50 Years Ago Today

NW Mailing List nw-mailing-list at nwhs.org
Fri Apr 30 10:07:38 EDT 2021

April 30th - 50 Years Ago
Last Day to Amtrak

Across the United States, many passenger trains were making their last runs before the advent of Amtrak on May 1. For the last month or so, riders flocked to the trains, school and church groups, rail groups, individuals, everyone it seems was intent on taking one last ride.

School groups giving for many folks, their first, and last train ride. The railroads would even have to put extra cars on some trains to handle the crowds. 

The end of passenger service meant the loss of many famed train names. One such train name was on the western end of the N&W, the “Wabash Cannonball” would make its last run leaving St. Louis’ famed Union Station and make its way east to Detroit. The 488.8 mile run was scheduled out of St. Louis at 8:35 am and into Detroit Union Station at 8:35 pm. With the crowds unseen in years, it is quite possible the train was late arriving in Detroit. The all-daylight run featured no sleepers, reclining seat coaches and a buffet-coach. Maybe a few extra coaches were on board and a business car to commemorate the run. The westbound counterpart had left Detroit at 7:15 am and would meet its eastbound sister at Tolano, Illinois near 1:00 in the afternoon. The westbound “Cannonball” rolled into St. Louis Union Station at 4:20 pm.

The lesser known, but more patronized “City of Decatur” left Decatur, Illinois at 6:45 am, with arrival in Chicago’s Polk Street Station at 10:05 am. She would lay over there and leave for the return trip at 5:25 pm, arriving in Decatur at 8:45 pm.

Meanwhile, in Bristol, Va, just before 7:00 am, engineer H. C. Kelly and Fireman Danny Dorton looked back for the highball from Conductor T.F. Thornburg as the last train No. 18, the former “Birmingham Special” departed Bristol for the last time. On time, the highball was waved, and Kelly pulled two short toots on the air horn and pulled back on the throttle of GP 9 No. 519. It was an easy pull, only three cars were in the consist; a Southern heavyweight baggage car No. 537 and two modernized heavyweight coaches, number 1034 and 1017. It would be an easy ride to Roanoke.

The former “Birmingham Special” lost its name back in August when it was cut back to Bristol and with its counterpart, train No. 17 were the last passenger trains on the Bristol Line. An overlong stop handling some last riders from Pulaski to Christiansburg had delayed the train, but Engineer Kelly had made up some time rolling fast down through Salem Level; it was a matter of pride to arrive on time. Arrival in Roanoke was at 10:55 am, only five minutes late. 

At Roanoke, with a heavy Pocahontas in the station as well, it would be last time two passenger trains would be in adjacent tracks. A storage mail car, N&W No. 1274 was added to the rear to be set off at Lynchburg. When the mail car had been added, No. 17 departed for the last time, an hour, and 10 minutes late.

It was now down to the westbound Pocahontas, No. 3 that evening, and No. 4 leaving Cincinnati prior to midnight to bring to a close N&W’s passenger service.

The second Quarter Issue of the “Arrow” will feature the last days of N&W’s Pocahontas with a recollection and many photos and some memorabilia. It is in the mail now to members. 

Ken Miller

Dorr M. Tucker Photo
Two modernized heavyweight coaches and a head end car make up the consist of No. 18 slowing to its stop at Christiansburg, Va on April 18, 1971. 

Norfolk and Western Photo, one of the many groups of school kids waiting for a ride on the Wabash Cannonball at Danville, Illinois on April 30, 1971.

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