Secrets of the Blue Ridge: Watching the C&O Trains (2024)

George H. Latham (1895–1964) was born into a family of railroaders, both his grandfather and father having been employed in various railroad positions. He reminisced for L&N Magazine (Louisville and Nashville Railroad) in 1940: “[Beginning in 1896, when Father retired, we lived] alternately in Richmond, VA, and Louisville, KY, and spent the summers at Crozet, VA.

“In this little village among the Blue Ridge Mountains, I used to spend hours, as a child of five, watching the C&O trains. Well I remember the canary-yellow passenger trains flying by as we children stood on the whitewashed fence [fronting the Liberty Hall Hotel, just east of the depot] and waved at them. Some of my earliest memories are of riding those trains when we re­turned to the city in autumn. I have always had an especial affection for the C&O because of those early associations. Sometimes when I see an old C&O locomotive doing switching duty or rusting away her old age in some railroad yard, I wonder whether she was one of those I used to watch going by at Crozet.”

Crozet native Ruth Lee Wayland Nelson (1892–1983) was a granddaughter of Abram Wayland, one of the principal founders of the village. “At first there was only the freight station,” she wrote in 1950. “Then a funny little one-room affair was built. It was painted yellow and heated with a large old pot-bellied stove. There was a wooden platform running the length of the depot which was not too secure but it served to keep one from stepping in the mud.

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“Some of us can recall the days when Crozet was quite a summer resort. The [James M.] Ellison house [Liberty Hall Hotel] and the Wayland house had the largest number of boarders. During the week the chief amusem*nt was meeting the trains, going for the mail, and playing croquet.

“Mr. Ellison was quite a conspicuous character in our village. During the boarding house days, he was never known to miss meeting the trains. He might be remembered as the village host, for he greeted everyone who came to the community, and he knew all the news and gossip for miles around.”

A daily event in railroad towns was the arrival of trains that included a Railway Post Office car. Through the years, different individuals hung the outgoing mail bag at the train depot and picked up the incoming mail pitched from the RPO car. Some of those mail handlers included Jerry Ralston, D.W. Sandridge Jr., Lewis Sandridge, Frank Tate and Sidney Wood.

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“Mail came in and went out by train two times a day, morning and afternoon,” said Leonard Sandridge Jr. “I saw the process often during the 1950s because the stand that held the outgoing mail bag was located[across the highway] in front of the Sandridge Service Station where I worked from an early age through high school.

“Heavy canvas bags were used for both incoming and outgoing mail. Outgoing bags were drawn at the middle to facilitate the ‘hooking’ procedure.Occasionally (but not often) the clerk on the mail car would not time the extension of the hook perfectly and would knock the mail bag off the hook and fail to pull it into the mail car. In those cases, it went in the next bag on the next train.

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“When the incoming bag was thrown from the fast-moving train, it almost always stopped rolling and bouncing at a predictable location where the person picking it up to take it to the post office was waiting. But on occasion, the bag would bounce and roll in an unexpected way that took it down the railroad tracks well beyond where they were intending. On such occasions, I would sometimes run down the tracks, retrieve the bag, and return it to the person who would take it to the post office.”

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This country’s seventh presidential funeral train in history, bearing the coffin of President Dwight D. Eisenhower from Washington D.C., passed through Albemarle County during the cold, late evening hours of March 31, 1969. Thousands gathered to view that somber procession at Charlottesville, where the train paused briefly before continuing west to its final destination at the President’s ancestral home of Abilene, Kansas.

Similarly, scores of others in western Albemarle lined the C&O tracks to pay their final respects. Anne Via Chick (1945–2017) was among that number. She wrote, “I lived by the railroad tracks on Railroad Avenue in Crozet when President Eisenhower’s funeral train came through. It was all draped in black and the people went as near to the tracks as they could and either took off of their hats or placed their hand over their heart.”

Many of Chesapeake and Ohio Railway’s section hands, the track maintenance crews, were local men. Mrs. Frances Walker Hill (1919–2011) recalled those rail workers whom she could see from the Walker family’s trackside home just behind Thomas Herbert’s cold storage in downtown Crozet. “Use to have a little shed sitting up there beside the track where they had this little ‘trotter’ car,” she said. “Had a motor on it. The men that worked the tracks got on that thing every morning going to Greenwood, working up at the tunnel, and they would go to Ivy, fix the track down there on that little ol’ thing. They would spend their day out on this piece of track.

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“[This section crew of ten or so men included] Garfield Stewart and Lewis Brown, and Lewis’s brother Wilmer Brown, my brother-in-law, who we called Pap. I don’t know where he got that name Pap from. Willie Washington, Lester’s father, was on that crew. [Lester Washington and his wife Thelma were owner/operators of Crozet Shoe Repair.]

“You could sit here and look out and wave at the men. They would come back in the afternoon ‘bout quarter-’til-four, because they would get off at four o’clock. I’ve sat here many a time and heard that thing go ‘clopty-clopty-clopty-clopty-clopty-clop’, coming down the track there—here comes Pap now!”

Follow Secrets of the Blue Ridge on Facebook! Phil James invites contact from those who would share recollections and old photographs of life along the Blue Ridge Mountains of Albemarle County. You may respond to him at [emailprotected]. Secrets of the Blue Ridge © 2003–2024 Phil James

Secrets of the Blue Ridge: Watching the C&O Trains (2024)
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