|C&O's seventies-influenced pop-art paint scheme adorns a General Electric diesel locomotive in Richmond.|
One Saturday about six years ago, I came upon a rack of railroad and transportation books at a used bookstore in Charlottesville. Most of the offerings resembled the fairly pedestrian bargain specials you see in Books-A-Million: broadly generalized pictorial histories of the industry published by British firms, usually with a special emphasis on steam locomotives, and only a passing glance at 21st-century engines to indicate that the 75-year history of internal-combustion motive power ever even started.
What can I say? A life spent entirely in the diesel era has made me into an un-romantic bastard.
But then the most curious find surfaced. On the bottom shelf were two photo albums filled with nearly four hundred Instamatic-style prints of Chesapeake & Ohio subjects, which I recognized immediately as having been taken in Virginia’s Tidewater region in the early 1980s. No name was attached, and even the bookstore owner seemed to know little of their provenance. But for $20 he happily parted with them both, and I set off across the Blue Ridge with my entertainment for the remainder of the weekend.
For most train buffs, the obsession begins as a personal nostalgia trip, and like my interest in traditional style, my passion for 1970s railroading is born of childhood experience. Indeed, the two things feed off one another. For instance, Mary Baldwin College’s 1979 Bluestocking, one of the first yearbooks besides my own that found its way into my archives, not only features fair isle, corduroys, and Lacostes galore, but also has a single-page vignette of a C&O freight crew working the yards near the Staunton depot. Conversely, a close look at the photographs taken by railfans can reveal fascinating backgrounds of automobiles, clothes, and ways of being that tell us how railroads relate to their surroundings, and help to establish anthropological patterns that make you shake your head and wonder how it all went so terribly wrong. That’s why stumbling on a cache of images such as the one that materialized in the bookstore, especially for those of us who study and revere much-maligned eras, is like falling down the shaft of a gold mine that someone walked away from as soon as they finished digging it.
The selections that follow were taken in October 1981 as our unknown photographer made the rounds between Newport News and Richmond on the Chessie Safety Express, a fall excursion train that was assembled by the affiliated C&O and B&O system to promote automobile safety at railroad crossings. In one of the last operations of its kind before the skyrocketing costs of liability insurance made steam-powered tourist operations prohibitively expensive, the train was pulled by restored C&O steam engine 614, originally built in 1948. In the little village of Lee Hall, 614’s stop was timed to coincide with the regular arrival of Amtrak’s Colonial, where much official merriment was organized in connection with the centennial festivities of the city of Newport News. Although not shown here, a ceremonial spike was driven at Lee Hall by outgoing Governor John Dalton and Chessie System chief Hays Watkins. Plenty of gubernatorial politicking also seems to be taking place, judging from the hat of at least one attendee.
Enjoy the slideshow.
|The tracks in Newport News went right up to the water, where the division office building stood sentry...|
|...and provided a nice view of the neoclassically-inspired passenger depot.|
|Until the CSX merger, freight cars were transferred to small barges at this apron and floated across the Chesapeake Bay to Norfolk.|
|C&O had its own fleet of tugs for the task. They were also used to shuffle bigger barges around at the coal piers.|
|Train time at Lee Hall, with a crowd of spectators that would be arrested today. Dig the girl in the oxblood leather jacket and flared jeans!|
|Amtrak trains haven't been this handsome for years, and neither have most people. Can you spot the clogs?|
|"Are you sure I can't carry it on board? My favorite monogrammed crewneck is in there."|
|More leather goods in that beautiful shade of red, and lots of turtlenecks and tweeds. I miss the age of women in casual blazers.|
|I'm not positive, but the man in the gray suit looks like Attorney General Marshall Coleman, who was running for governor that year. There's no other reason to have so many pigs around.|
|Downtown Richmond in the early stages of its transformation to a progressive metropolis of the New South.|
|Main Street Station in Richmond's Shockoe Bottom, which was nearly destroyed by fire a couple of years later.|
|C&O's larger depots often displayed 18th-century architectural influences, owing to the company's Virginia origins. The one in Williamsburg conveniently doubled as a Greyhound station.|