Autumn on the rails: Blue Ridge Special excursion rolls from Spencer to Asheville
It’s been 41 years since Arlo Guthrie sang “City of New Orleans,” a song that describes a passenger train that has what he called “the disappearing railroad blues.”
Though the golden age of rail travel ended years ago, it hasn’t disappeared.
On Sunday, Oct. 13, hundreds of people gathered before dawn at the N.C. Transportation Museum in Spencer to board the Blue Ridge Special — a 25-car rail excursion train to Asheville.
The trip took about 13 hours, including a nearly three-hour stop near Biltmore where passengers walked, shopped and explored.
For many, the trip wasn’t just about sightseeing.
It was a chance to enjoy a thrill few get to experience: a train ride right out of that golden age, on railcars preserved by private collectors and museums.
Kelly Alexander, chief operating officer of the N.C. Transportation Museum, said rail excursions give people an opportunity to experience history firsthand.
She said many passengers come in from out of state for the chance to ride the rails, especially since it’s a “rare mileage” opportunity.
There hasn’t been regular passenger service to Asheville since the late 1960s, although freight trains still ride essentially the same route that Southern Railway passengers would have taken from Salisbury almost a century ago.
After driving in reverse from the transportation museum to Salisbury, the trip to the mountains began at the “Salisbury wye” — the switch that took the train from the north-south tracks onto the line that leads northwest.
Passengers in the Amtrak coach cars watched out the windows as the train crossed Jake Alexander Boulevard, slowing down to pass Barber Junction before accelerating toward Statesville.
Alexander said that, in days when most railroad traffic is freight, it takes a lot of careful planning, time and money to put a vintage train back on the rails for just one trip.
The museum partners with the Watauga Valley National Railway Historical Society and Museum in Johnson City, Tenn., to present train excursions.
The Asheville trip was actually this train’s second long journey of the weekend.
The previous morning, Oct. 12, the train left Spencer, took on passengers in Greensboro and arrived in Charlottesville, Va. for a similar sightseeing trip.
Planning the excursions takes about a year, Alexander said. “It’s a lot of work, a lot of hours.”
Aside from the financial impact for the museum — Alexander said they hope to net $50,000 from the excursion — there’s the nostalgia value of riding rails few have ever ridden, perhaps even in the luxury of what was once a private railcar.
Decades ago, when Allen Orvin was serving in the U.S. Navy aboard the USS Dashiell, he said he used to take the train from Kannapolis to Washington, D.C. on his way to his station in Rhode Island.
“It was a lot different from this!” said Orvin, seated with friends on the upper deck of an observation car, with a steady view of fields, woods and cities around him.
The Transportation Museum and Watauga Valley NRHS put their own vintage railroad cars back on the main line for the event.
They also lease privately-owned cars, including the J.P. Henderson — a restored private railcar that’s usually being leased out for private use on Amtrak routes.
Those who paid for first-class tickets could ride in a lounge car, complete with red velvet-covered swivel seats.
Or, they could have a table of their own in a wood-paneled “dome car,” with huge picture windows giving a sky view of the trip through the countryside.
In a berth on the J.P. Henderson, Faye North and Jin McDaniel, of Emerald Isle, sat and watched the countryside speed by.
They picked that spot for their trip when seating elsewhere was filled up, McDaniel said.
The trip was a birthday gift for North, who’d never before been on the rails.
As the train began its climb into the mountains, passengers in the rear of the train took turns going out on the observation deck that looked out on the land below.
One volunteer with the Watauga Valley NRHS got permission to use that deck for a long-awaited surprise.
As the train climbed past Andrews Geyser, on the edge of Old Fort, Nick White dropped to his knee on the observation deck and asked fellow volunteer and longtime girlfriend Penny May to marry him.
After she said yes, they made their way back into the car, where fellow volunteers passed the good news throughout the train.
The slow trip up the mountain took passengers through tunnels blasted through the rock — an especially treacherous stretch of railroad built at the turn of the 20th century.
Published reports say as many as 120 people died building the railroad that leads into Asheville from Old Fort.
As the train snaked up the mountains, passengers shot photos and pointed out landmarks.
On the return trip, caterers cooked ribeye steak dinners and served them in refurbished dining cars as the train sped back from Hickory to Statesville.
Some families slept. Others could be seen playing cards, or talking about their walkabout in Biltmore.
“My parents and I really enjoy trains,” said Thomas Blalock, of Hickory, riding with his fiancee Jennifer Cahill and his parents.
This was their first excursion to Asheville. As the scenery passed outside, Blalock said it was tough to put the experience into words.
“It’s not the feeling you get from something that’s just made today,” Blalock said. “It’s seeing something old, firsthand. You just don’t get that today.”
Sara Gettys of the N.C. Transportation Museum said the excursions draw “a real mix of folks.”
“We have people who’ve never been on a train before in their lives,” Gettys said. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime trip for them.”
Others are veterans who go on rail excursions every year.
Sigmon “Mac” McDewey, of Greensboro, worked for Southern Railway’s police department.
As a detective, he investigated everything from trespassing to vandalism for the railroad.
Today, McDewey said, he rides a train “very seldom,” but said he’s glad to see the old cars preserved.
“It’s a historical thing. It should not be forgotten. It’s worth preserving,” McDewey said, looking out the windows as night fell over the Catawba River.
Steve Lee, of Davidson, took the trip after having come to Salisbury for the OctoberTour the day before.
Lee came in search of “the fall leaves, the views up by Old Fort and Black Mountain.”
Riding through Hickory, he gazed out looking for landmarks he remembered from his time living there.
As the train passed, here and there people could be seen out the windows, waving as the train passed by.
Those who knew about the excursion gathered to watch the Blue Ridge Special pass — “rail watchers,” as several people called them.
In Asheville, a group of eight railroad fans watched as the train left the Biltmore rail yard, waving, snapping photos and taking video.
As the train headed back down the “loops” to Old Fort, it passed three different crossings where drivers had stopped by the tracks to watch, or take pictures.
There’ll be another set of rail excursions next year, Alexander said.
And, Alexander said, there’s hope that the success of these trips will spur other railway lines to allow excursions on their tracks to more destinations.
Meanwhile, for more than a decade there have been talks among local, state and federal officials about bringing rail service back to the North Carolina mountains.
A map in the Blue Ridge Special brochure shows the excursion route as part of a “Future Western N.C. Service” connecting existing Amtrak trains with the mountains.
It’s all wishful thinking at the moment, with no such train service planned.
But, despite the “disappearing railroad blues,” there are still many in North Carolina and beyond who will jump at the chance to ride the rails the way their grandparents and great-grandparents did.
Contact Hugh Fisher via the editor’s desk at 704-797-4244.