Pokey operations

NW Mailing List nw-mailing-list at nwhs.org
Tue Apr 19 14:48:56 EDT 2022

Gordon and Jim,


On 4/22/21 Alex Schust posted the following on the N&W mailing list:


“Switchback originally was a track designation which appeared on the N&W's New River Division and Branches West of Bluefield Map dated Feb 13, 1888. It showed a track leaving the main line and going back eats to serve the Shamokin Coal & Coke Company at  Maybeury and continuing east to the Elkhorn Coal & Coke Company at what was known as Barlow Hollow. A branch line went north from the Shamokin C&C Co. up Little Fork to the Norfolk Coal & Coke Company. There was no designation for the point where the switchback began. At the time the coal plants were still under construction and the Elkhorn Extension did not ship its first coal until August 1888.


The 1888 N&W Annual Report listed four stations on the Elkhorn Extension. These were East End Trestle No. 3 (Maybeury), Switch Back, Turkey Gap and Elkhorn.


The original track named Switchback was eventually called Elkhorn Branch. Elkhorn Branch traveled about 0.79 miles from its junction with the main line to a switch that sent the left Fork of Elkhorn Branch to the Norfolk Coal & Coke Company and the Right Fork of Elkhorn Branch to the Shamokin C&C co. and the Elkhorn C&C Co.


The Norfolk Coal & Coke Company started operated a central power plant at Switchback in 1903. It supplied electric power to the Norfolk, Angle, Delta and Lick Branch operations, which were all located within about two miles of the power plant. Coal for the power plant was supplied by the Delta Mine via a tram road from the mine.


On May 20, 1904, The Norfolk Coal & Coke Company properties were merged with the Jenkin Jones properties (Caswell Creek, Shamokin and Rolfe operations) and the Sagamore Colliery as the Pocahontas Consolidated Company. This merger formed the basis of the Pocahontas Fuel Company.


It appears that a new power plant was built at Switchback in 1910. The Bluefield Daily Telegraph of March 10, 1910 noted that the Pocahontas Consolidated Collieries Company would have one of the finest power plants in to coalfield when the company was through with its Switchback plant constructed of brick. The new equipment and connections cost over $300,000 and would be capable of generating 10,000 kW of power. The new plant would provide electricity to all of their mines whereas the existing power plant only supplied the Norfolk, Angle, Delta, Lick Branch and Sagamore mines.


By March 1911 the Pocahontas Consolidated Colliers Co. was negotiating with the New River Power Company to take over the Switchback plant. A series of agreements was reached in May and June of 1911 where Pocahontas Consolidated agreed to purchase 10,000,000 kW annually from New River and New River would take over the Switchback power plant, which was valued at $1,000,000 at the time.


The power plant operated until about 1914. In 1927 parts of the power plant were removed and the facility was rebuilt as a distribution center. The 1927 photos do not show a sidetrack for the power plant. A sidetrack was probably built during the reconstruction for the Elkhorn tunnel and new Maybeury bridge. 


When the new Elkhorn tunnel was put into operation the junction for the Elkhorn Branch was moved from the east bound main to the west bound main.”


Following that 4/22/21 post the online discussion continued until about 4/26/21 and Larry Evans drove to Switchback to take pictures of the former track location. Grant Carpenter and I continued the discussion into May 2021 and following a lead from Grant I went to the Eastern Regional Coal Archives in Bluefield and found a drawing on the Elkhorn Tunnel realignment including the proposed reconstructed branch line to the Norfolk-Angle mine. I also went to the McDowell County Courthouse and found some info on the Switchback substation.


I eventually found a photo indicating a spur track was in place at the power plant by 1912. It may have been put in for the 1907 upgrade, but it was there by 1912.


In 1917 The N&W built a transfer station at Switchback to connect N&W electrification to Appalachian power system. 


Appears the only coal supply to the Switchback power plant was the Delta Mine.


It appears that after WW ll the term Angle Branch came into common usage for the Elkhorn Branch because the Norfolk-Angle Mine was the only producing mine on the branch.


Angle Mine closed in 1955, but the tipple operated into 1958, bu actual production went steadily downhill after 195 when employment dropped from 175 in 1954 to 36 in 1955, 18 in 1956, 10 in 1957 and 4 in 1958. The statistics are suspect because the production figures are inconsistent with the employment figures. It is possible the tipple was used to dump coal from truck mines 


1954 – 248,000 tons – 175 employees

1955 – 267,800 tons – 36 employees

1956 – 221,700 tons – 18 employees

1957 – 177, 400 tons – 10 employees

1958 – 149, 478 tons – 4 employees


Regardless it closed in 1958 after working 154 days.


The Shamokin Mine was closed and the coal was taken out through the Lick Fork Branch, so the only mines operating on the Elkhorn Branch were Mill Creek and Norfolk Angle.


If I ever find all of my notes on Switchback I intend to write an article for the Arrow when I finish my current project.


Alex Schust







From: NW-Mailing-List [mailto:nw-mailing-list-bounces at nwhs.org] On Behalf Of NW Mailing List
Sent: Tuesday, April 19, 2022 10:08 AM
To: NW Mailing List
Subject: Re: Pokey operations



Thanks for your comments.  Your mention of Alex's book reminds me that the Switchback power station is shown in his book on p. 152, and still begs the question in my mind as to how the material and machinery for that facility was delivered so far above the railroad.


On 4/19/2022 7:56 AM, NW Mailing List wrote:


Can't speak to all facets of your question, but as to the name, there was a turn out on the main (maybe more than one as I am looking for documentation of a passing siding that may have existed) West of the water tank with a spur that led down to the "bottom" where is "switched back" to service mines along what is now at least route 52, can't remember the name of the mines at the moment (covered well in Alex's book).  The down spur also continued forward to go under the bridge to become the Angle branch also followed the creek to the Wye near Elkhorn Colliery.  Shamokin was also serviced down in the "bottom".

Jim Cochran


On Tue, Apr 19, 2022 at 7:37 AM NW Mailing List <nw-mailing-list at nwhs.org> wrote:


I can't answer your questions, but I can interject one of my own.  The 
origin of the name Switchback has intrigued me.  The photos of the 
rather massive power plant on the hill above the mainline has made me 
wonder if there could have been a switchback track spur up to the power 
plant to deliver the massive machinery and building materials needed for 
construction of the power plant in an era when the railroad would have 
been the principal carrier of such items.  Also, how about coal 
deliveries by rail after the power plant was placed in operation, or did 
the plant's location give it direct access to a coal seam at that elevation?

Gordon Hamilton

On 4/18/2022 9:35 AM, NW Mailing List wrote:
> Does anybody have any insight into operations at Switchback prior to 
> the late '40s realignment?  Coal loads would have to be rounded up 
> from the Angle branch, Shamokin and Elkhorn and then brought up to the 
> main West of the power house.  But how was the traffic controlled?  I 
> haven't seen any photos showing signals to stop either mainline or 
> mine movements.  How did they insure the main was clear when they came 
> up?  Also, if they "pulled" up from the bottom, the movement would be 
> pointed West.  Where did they go for assembly?  Did everything go West 
> to Byrd at North Fork or even on to Ecklmann?  Any and all thoughts 
> will be appreciated.  Not to name names, but I'm hoping Mr. Grant 
> might chime in on this one and perhaps Professor Schust.
> Thanks,
> Jim Cochran
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