Antique locomotive makes stop in Bulls Gap
Southern Railroad Engine 630, shown here turning around to prepare for the return trip to Bristol, steamed into Bulls Gap Sunday afternoon.
Just before noon on Sunday, the steam whistle grew louder near the Norfolk Southern Railroad trestle leading into Bulls Gap, overpowering the rhythmic chants of March tree frogs heard from a woodland area off Sycamore Drive.
The brush alongside the track right-of-way running under the trestle, still in its winter state, was dotted with a rare species of human — purist train buffs wearing cameras with long lenses pointed upward toward the path of pre-WWI Southern Railroad Engine 630 that departed from Bristol, Va. at 10 minutes after 9.
Activity quickly picked up; car doors slammed one after another down Sycamore Drive as more spectators parked in haphazard fashion and began sprinting toward the South Main Street area; a man in a vehicle paused at the lower crossing and shouted what would be an oft-repeated phrase: “Get off the tracks!”
Up on the trestle, volunteers in green vests walked the rails as the engine bell began ringing more urgently.
The 630’s nostalgic slow chug-chug pierced the air as its stack broke the tree line and white smoke billowed upward.
The engine paused on the trestle, as if for the cameras, while the vested volunteers climbed aboard.
The destination for the 500 people on board the train’s 10 passenger cars was just down the track, near the historic Gilley Hotel, where a descendant of a former cook at the hotel was waiting. Marvin Hoard’s grandmother, Sally Everhart, used to serve up meals for steam train passengers on a large wood stove.
“In its heyday, men that worked the steam train routes would telegraph into the hotel to order their meals,” Hoard said. “The cooks would deliver the food on the engine and ride it back to the hotel.”
The passengers who boarded in Bristol, Va. and Johnson City disembarked to the sounds of a blue grass band from East Tennessee State University playing on the front porch of the town hall.
As they streamed out of the silver Clinchfield car, Brandi Melton carried her young son, David, up to one of the vested men and asked permission for David to touch the side of the train.
“Every time he sees the train, he yells ‘choo, choo,’” Melton explained.
Harold Smitter, one of the founders of the Watauga Valley Railroad Historical Society, quickly nodded his head, and as David gingerly ran his hand over the metal exterior, Smitter said that in addition to the 10 passenger cars, the 630, with help from a diesel engine, had pulled a tool car, a concession car and an extra passenger car.
“She was built for Southern Railroad around a hundred years ago,” Smitter said. “She served in various assignments and was then traded to East Tennessee and Western North Carolina Railroad, where she operated from 1960-1966. She served out of Johnson City and Asheville, N.C., which is what gives her ties to this area.”
The partnership of Norfolk Southern Corporation, Watauga and the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum offer excursion trips several times a year from destinations out of Virgina and North Carolina, each requiring many hours donated by “a lot of volunteers,” according to Smitter.
“We’re in this together,” he said. “We have volunteers from all walks of life, from railroad transportation van drivers to retired railroad workers to still working railroad workers. We have folks that enjoy being with other enjoyable folks.”
Watauga has purchased several passenger cars, including the Clinchfield, and each has undergone a complete restoration, with technological updates, including temperature control and separate bathrooms for men and women.
The cars carry fewer passengers now, an upgrade that Johnson City resident Wayne Bayes appreciated.
“The cars are roomy and comfortable,” Bayes said. He boarded the train along with his wife, Debbie, in Bristol and said the ride was smooth. Car No. 7 didn’t use the available air conditioning.
“We were just fine without it,” Bayes said. “But when we walked through the other cars to get off, we noticed several of them were noticeably cooler. It’s a shame we don’t have more trains around. It was a beautiful trip.”
The 630 completed a turnaround — “what we call a WGE,” Smitter said — and paused just shy of the 11E overpass to have its water tank filled by volunteers, who also applied grease and oil to the engine’s fittings.
During the wait, passengers wandered through the Bulls Gap railroad museum and Archie Campbell’s birthplace, purchased items from the tent set up by the Gen. Longstreet Museum in Russellville, bought concessions like fresh popcorn and rode Gary McBride’s covered wagon, pulled by mules Bonnie and Clyde and escorted by McBride’s dog, Dixie.
Civil War re-enactor Frank White brought along the cannon made from the wood of a barn built in 1810, owned by his great-great grandfather, Richard Samuel White. White and Ben Miller, a wheelwright from Parrottsville built the cannon over a period of two to three years.
In addition to serving as a photo backdrop, the cannon is taken to the many re-enactments White’s group participates in every year.
“We’ve shot it more than it would have been during the war,” White said. The cannon uses three inch ordinances and offers a dead level accurate firing up to 1850 yards.
More locals poured into the South Main Street area to watch the 630 slowly move back toward Gilley’s and pick up its passengers for the return trip to Bristol.
To sum up the experience shared by hundreds on a warm March day, a young boy, pacing back and forth as the engine roared back to life, announced to no-one in particular, “I’ve seen a real train now.”
- By Glenna Howington, Tribune Staff Writer