After an absence of almost 20 years, steam made its way through Burke County on its way to McDowell and Burke counties for the weekend.
Saturday and Sunday, a steam-powered excursion train will make morning and afternoon trips between the Norfolk Southern rail yard in Asheville and Old Fort. This train will operate over Norfolk Southern’s Piedmont Division main line (formerly the Southern Railway) on 56-mile round trips. The highlight will be traveling the loops around Andrews Geyser and going through the seven tunnels that exist between Old Fort and Ridgecrest.
Thursday afternoon, bystanders lined the path from Salisbury to Asheville, and right through the heart of Burke County, to catch a glimpse of history.
The steam excursion train is part of the 21st Century Steam program. This is a partnership between Norfolk Southern and the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum in Chattanooga to operate steam-powered excursions throughout the territory served by Norfolk Southern, according to the museum’s Website.
The tickets for these train rides have already sold out. But folks in Old Fort will be able to see the steam-powered train, with help from two diesel locomotives, arrive in the town during the mornings and afternoons for both Saturday and Sunday. Spectators at Andrews Geyser will get a view of it too.
And to the best of anyone’s knowledge, this will be the first steam excursion train in McDowell County in almost 20 years. The last one took place in Old Fort in the early 1990s.
“They used to come all the time,” said Old Fort civic leader Otis Keaton.
The train rides will depart the Norfolk Southern yard in Asheville. Departure times from Asheville will be 8 a.m. and 2 p.m., both Saturday and Sunday, for the four-hour round trips. The train is scheduled to return to Asheville at noon and 6 p.m.
Steve Freer with the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum told The McDowell News that the running time to Old Fort is expected to be almost two hours. Therefore, the expected arrival time in Old Fort would be around 9:45 to 10 a.m. and around 3:45 to 4 p.m. on both days. However, arrival times could vary, he said.
The train will not stop in Old Fort and the passengers won’t be able to disembark. But folks in Old Fort will be able to see it going by the depot and traveling through town. They may be able to see an interesting procedure that has to be done before the train can go back to Asheville.
“The train pulls into Old Fort and the locomotives uncouple to be turned around on the wye track,” said Freer. “They will then ‘run around’ the train and re-couple onto the other end for the return trip. Passengers will stay on the train while this takes place.”
The wye track is located next to Davidson’s Fort Historic Park.
For decades, both the Southern Railway and the Clinchfield Railroad offered excursion trips for railfans in McDowell County. Often, a vintage steam locomotive would pull the restored passenger coaches through the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Regular passenger rail service to McDowell County came to an end in the mid-1970s.
Southern Railway’s No. 630 will be the steam engine featured on these train rides. More than 100 years old, it is a Consolidation-type locomotive built at the Richmond, Va. works of the American Locomotive Company. “Number 630 pulled freight trains during the first half of the last century, mostly in North Carolina, and in the 1970s and ‘80s traveled extensively in excursion service throughout the Southeast,” reads the Website for the TVRM. “Small of size but big in character, this locomotive underwent an exhaustive ten-year rehabilitation at TVRM’s Soule Shops complex in East Chattanooga before returning to service in 2011.