The End of The Line

This story was originally published in the March 2023 issue of Wonderful West Virginia.

Written by Nikki Bowman Mills
Photography courtesy of Sharon Acree Holcomb

The Buffalo Creek and Gauley Railroad holds a special place in my heart. As you probably know by now, I grew up in Clay County, as did my parents, my grandparents, and my great-grandparents. My mother, Sharon Acree Holcomb, grew up in the tiny train community of Dundon, where the Buffalo Creek and Gauley Railroad (BC&G) brought coal and timber from Widen and Swandale to the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. My grandfather Ralph Acree, who was a master mechanic, worked on BC&G No. 4—the last operating freight and passenger steam locomotive in the state. On page 14 of Wonderful West Virginia magazine, we share with you the exciting news about its return to West Virginia and how Cass is keeping our train heritage alive. I’m sure my grandpa is grinning ear to ear and doing a happy jig in Heaven. When No. 4 was operational, he kept it running, often by building parts himself when it was in need of repairs. Mom remembers that there was a huge garage, other than the machinist shop, where trains pulled in. This building had a huge pit in the ground that my grandpa got in so that he could work under the engine. He painted the front of No. 4 silver, even making the stencil for the “4” himself.

Courtesy of John Krause

I grew up hearing stories about Dundon and the trains: How my mom and her siblings would hop on the motorcar and ride it to Widen to watch my grandmother play basketball in a women’s league. How she couldn’t go to sleep at night until the train came in. How it was a treat to be allowed to ride one. She recalls, “Job Young was the conductor of No. 4, and sometimes he’d slow down and pick us kids up and let us ride in the engine with him. As kids, we were always excited when that happened.” She remembers how people came from all over the world to Dundon to record and take pictures of the trains—and how strange and funny she thought that was. “We thought it was the silliest thing back then,” she says. “Why in the world would people come and record the trains?” But today, one of her prized possessions is a record with a recording of the train. Funny how time turns memories into your most treasured memorabilia.

My mom loved growing up in Dundon. She recalls as a child being told not to dig holes in the ground because J.G. Bradley, the owner of the railroad and Elk River Coal and Lumber Company, would hit you on the head with his cane. He was a fastidious man and liked things neat and clean. She says all the houses were painted red because he was colorblind. She remembers a few scandals, too, like the time someone stole one of the heavy bells off one of the engines—and the one time someone switched the tracks, but my grandpa found out in time and was able to get the track switched back. She says if he hadn’t, the train would have wrecked.

Grandpa Acree loved BC&G No. 4. The day it made its last voyage in 1965 was a sad day. Once the train was sold, my grandfather was without a job, so he picked up his family and, like so many other West Virginians, moved to Ohio, where he worked for Goodyear in Akron. When No. 4 was sold, he traveled with her to her new home to make sure she was operational.

Now, BC&G’s No. 4 is back home, and she needs our help. To complete her restoration, a new boiler must be fabricated—to the tune of $675,000. While I did not inherit my grandfather’s mechanical know-how, I can honor his legacy by helping repair the boiler—and you can, too—by making a donation to Let’s put her restoration on a fast track and bring back this beloved historic engine!

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