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The N&W Railway and I May 30, 2010

Posted by Jenny in memoir, railroads.
Tags: , , , , ,

N&W steam locomotive reincarnated for excursion use. Photo by James G. Howes

The Norfolk & Western Railway has played a role in my life at two widely separated points.

The first was around 1960, when Dad took our whole family to see the last commercially operating steam locomotive in Roanoke, Virginia, the hub of N&W’s operations. I don’t remember the locomotive itself as well as the awe-inspiring roundhouse, where the locomotives were positioned on a revolving turntable for purposes of shifting direction or changing tracks. It was a massive showcase of heavy, complicated, dark, noisy equipment. I loved it.

But then, I had already been a pint-sized railroad fan. For my 5th birthday, Mom and Dad gave me the core components of a Lionel train set that was continually expanded over the following years. I spent many hours putting my train through its paces, backward and forward, running it through its papier-mache tunnel and through its forest of model railroad trees with their spongy foliage. (The foliage is made from a type of lichen that is harvested, among other places, in Montana’s Gallatin National Forest.) My train was a mix of freight and passenger cars, but my imaginary passengers did not mind at all that their car sat behind a coal car or a box car.

And it never seemed to bother anyone that a girl was so interested in something that was supposed to be a boy’s hobby. I must have picked up my father’s enthusiasm for trains at a very early age, and no one tried to discourage me. Dad was a true railway buff who read extensively about railroads of both the U.S. and Europe, and he collected timetables. You can read about one of his favorite railroad books from childhood here.

Twenty-two years after my visit to Roanoke, I got a job writing about coal markets for a small company in Knoxville, Tennessee. This led to work writing about international coal markets for McGraw Hill and then, for many years, for the Financial Times.

For the benefit of people who are upset by the existence of coal, I’ll point out that my job was not to promote the coal industry but to report on its buying and selling activities. A big story for me would, for instance, concern the price on tonnage of Australian coal going to the Brazilian steel mills. At any rate, my reporting tended to focus more on metallurgical coal than coal for power generation, since U.S. coal exports were primarily “met” or “coking” coal for the steel industry.

And that is where the N&W comes in again. Top-quality metallurgical coal—arguably the best in the world—came from the coalfields served by the N&W, especially the Flat Top-Pocahontas coalfield. These were the famous low-vol Virginia Pocahontas mines operating in the “Pokey No. 3” coal seam, and the elusive mid-vol produced at operations like Amonate and Jenkinjones. The mid-vol generally ran in thin seams and was very expensive to mine, but the mention of its physical characteristics—24-25% vols, high FSI, very low ash—would bring raptures to a steel company coal buyer concerned about the performance of the coal in his coke ovens.

The coal was exported out of N&W’s Lamberts Point Pier 6 in Norfolk. By the way, I’m quite aware that the N&W was merged with Southern Railway in 1982 to become Norfolk Southern. But people with an interest in the railroads tend to refer to the older names. It’s partly that they are more specific, and partly out of a kind of nostalgia for something that has died in the age of faceless, consolidated corporations.

(Continued here)

Lambert's Point pier in Norfolk---a truly amazing place



1. Peter Bennett - May 31, 2010

Thank you so much for bringing back memories from our childhood. As I recall you had the Lionel train set and I had the Marklin train set that I was very enthusiastic about after our trip to Europe in 1966. I have fond memories of being with Dad and marveling at the steam locomotives in Germany on our trip. The passenger locomotives were either diesel or electric then, but they still had steam locomotives on some of the freight lines. There is something very impressive about a steam locomotive with the steam rising and the boiler clanking that a diesel locomotive just can’t match.

Jenny - May 31, 2010

I’m glad you liked it, Peter! I’d forgotten about the Marklin set, but now I can picture it. The scale was much smaller and finer than on the Lionel equipment, but then, the rather clunky Lionel was probably best suited to me at the age I had it. Speaking of Germany, on the trip I did solo, I rode on a train pulled by a steam locomotive in 1971 going from Berlin and across East Germany to Nurnberg.

2. Thomas Stazyk - May 31, 2010

Nice post and I look forward to future installments. Sad what happened to the railroads in the US. In Cleveland we used to see B&O and Chessie which was Chesapeake and Ohio. They had a logo of a cat sleeping in a big “C” on all their cars. Unfortunately Chessie merged with Seaboard and became CSX and I’ve lost track.

I remember that model railroad lichen–we had little cars instead of trains–and used bushels of the stuff.

Jenny - May 31, 2010

You will probably be horrified to learn that I actually know the names of the rail lines serving the Lake Erie ports: Cleveland, as you say, was the C&O and the B&O; Sandusky was the N&W; Conneaut was the Bessemer & Lake Erie; and Ashtabula was the Pittsburgh & Lake Erie. I used to do a lot of stories about the “lakers,” the vessels carrying grain or coal or iron ore on the lakes.

Thomas Stazyk - June 3, 2010

That is so cool. Then you know about Mather Museum (right across from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame). And of course the Edmund Fitzgerald.

3. Roon Lewald - June 7, 2010

1. Roon Lewald – June 7, 2010 [Edit]

The N & W steam engine in your photo really catches my fancy – it so typically expresses the streamlined power of US locos at the end of the steam age. Reminds me of a line from an early 20th century poem entitled “These things I love” (I’ve forgotten who wrote it): “…and the clean-swept beauty of a great machine”. For romantic color, though, give me African steam railroads. Back in 1969, when I was working in South Africa, I envied a fellow-journalist who took a feature trip in the middle of the Angolan civil war on what was left of the legendary Benguela Railway, which used to connect Lobito on the Atlantic coast to the rail nets of the copper-rich Congo Democratic Republic and Zambia. The train was hauled by a mighty Garrat engine (combining the coal tender, loco and water tender into a very long unit with umpteen drive wheels, articulated to give maximum power on twisting narrow-gauge tracks). The train bristled with heavily armed Portuguese soldiers equipped with a great big searchlight to combat insurgents of the three guerilla factions then seeking to end Portuguese colonial rule. My friend watched the jungle scenery pass by while being stylishly served in a Victorian-era dining car paneled in beautiful indigenous woods. I’m glad to learn from the Web that independent Angola’s state-owned CFB rail company now expects Chinese contractors to restore the entire 1,314 kms of the war-shattered Benguela Railway by next year at a cost of US$2 billion. More stuff about US railroads, please, Jenny!

Jenny - June 7, 2010


Your brief description conjures up a whole intense world where several powerful things come together: the train, the landscape, and the armed conflict. That deserves further exploration in writing, whether in essay form or in a fictionalized version.

4. Thomas Stazyk - June 7, 2010

Roon–You might enjoy reading some books by Paul Theroux, if you already haven’t. Dark Star Safari is about a trip across Africa (partly by train), Riding the Iron Rooster is about train travel in China, The Old Patagonian Express is about a trip from Boston to Patagonia by train and The Great Railway Bazaar is about a trip by train from London to Tokyo and back. I find Theroux very readable and interesting and his books are full of interesting tidbits.

5. Roon Lewald - June 7, 2010


I read The Great Railway Bazaar and especially enjoyed that episode – remarkably similar to my Angolan reminiscence – where the US Army hosts him on a wartime PR trip along a surviving section of the South Vietnam railroad. Thanks for the tip about Dark Star Safari and The Old Patagonian Express – as a Theroux fan, I’ll look out for them.

6. David Barnes - January 6, 2014

Many years ago, I too traveled out onto the Lambert’s Point pier. It was long before security checkpoints were in place and anyone cared. I spent about an hour watching the amazing barney mule push the cars up to the rotary dumpers, then followed them down hill to the reversing ramp and finally on to the empties yard for return to the coal fields. It was truly fascinating. I wish I could go back and see it all over again.

Jenny - January 7, 2014

Thanks for your comment. I wouldn’t mind seeing it again, either—but I’d guess the only guests that get to see it these days are potential overseas customers, for instance a steel company somewhere that might switch from CSX-sourced coal to NS-sourced.

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