The N&W Railway and I May 30, 2010Posted by Jenny in memoir, railroads.
Tags: Lamberts Point, N&W, Norfolk & Western Railway, Norfolk Southern, Pocahontas coal, Roanoke
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.