I never quite finished the series about our August trip back from by business engagement in Carmel, IN. When I left off, we were ready to move from Breaks Interstate Park to Grindstone, a federal camping ground near Damascus, Virginia. So I’ll do a quick catch-up here (on September 23) before I begin to relate our freshest upcoming adventure, Cooperstown v. 2, starting September 25, 2016.
So, we began our drive from Breaks Interstate with Kerry & Gloria in their Class C; and Jim in his car, trundling our way across the mountains toward Damascus, on August 11 via Route 80. If anyone reading this and dragging a trailer or driving an RV considers using Rt. 80, all I have to say is that the road is fine until right after it diverges from Rt. 19, headed toward Clinch Mountain. My advice is to use Rt. 19 NOT to stay on Rt. 80, but find any other way you can manage OTHER than Rt. 80 to continue heading southeast.
We stayed on Rt. 80 and it was the most harrowing experience I’ve had to date dragging a trailer, and I wasn’t even driving. Crossing Clinch and Poor Mountains, the road narrowed to a 6 or 7-hundred road size, and switchbacked high and long, without the merest ghost of a guardrail on the steep slope. If we had met anyone headed the opposite direction, our lead vehicle would have acted as the “airbag” for the rest of the group following behind. There would have been no where to pull over to allow another vehicle to pass; and lord help us if we’d met a logging truck or larger equipment vehicle.
So NEVER follow Rt. 80 southward all the way to Meadowview or Interstate 81.
Once we survived Rt. 80, we headed to Saltville and then south toward Chilhowie, then wound our way into the Mt. Rogers National Recreation Area, and then along Rt. 603 to Grindstone.
We had a lovely site there, and zero insect disturbance, excellent weather, and a really fun time with Gary, Lorrie, Kerry, and Gloria (Jim decided to head back home instead of camping with us). Damascus was our shopping center and the beginning of the Virginia Creeper Trail, a Rails-to-Trails conversion that includes a steep ride down WhiteTop Mountain and many shuttle-your-bike-to-the-top options that make the Creeper famous among cyclists. Damascus is also famous as the entry to Virginia for the Appalachian Trail. If timed right, through-hikers can make it to Damascus by May and be feted and spoiled by the community’s Trail Days Festival, where everyone in the small city puts on the dog to celebrate the through-hikers and their journeys.
There is quite a lot more to the Creeper Trail than the thrill-ride down White Top. Lorrie, Gloria, and Kerry decided to walk the dogs around Damascus while Gary, Jack and I rode the 16 miles to Abingdon and back (total 32 miles). It was a lovely ride, although quite a hot day. We got some refreshment in Abingdon before reversing course, and then stopped at the Alvarado Station for a super delicious sandwich and homemade potato chips for lunch at the Happy Trails Cafe.
But before we leave the Creeper, here’s some history about it from the Abingdon side:
The Abingdon Branch
“The Virginia Creeper”
Norfolk & Western Railway’s Abingdon Branch began in 1887 as the Abingdon Coal & Iron Railroad (AC&IRR). The Virginia-Carolina Railroad (VCRR) bought the AC&IRR in 1900, and extended rail service to Damascus. By 1915, VCRR trains ran over the 76.5 miles of track between Abingdon and Elkland, NC. The parking lot (adjacent to the sign) was the VCRR’s Abingdon yard, where equipment was kept, and the VCRR joined the N&W main line. In 1916, the N&W bought the VCRR, and the route became The Abingdon Branch. The track from Elkland to West Jefferson was abandoned in 1933.
The popular nickname, “Virginia Creeper” fittingly describes both the steep twisting mountain route and the speed of the trains. In some places, the posted speed limit was only 5 MPH.
The Abingdon Branch crossed some of the highest and most scenic terrain of any standard gauge railroad in the US. In the 55.5 miles from Abingdon to West Jefferson, there were 108 bridges, most made with timber, and no tunnels. In a classic series of photographs entitled A Day on the Abingdon Branch, O. Winston Link captured memorable scenes along this historic route during the last days of steam operations. Some photos from this series are on display at the Historical Society of Washington County Library in the former N&W passenger station in Abingdon.
The last train between Abingdon and West Jefferson ran on March 31, 1977. The Abingdon Branch rail bed was converted to the Virginia Creeper Trail through a cooperative effort of the Town of Abingdon, Town of Damascus, and the US forest Service.
Norfolk & Western Railway
Class M Locomotive #433
American Locomotive Co., Richmond Works
The N&W owned over 100 Class M locomotives from 1906 to 1961. Today, two survive: 433 in Abingdon, and 475 operated by the Strasburg Railroad, Strasburg, PA. By the early 1920s, heavier and more powerful locomotives had replaced the Class M on mainline service. Because of their light weight and small size, the Class M had a useful life until the very end of the steam era, working in rail yards and on local freight and passenger trains where roadbed conditions prohibited using heavier locomotives.
In 1952, 433 came from Roanoke to Bristol as a backup engine on the Abingdon Branch. While in Bristol, 433 was a common sight in the railroad yard and on the many industrial tracks lacing the Bristol area. Although 433 was then equipped with a spark arrestor smoke stack, it rarely ran on The Abingdon Branch.
Steam operations ceased on The Abingdon Branch in 1957, marking the end of an era and a way of life. Except for 433, all Class M locomotives based in Bristol were immediately scrapped. Number 433 avoided the torch and moved to Radford where it worked until retired in July 1958. In October 1958, the N&W donated the engine to the Town of Abingdon, and on November 24, 1958 it was moved to its current location at the junction of the N&W main line and The Abingdon Branch. Today, 433 sits at the junction of The Abingdon Branch and the main line as a tangible reminder of the era when these small hand-fired steam engines struggled up the steep, twisting grades through remote mountain communities along the 55.5 miles between Abingdon and West Jefferson, NC.
The next day, I took the Mount Rogers Trail hike about halfway up the 7+ miles of the hike to the top of Mount Rogers, the tallest mountain in Virginia. We’d had some rain the night before, but the temperatures and humidity were just fine and I had a wonderful walk, enjoying many newly-sprung mushrooms.
On our last night together, we gathered at our Blue Roomba to share a meal, but the rain returned for some of the early evening. Thankfully, it quit by the time we were set to eat, and we didn’t have to get wet for our celebratory supper before we all headed home the next morning.
We will definitely be returning to Grindstone and are thankful that Lorrie and Gary introduced us to this beautiful campground.