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Husband, wife bring N&W rail history to life

Jul. 03, 2010 @ 12:00 AM

When Jack L. Dickinson was 13 years old, his father took him to see the wreck of a Norfolk & Western Railroad (N&W) freight train that had derailed at Chattaroy, near Williamson in Mingo County. Dickinson never forgot that date -- Feb. 9, 1957 -- and what he saw that day:

"My father drove us up there and we were able to look at the wreckage of what I remember as the huge, beautiful steam engine laying on its side, embedded on U.S. 52. Fortunately there were no fatalities. We were fascinated as we watched the serious-faced railroad men begin the wreck cleanup. The wreck still sticks vividly in my mind more than a half-century later. The incident demonstrates the truism that 'you know you shouldn't stare at it, but you can't keep from looking at it.' Train wrecks are a unique piece of railroad history."

Now, Dickinson, a skilled history researcher and writer, has compiled a new piece of that history -- an exhaustive account of N&W wrecks in an era when railroading was far more dangerous than it is today. "Wheels Aflame, Whistle Wide Open: Train Wrecks of the N&W Railroad, 1892-1959" is the fourth in a series of railroad books researched and written by Dickinson and his wife, Kay Stamper Dickinson. All four books deal with aspects of N&W history in West Virginia.

Marshall University graduate Dickinson is an expert on Civil War history and the author of a number of other books, including "Jenkins of Greenbottom, a Civil War Saga" and "Cooney Ricketts, Child of the Regiment." After a career at IBM, he returned to the Marshall campus as bibliographer of the Rosanna A. Blake Confederate Collection, one of the special collections housed at MU's old Morrow Library.

In addition to his passion for Civil War history, Dickinson has had a lifelong interest in railroads in general and the N&W in particular -- an interest shared by his wife Kay.

"Kay was born and grew up at Dunlow in Wayne County, near Cabwaylingo State Forest," Dickinson says. "If you drive through Dunlow, you can still see an abandoned railroad station, with the name 'Dunlow' faintly visible on the side. Her mother could remember when the tracks were torn up in 1932. So Kay wanted us to write a magazine article on the history of Dunlow and the railroad. As we began researching, we found that Jedediah Hotchkiss -- he was Gen. Stonewall Jackson's mapmaker - was involved as a land speculator when the N&W was coming through. Coal companies sprang up along the path of the railroad. This was the so-called 'Ohio Extension' of the N&W."

Completed in 1892, the extension through southern West Virginia followed the Tug Fork into Mingo County, then turned on Pigeon Creek and proceeded through Wayne County along Twelvepole Creek to the new town of Kenova, where it crossed the river into Ohio. Later, N&W opened a shorter, straighter line along the Big Sandy River, rendering the Twelvepole line obsolete. The 58 miles between Wayne and Lenore were officially abandoned, but the railroad left behind some stations, bridges, tunnels and lots of colorful stories

"Due to the rough country and lack of law enforcement, there were poker games fueled by moonshine that led to shootings. Newspaper accounts of those affairs made fascinating reading," Dickinson says. "We soon realized we had much more material than we needed for a magazine article." The result was the husband-wife writing team's first book, "Last Train to Dunlow," published in 2005.

"At our first book signing," says Dickinson, "someone asked 'Why don't you write something similar on the Big Sandy line, from Kenova to Williamson?' So we followed with a second book, 'Trail of the Powhatan Arrow.' That was in 2007."

"My wife's uncle was an N&W Special Agent during the 1920s, '30s and early '40s. We began finding cases of his, including shootouts with criminals. We were able to purchase about 200 original case files of the special agents, and that became the backbone of our third book, 'Better Take Two Guns - The N&W's Special Agents (Railroad Detectives) and Their W.Va. Cases,' published in 2008." The book's catchy title comes from a 1905 comment attributed to an unidentified N&W passenger: "If you're going to Mingo County, you'd better take two guns!"

As they researched their books, the couple unearthed numerous newspaper clippings, vintage postcards, old photographs and other material about train wrecks along the N&W's West Virginia trackage. This provided the raw material for their new book, "Wheels Aflame, Whistle Wide Open."

The period covered by the book starts in the 1890s and ends in 1959, when the N&W - now merged into today's Norfolk Southern rail system - was the last U.S. railroad to retire its steam locomotives in favor of diesel power. Not every wreck during those years is included in the book. Doing so would be a physical impossibility. The thousands of accidents would fill an entire library, not just one book. Instead the authors have confined their scope to collisions, derailments and boiler explosions.

Explosions "were always a looming danger with steam engines," notes Dickinson. In the event of a boiler explosion, the locomotive's engineer and fireman were often scalded to death by the steam. The jobs of conductor and brakeman were only slightly less dangerous.

Beginning in 1911, the Interstate Commerce Commission began investigating railroad wrecks and filing reports. The Dickinsons reprint many of the ICC reports. Their book is illustrated with photographs from the Eastern Regional Coal Archives in Bluefield, W.Va., and the West Virginia State Archives, along with postcards and photographs from the authors' personal collection.

You can buy the book - which costs $25 - by contacting the Dickinsons at 6221 Highland Drive, Huntington, WV 25705, calling 304-736-3970 or sending an e-mail to marthakd@earthlink.net. Mail orders require an additional $4 for shipping and handling. The book is also being sold at the Wayne County Public Library in Wayne. Copies of the Dickinsons' earlier books also are available.

James E. Casto is the retired associate editor of The Herald-Dispatch and the author of a number of books on local and regional history, including "The Chesapeake & Ohio."

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