stories.

  • Reply
    November 26, 2010 at 11:26 am

    My great grandfather, Tom Queen was employed at Sunburst as the supervisor or something. He was pretty “important” from the stories I have listened to. His wife Annie ran the general store there. My grandmother and her siblings lived there for many years. Tom was killed in a train wreck from Sunburst to Champion. It is very difficult to find information about Sunburst back then. I would like to find pics (I’ve found a few but not many).

  • Reply
    The Appalachianist
    January 29, 2009 at 12:46 pm

    Speaking of Lake Logan and the Middle Fork, it a train that set Shining Rock and Grave Yard fields a fire. I believe it was the train that ran down to Sunburst. That was the first fire.

  • Reply
    January 28, 2009 at 5:46 pm

    I feel like I never have much to say in the comments but I love everyone of your posts…so I’ll just say that.

  • Reply
    January 28, 2009 at 1:26 pm

    I can’t decide which I like more . . . your story and history or the song.

  • Reply
    David Templeton
    January 26, 2009 at 7:52 pm

    We lived along the Clinchfield railroad west of Kingsport and I have many memories of the trains and playing there along the tracks. Many are pleasant but some of those recollections make me shudder as I think about how closly we with danced with death, playing there. Often we heard of kids killed on the tracks.
    I never hopped a train like a hobo’s sidedoor pullman but my buddies and I often grabbed onto the step ladder on the side of railcars when the train slowed down to a near stop and pulled ourselves up onto the side and rode til it got going too fast and we’d jump off. And, I’ve crawled under a train to get across the track when the train had stopped for switching or waiting for another train to pass on down the line.
    And, I remember when the deisels came and the steam locomotives came fewer and fewer.
    The Clinchfield hauled coal out of Eastern Kentucky and West Virginia. It went by Mitchell and Bostic over east of you there and on down into South Carolina, to another trunk at Spartanburg.
    There were lots of small railroads around Appalachia, such as the “Tweetsie” that ran between Johnson City and Cranberry, up there in Avery County. It served the big iron mining industry in Avery County and there are some beautiful photographs at various sites on the internet of those trains and their men.
    I was a kid that got to wait by the tracks for the Santa Claus train to come by each year just after Thanksgiving. Santa and his helpers would throw candy and toys to the kids who thronged the right-of-ways all the way from Elkhorn City, Kentucky to Kingsport.
    With those memories I am still lured to stop and watch a train passing and often still take the grandkids to put pennies on the track for the next train to flatten.
    But, I make sure the boys are never close to any danger and are far gone before a train comes.
    I never got to ride a real train until my wife and I took and excursion on AmTrak out to San Diego and back. One of our happiest memories.
    Thank you for the train essay.

  • Reply
    January 26, 2009 at 3:53 pm

    Never hopped a train but I grew up in NW PA and there was a ton of timber train action in the early 1900s. My family and i used to hike along the old rail beds which are barely discernable as such any more. Anyhow, we found some of th emost amazing things just walking along…I found a well rusted old pistol, lots of silverware, railroad spikes, etc. My hometown newspaper still prints old train/logging pics in the history section…excellent stuff!

  • Reply
    January 26, 2009 at 1:58 pm

    Great job as usual on that song. My dad worked for the Union Pacific railroad for a short time and my father in law worked his entire career there. They often talked of the people back then who would hop a train. Doesn’t happen that way now. Great post.

  • Reply
    January 25, 2009 at 8:30 pm

    Just loved reading and listening. The only train I have ever ridden was one with my husband and children up to Pike’s Peak in Colorado. Not a real train. Blessings, Kathleen

  • Reply
    January 25, 2009 at 7:31 pm

    Logging was a great industry in northern Ontario years ago. My grandfather worked in a logging camp when he was a young man. He always said it was a rough life.
    When we were in northern Ontario last fall, we saw signs of these old logging camps – roads going into nowhere.
    I love trains, though I have only ridden on one once. Brandon also has a love of trains and one day he and I are going to go for a train trip even if it’s just for an hour or so but I would really like to take an overnight trip.
    Take care, my friend. Stay safe and warm. We are in another cold snap here.

  • Reply
    January 25, 2009 at 1:50 pm

    Hey Tipper,
    I would still love to hop on a train and ride around the U.S.A.
    I guess my favorite train song is by the Monkees, Last train to Clarksville. An oldie but a goodie, just like…
    Great post and great pictures, as usual.
    Have a great week.

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    January 25, 2009 at 12:58 pm

    I’ve always been a little mesmerized by trains. I look at them rolling down the track and wonder where they have been and where they are going.
    I had never been on a train till a few years ago. When my friend Bill found that out he said it was time for that to be corrected. So he got us tickets on dinner theater excursion on a train. It was about five hours long. It was great to ride the train and watch the drama. But to tell you the truth just being on the train and looking out at the landscape going by was enough drams. I really didn’t need the theater.
    My friend Florence Mars (Author of the book Witness in Philadelphia) used to love railroad history. She told me that Black Mountain, where I currently live in North Carolina, got it’s name from folks riding the train and asking to be let of as near to the Black Mountains as possible.
    Florence said that the history of the railroads WAS the history of the country.
    Thanks for the post and the song. They guys do a great job!

  • Reply
    petra michelle
    January 25, 2009 at 11:06 am

    Morning Tipper! Fascinating history! And nostalgic! Loved your photo! I wonder why the name Champion sounds so familiar?! 😉 I prefer trains over planes. Not that I’m afraid to fly. I do. But there is such a peaceful and rhythmic feel to them, and one can really enjoy the landscape along the ride. One day, Tipper!

  • Reply
    January 24, 2009 at 11:16 pm

    One of my favorite songs and they did a fabulous job with it!
    Nope, never been on a train, but that is definately on my list of want-to-do’s. Someday I’ll hop a train…

  • Reply
    The Texican
    January 24, 2009 at 12:23 pm

    I love old trains and I have a few train songs in my repertoire. City of New Orleans is one of my favorites. I never hopped one. Most of the old ones were only being used as switch engines when I was a kid.

  • Reply
    Amy @ parkcitygirl
    January 24, 2009 at 12:03 pm

    I have not hopped a train! Love the song 🙂
    We have a local rail now called the “Heber Creeper” by locals, the rail (and possible some of the train) to the mid-1800’s when this valley was really remote. They sent sheep and crops out of the valley. . . now it’s a tourist attraction down the beautiful canyon.

  • Reply
    January 24, 2009 at 6:16 am

    I’ve always wanted to go somewhere on a train. The senior trips at my high school used to take the train to Washington, D.C. from Huntington, WV and then to New York City. When it was time for my senior trip, they discontinued that practice and started taking charter buses. I was sooo disappointed.
    My in-laws took the Cass Scenic Railway trip for their 40th wedding anniversary (second marriage) a few years ago. Maybe that’s what we’ll do on our 40th, coming up in 2012.
    Thanks for the great post, Tipper!

  • Reply
    January 24, 2009 at 2:57 am

    You should take a train ride. I rode the train twice from Seattle area to LA after having sworn I would never ride in a plane again. Those were two great trips. I didn’t sleep a wink because the porter kept me entertained looking out the vestibule window and watching the circle light hit the trees and water falls as we went through the mountains. I’ve ridden the train between Seattle and Portland and Tacoma and Seattle many times (I don’t get very far). Best mode of transportation by far.

  • Reply
    January 23, 2009 at 11:40 pm

    Nope. Never hopped a train. Always wanted to though. And I want to ride on that fast one too.
    And you know I loved hearing Pap and Paul again!

  • Reply
    January 23, 2009 at 10:02 pm

    This is a great post. I am intrigued by those places nature has reclaimed from railroads. We have lots of evidence around here of the former days of the railroad. Trains sure did bring hustle and bustle to our little Hootervilles!

  • Reply
    Jennifer in OR
    January 23, 2009 at 9:07 pm

    I rode a train for the first time when we took our son on Thomas the Tank Engine when it came to Hood River, Oregon. Being over 8 months pregnant at the time, it wasn’t the most memorable occasion, but still I am smitten with trains and find them most romantic.

  • Reply
    Carolyn A.
    January 23, 2009 at 6:50 pm

    Only been on the Amtrak train twice, once to WV and once to DC. Have always had a fascination with the empty boxcars we used to see when I lived in Westport. Being girls, though, we were not allowed to go near them. Our parents warned us of hobos who ‘rode the rails’ and made us afraid of being snatched up and taken away. I still love looking at them when I see them from the lightrail though.
    Love that picture of you. Chitter and Chatter favor you so much. Also loved the song and noticed Paul was trying to keep his composure but that smile just burst forth. 🙂 Tell him I liked the yodeling part the best. xxoo

  • Reply
    January 23, 2009 at 6:35 pm

    I’ve only ridden a commuter train, and I was 30 before I ever did that. This post was so interesting, just as yours always are.

  • Reply
    January 23, 2009 at 6:16 pm

    I’m with Matthew, come to Cass. Aside from the little train at Camden Park Amusement Park in Huntington, Cass is the only train I have rode. It is a beautiful place to visit. But bring a sweater, it’s cool on top of the mountain.

  • Reply
    Helen G.
    January 23, 2009 at 5:34 pm

    The first time I rode a train I was 16 years old, closer to 50 years ago than I want to think. My family had gone to Tennessee for a family reunion and I got to go home with my Aunt Sally and her husband and my two cousins to Chicago to visit for a week. They put me on the train to ride home to Okla. City and it took about 14 hours, overnight, in other words. I didn’t have a fancy Pullman room where you have a bed, but I slept very well in my seat to the music and rhythm of the rails.
    I’ve also ridden the train twice in the last year from Norman to Ft. Worth. If you get a chance to ride, grab it and enjoy.

  • Reply
    JoLyn Day
    January 23, 2009 at 5:04 pm

    One of my favorite sounds is a train whistle in the middle of the night – at a distance of course!

  • Reply
    Matthew Burns
    January 23, 2009 at 4:34 pm

    Come on up here to WV and I’ll take you to Cass Scenic Railroad. It’s an old logging train that the state bought after the timber company shut down. The state bought the whole town and the train, which goes all the way up the mountain on an all day trip. The town has been preserved in the same state as it look in the 1920’s. My granddaddy used to work at Cass back when it was a timber town, he was a sawyer for WV Pulp & Paper Company. I can guarantee you’ll have a great time. Bring the whole family and discover WV with your own personal tour guide, Me.
    My brother recently wrote a blog post about Cass, I’ll give you the link to it so you can see some of what it has to offer.

  • Reply
    January 23, 2009 at 2:45 pm

    I’ve never hopped a train, but when I was a kid, one ran just a feet from our house. We loved to wave and the engineer would always blow the whistle for us.

  • Reply
    Brenda Kay Ledford
    January 23, 2009 at 2:20 pm

    Great story on logging trains. I am also fascinated by trains.

  • Reply
    January 23, 2009 at 12:52 pm

    I too have always been interested in this area of transport. See something else we share in common.

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