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Laying Track in Nicholas County

Text and photographs by Sam Jordan

In 1948 and ‘49, the New York Central and the Chesapeake & Ohio railroads jointly constructed a railroad in Nicholas County to haul coal from a new mine that was under development. This story is about the track-laying phase of that project. It tells about the men, their work, their methods, trials, and accomplishments. It is also about the passing of an era.

Within a decade of this project’s completion, manufacturers and railroads began developing an array of sophisticated equipment, using the latest technology in hydraulics, controls, and guidance systems. Operated by a few men, these modern machines did away with many of the operations we performed on this job. What we did in Nicholas County was soon a thing of the past and will never be repeated.

The new rail line ran from an initial turnout on the existing C&O line near the confluence of Gauley River and New River. It extended northeasterly about 15 miles toward Summersville. At the upper end, where the coal mine was being developed, there would be two miles of yard track. There were numerous bridges and culverts along the line as it snaked in and out of hollows, running along certain ridges and cutting across others. Access to the work sites was by various dirt roads and trails leading away from the villages of Swiss, Drennan, Lockwood, Zela, and Gilboa — all located along State Highway 39.

The track work was contracted to Royce Kershaw Company of Montgomery, Alabama. They established a field office in Belva near the C&O team tracks. Kershaw’s general superintendent was C.W. Springfield, with Buck Lancaster as general foreman. I was the field engineer. One company foreman and several locally hired foremen were the other supervisors. The main work force of about 40 laborers, 15 teamsters, and operators were transferred in from other projects. Kershaw’s work force, built up over time, was racially mixed and integrated the skills, talents, and abilities of men from different backgrounds and lifestyles. There were no social issues. There were a few disagreements between the men, mostly personal in nature. The men worked well together, and things ran smoothly on the job, as I recall.

Track crew in Nicholas County
Track crew in Nicholas County in the late 1940's, constructing a railroad to haul coal from a new mine. Here, workers adjust the track, at right, while general foreman Buck Lancaster, at center with hat, inspects their work. Photograph by Sam Jordan.

You can read the rest of this article in the Fall 2003 issue of Goldenseal, available in bookstores, libraries or direct from Goldenseal.