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Slumbering Giants: the End of Rail

Back when North Carolina was called the Rip Van Winkle state, asleep while industry raged on all sides, local industrialists shared a vision of prosperity that only rail builders could usher in. It was the late 1800s, just four decades after the cease of Civil War hostilities, and North Carolina was suffering. But before the century would end, a network of steel rail would connect North Carolina's textile mills and tobacco farms to the markets of Virginia and harbors on the Atlantic. And there they would stay for about a century before consolidation, truck traffic, and changing interstate markets would make some of them superfluous.

Rail lines are tough to make disappear, though. So if you know where to look, you can still find their bones slumbering under forests. And Lord they are beautiful.

Built in the 19th century

This rail bridge hasn't seen any traffic for forty years by my count, though it was an important part of the Lynchburg-Durham Railroad at the time. Later it got consolidated into the Norfolk Western, linking goods through Virginia to points north and west. Now, though sections of steel rail still remain in place, you've got to peer through thickets of young Sweetgum and brambles to find them.

The forest always wins

And then only when you've traced that ribbon of steel to the river bank, do you find this old, forgotten beauty. Looks like it was (re-)constructed in 1903, when we still built things to last. Now it simply casts a lonely shadow over the river, and even the creosote ties have given way to a forest growing high over the water.

Trusses are still in fine shape

We tried tracking down other sections of the old, decommissioned Norfolk Western, and parts of it are still in place. But parts of it were lifted and carried away for scrap. Here's where the steel ends:

Here's where the rail ends

Beyond that, only the railroad grade remains, and even that gets hard to follow. For example, could you imagine that this was the former path of locomotives? You can only see it by following the twin line of pines that once graced its edges. We poked around to find not even the ties remain: they were all carted away.

Once, locomotives rolled through here

This picture shows where the old rail line disappeared under the waves of Jordan Lake. The rail grade is slowly being eaten away, but it's not hard to imagine tracks running down the valley that would eventually become a lake in the 1970s.

Where rail now meets water, only the grade remains

And there, we found a half dozen old railway ties discarded at lake bottom. There's a good chance those steel nuggets are 150 years old if the tracks were laid in the latter 19th century and remained in place until the tracks were lifted in the 1950s. For a second, I thought about bringing one home for a souvenir, but opted to let the lake have them.

Railway spike probably forged in the 1800s

Do you get that restless feeling when you hear a whistle blast, Like an echo from the past, Of an old engine flying down a road that's ironcast

— Gordon Lightfoot, "Restless"

Sleep well, strong friend


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