Rails Bring Adventure

Looking Back with Lloyd Mathews, originally printed September 11, 1978

Like the highway systems of today the railroads had main lines running like arteries through the country, and from these main lines there branched off many smaller ones that literally ran to the ends of the mountains and hollows. It was these spurs that were the life-blood of the railroads, because this was where products were found to fill the boxcars.

The first extension in this area was the New River Division, that branched off the main N&W line at New River Depot, in Pulaski County, in 1883, and ultimately ran all the way to Pocahontas, VA, the location of one of the richest coal fields in the world.

It was along these early extensions that many of the tales of adventure and romance about the railroad originated, because they were built over rough terrain, across swift streams, and sometimes into territory where the people didn’t particularly care for them to be. Washed-out bridges and broken rails often brought danger of sudden death to the brave men whose job it was to move the freight. “George Alley said to his fireman Jack, a rock ahead I see, and I know that death is lurking there, to grab both you and me.”

Like many of the extension, this line followed a treacherous trail; first up the hill from New River, past a station called Schooler, then to Churchwood (now known as Belspring). From there the line was located along the west of left side of New River, following its bank into the state of West Virginia, at Glen Lyn. From this point, it followed the East River, crossing that narrow stream at least ten times before reaching Bluefield. After crossing back and forth over the state line the tracks finally reached Pocahontas.

Long strings of coal cars still flow out along that line, except over a slightly re-routed trail that brings them through a tunnel near Pepper, to a point east of Radford. The re-routing eliminated the steep hill at Fairlawn and created a new station called Cowan. Because there was room for just one right-of-way along that bank of New River, the competing Virginia Railroad’s tracks hugged the opposite bank over much the same route.

The construction of the New River Division was closely followed by the road known as the Cripple Creek extension. While the former went deep into the mountains and valleys in search of coal, the Cripple Creek line was after other minerals, mainly iron ore. Leaving the main N&W line at Dora Junction, just east of Pulaski, the line went to Macadam, and around through Drape, to Delton, and across the New River and through Allisonia. Except for one small area, the railroad followed the south bank of New River all the way to Ivanhoe.

After starting in1883, construction by the year 1886 had taken the curving rails a distance of twenty miles to the vicinity of Foster Falls. A year later the coming of the railroad was hailed by the people of Ivanhoe, eleven miles up the road, and later branches went off up Cripple Creek, and to Galax.

Along the way from Ivanhoe running back eastward the rails passed little towns and villages that were booming, as a result of the mining industry. Ivanhoe itself was mining zing. Farther down the line was Pierce Furnace, Boom Furnace, Iron mines at Allisonia, as well as others; where either the ore or the finished lead and pigiron was loaded onto the railroad cars.

The Cripple Creek Extension is one of the most scenic routes that can be found on any railroad anywhere. After its completion people rode the passenger cars up from Radford and Pulaski, or from Galax east to enjoy the beauty of the ride, particularly in the autumn time. Only in recent years was the last passenger train removed from the Cripple Creek extension, and it was a sad day.

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