The first Virginia Creeper train of the Abingdon Branch arrived in West Jefferson in 1915. The last left the town, never to return in 1977. In those 62 years in between, there is a wealth of history about this railroad line recorded in books and by the renowned photographer, O. Winston Link, who took photos of the last days of steam on that same railroad in the late 1950s. In the late 1970s, the tracks were removed and there are only remnants of the tree-covered roadbed that remain in North Carolina to remind us that it was ever here.
To celebrate our town’s train heritage and provide a symbol of that history, a group of five citizens set out to bring a caboose to Ashe County. We were proud to be part of that original group. An important aspect of this story, however, beyond the purchase and restoration of the caboose is the “Adventure of Moving a Caboose Without Rails”!
Moving a caboose on a 94 ft low boy tractor trailer through the mountains is a challenge any way you look at it, but there were a few obstacles that made it even more interesting. It is a story that we are sure will be told repeatedly in the coming years, but June 21, 2018 is the one-year anniversary of its arrival in West Jefferson and we wanted to share that adventure for posterity!
The first task was to hire a crew to physically move the caboose from Bristol, Virginia where it had been sitting for 11 years to West Jefferson, North Carolina. After an extensive search, we found the Crane & Rigging Corporation based in Yadkinville, NC. They had previous experience in moving other cabooses, so we were confident about their capabilities. The next task was to obtain DOT permits from three states. Yes, permits from NC, TN and VA had to be obtained since we were crossing all three! The state of Virginia, being the point of origin, got to determine the route. The Crane & Rigging Corp. started this lengthy process in April. We were on pins and needles as we waited and waited for our permits. We were under a time crunch since we were obligated to move the caboose from the property in Bristol by June 30. We received permits from NC and TN in early June, but VA was the hold-out. The pressure mounted as we approached that date without hearing from the VA DOT. Lots of phone calls went back and forth between us, political officials and representatives from the Crane & Rigging Corp.
We breathed a sign of relief for about 10 seconds when the VA DOT permit was finally received. That was the 10 seconds before we realized the route the state of VA required we take across the mountains. Locals shook their heads and the moving company was incredulous. The VA DOT wanted us to cross the mountains on Hwy 421 out of Bristol to Shady Valley TN. This road, as all locals know, is called “the Snake”! The zillion curves on this road makes it easy to understand why it got this name. The ideal ride for a motorcycle was certainly NOT ideal for a 94-foot low boy carrying a 17.5-ton caboose. The driver and his crew knew the risks but with penalty of a very hefty fine if they veered from this route, they were bound to at least try. Some official sitting in the DOT office in Richmond had no idea this was a difficult if not impossible route – on paper it just looked like the shortest way to get us from point A to point B.
On the morning of June 20th we drew a crowd as the Crane & Rigging Corp started removing the caboose from its long-held site in Bristol, Virginia. All the folks wanted to know what was going on and where the caboose was going. Reporters, police and train enthusiasts alike looked on and we all held our breath until the caboose was finally safely lowered on and secured to the low-boy.
Five hours after loading started we were on our way. We traveled behind the entourage the entire time and this is where the truly scary parts began!
As the tractor trailers entered “The Snake” and made the first curve we saw sparks fly as it dragged along the highway. The next curve was the same and we were excited that perhaps this would be the extent of our troubles. WRONG! At the next sharp curve, the low-boy got stuck and made a gouge in the pavement. The driver, Robert Souther, showed his vast experience with this and after a few back and forwards was able to make the curve.
We were only about 15 miles out of Bristol when we then saw the tractor trailer with the caboose swerve far to the right to make another sharp curve. The large wheels went off the road and mired on the muddy shoulder. No matter how many times the driver tried to free it, this time the rear tractor tires were mired in the mud and were not going any further! We knew the news wasn’t good when we saw him head back to talk to us.
Our hearts sank when he told us that he was going to have to call for a tow. What kind of tow truck could we get that could possibly pull out this huge rig? He soon found a towing company from Mountain City that had the proper equipment. They were on their way, but it took an hour for them to arrive. It was a nerve wracking hour for us but when Mountain View Towing arrived and began to work, we knew we were in good hands. They later informed us they do this several times a month on “The Snake”! We cheered when the truck was cleared, and we were told there was a wide spot at the top of the mountain big enough for the truck to turn around. We all knew we were going no further on this road!
During the hour we waited for the tow, the Crane & Rigging crew spent that time making phone calls to the VA DOT. We were not privy to what was said but by the tone we demised that the driver was VERY angry about this route choice and let the officials know about it. He told us to follow him back to Bristol where we started, and he would have a new, approved route by morning. As disappointed as we were that we were not going to make it to North Carolina that day, we were glad that the company took charge. We were nervous, but positive they would be successful.
However, our route back to Bristol was not without peril. We watched the caboose sway from side to side as the low-boy made the descent faster than the trip up around those winding curves. At the bottom of the mountain, Robert had to pull the truck over to allow the brakes to cool off (they were literally smoking!). When he pulled over the cupola became entangled in the low-hanging telephone lines due to the height of the caboose. One of the crew had to climb up the caboose ladder and hold the lines up to free the caboose while it slowly got back on the road. It was a daring feat to watch, but all in a day’s work for this moving crew!
When we got back to Bristol at about 7:00 pm, the entire crew jumped in their escort vehicles and headed back out to find a route that they could take the next day. They spent much of that night making sure they had secured a route that would get us to West Jefferson safely. They miraculously obtained the approved VA DOT permit by the next morning. We spent another night in Bristol and met the crew first thing the morning of June 21st to try again. The caboose spent the night next to a sister caboose, NW 518 647, still in service by the Norfolk Southern Railroad in the Bristol railyard.
This time we traveled a much friendlier route through the mountains and we were hopeful the summer solstice would be a good omen. We took Hwy 11 South out of Bristol to Elizabethton, then on to Hampton, and eventually Mountain City, Tennessee. From there, we took 421 East to Boone then on to Deep Gap, and finally 221 North into West Jefferson, for a total of 103 miles. We were cheering when Boone NC came into sight and we were finally in familiar territory. Along the way, a few trees sacrificed their limbs to the last ride of this caboose!
With the help of our West Jefferson Town Clerk, Wesley Barker, we kept the local authorities appraised of our arrival. Once we turned down Hwy 221 North towards West Jefferson, we noticed that we had an entire caravan of cars behind us. The word had spread that we were on our way into town! We were escorted into town by the West Jefferson police and arrived on the Backstreet with cheers from a local crowd. Our hearts were in our throats and tears were in our eyes. It was a day to remember for all train lovers but especially for the citizens of Ashe County, North Carolina!
This time the unloading of the caboose to its permanent location took only three hours. All cheered when the caboose was slowly lowered and then re-attached to its wheels with a loud snap!
We celebrated by having dinner with the Crane & Rigging Corp crew at the Hotel Tavern! Two days of nail biting excitement had come to an end. We were glad it was the longest day of the year, so we could savor every moment! We send out a special thanks to Robert Souther, Dink Tharpe, and the entire Crane & Rigging Corp gang who helped accomplish this challenging venture.
The caboose, now restored and sitting on a small piece of track on the Backstreet, serves as a reminder that the Virginia Creeper railroad once ran on this very roadbed. In the absence of those steel ribbons, an adventure awaits anyone who wants to move railroad cars today. We sincerely thank all who donated and the local businesses who contributed their time, labor, and expense to make this happen! For our individual efforts on this project, no mention of our names can be found in any place of officialdom, only in fleeting articles published over the time. No matter, for the devout rail fan, the reward is always in the experience, and such an experience did we have! This adventure will always be engraved on our hearts and minds - never to be forgotten. We will revisit this story with enthusiasm every time we retell it and show the photos of moving a caboose without rails! It really does take a village to bring history back to life. Oh, and we LOVE those vivid blue and yellow Bluemoonistic Images colors!