The Virginia Creeper (Review)

The Virginia Creeper (Review)

kay, so some of you are thinking that this is pretty strange, that I’m reviewing something that sounds like a gothic horror story.

Nah, it’s just railroading, so it does make sense.

See, my sister provoked my mom and I to ride the bike trail that follows the old roadbed of the Virginia-Carolina (or VC, hence the nickname “Virginia Creeper”) a couple of weeks back. The ride is a thrilling one, coming down from Whitetop, flying down a 3% grade across some significant bridges, following the river through thick woods and lush valleys, all the way down to the town of Damascus. It was probably the second-best ride I’d ever made – a very enjoyable day. So at our model train club, I mentioned that I’d ridden the old route and a friend brought in a book, telling all about the railroad and its short yet vibrant history.

So, the Virginia-Carolina Railroad was founded in 1898 as a feeder line south from the junction at Abingdon, Va into the rich forest and mineral (sic) tracts of the Carolinas. Of course, it turns out that the primary reason for the line (coal and iron-ore, hence the pop-up town named Damascus (a metal-working town in the biblical era)) didn’t exist, yet forestry, passenger, freight and mail was enough to keep the line in the black for decades. Sadly it was demolished in 1977, a victim (as so many other short lines) to the impact of highways. But happily its history is preserved through the recreational biking that many vacationers enjoy.

The book itself is interesting. Possibly it does not have the depth of other books of this nature. While it’s got timetables and grainy pictures of depots, crews and engines, it doesn’t quite dig as deeply as other railroad histories do. Much of the book is taken up by what seems a bit of fiction, an account of one train moving south along the line. Not that this is a bad thing – it helps us visualize the time and technologies at work here. However, I would have liked to have known more about the company itself, the decisions made, the profit-loss statements, the growth (and death) of the little towns along it. While the book relates many anecdotal stories about the people, the operations of the railroad are rather vague. There is even a hint that three guys tried to blow up a train with dynamite (noted in two newspaper clippings but not explained).

But overall it was a fun read, one that will help me understand more about this line and it’s history when I ride it again (in late July) with my wife and sister. And for that, the concern is how well a tandem bike will perform on the heavy grade down from Whitetop). If you see a posting from me in August, we’ll have not suffered a run-away and died in a tangle of bicycle frames and spokes.

Worth a look if you can find a copy.