A Brief History of the
Coutts – Sweetgrass International Train Station
This is the story of a unique building (the only one we know of) – an international train station that was run by one family operating two railways in the Northwest Territories (pre-Alberta) and Montana and how it was almost lost in the redevelopment of the new border crossing at Coutts Alberta (AB) – Sweetgrass Montana (MT).
In 1883, Sir Alexander Galt and his son Elliott co-founded the Town of Lethbridge, AB when he established a mine on the banks of the Oldman River in the southwest portion of the district of Alberta, Northwest Territories. Galt is a well-known figure in the Lethbridge area where a public park (Galt Gardens) and a museum (Galt Museum and Archives) are named after him. Canada’s then Governor General, the Marquis of Lansdowne, demonstrated the Government’s support of the Galt enterprises by opening the Galt’s railway in September 1885.
It was a cool day in late October in Martinsburg, West Virginia. The buildings I had come to see were bathed in the warm light of a late autumn afternoon and all was silent and still behind the vacant windows. It wasn’t always so. Read more
Alas, another trackside industry that relied upon dependable railway service has finally met the scrapper’s torch. The Verso Paper mill in Bucksport, Maine, closed down December 1, 2014. At first, I thought this was another example of creative destruction. However, I am not sure anymore. At present the physical destruction has begun. Unfortunately no creative concept for future development of the property has been revealed. According to local press releases the digital shift, consolidation and off-shore competition were the primary catalysts for closure.
The eighty-six year old paper mill operated under the aegis of four different owners: the Seaboard Paper Company, St. Regis Paper Company, Champion International Paper and Verso Paper Corporation. During this period the mill, valued at $385 million in 2014, was served by a single nineteen mile long railroad branch line that had undergone three consecutive masthead changes: the Maine Central Railroad Company, the Guilford Rail System and Pan Am Railways.
Constructed at a cost of $10 million, the mill opened its doors in November 1930. It employed as many as 1,000 workers in a town of 5,000 inhabitants in the year 2002. When the mill closed, 570 employees lost their jobs and all of the slow moving strings of boxcars and tank cars were doomed to oblivion. The net result was the loss of 24/7 rail activity punctuated by the sound of railcars rocking and rolling over unruly track behind growling diesel switch engines that shunted their daily burdens parallel to Rt 15. Together the railroad and mill provided the perfect place for train watchers and railroad photographers alike.
When the mill was in full operation one could either walk or drive behind the quaint storefronts that cradle the main street of tiny Bucksport. There, one could find three storage tracks crammed with lines of 50 foot boxcars arrayed before a dramatic backdrop that embraced the Penobscot River, historic Fort Knox, the Penobscot Narrows Bridge and the rambling mill complex. Today, as a lamenting trackside photographer, I have to ask myself the question,”Where have all the boxcars gone?”
Firmly ensconced in the suburban sprawl of Concord, NC, lay a railroad past bypassed with explosive growth in the Charlotte metropolitan region. As time has marched onward, the expansion of Concord has cloaked a past not unlike numerous cities and towns throughout the North Carolina Piedmont. Whereas the dependence on the railroad, whether it be for passenger travel or the corridor for a bygone textile industry, is gone, the stamp of the past remains conspicuous along this former Southern Railway main line. Modern day annals, however, tend to overlook Concord as compared to other locations along the route such as Salisbury, Spencer, and Kannapolis. Archival photographs of the railroad in Concord are few in number which has continued to trend as there are few contemporary photos taken here as compared to other locations.
The railroad origins of Concord date to the antebellum period a decade before the onset of the Civil War. In 1848, the North Carolina Legislature passed a bill for the construction of a railroad connecting the coastal region of the state with the interior Piedmont. The following year, the North Carolina Railroad (NCRR) was chartered with the intent of constructing a 223 mile corridor between Goldsboro and Charlotte. On July 11, 1852, a groundbreaking ceremony was held in Greensboro and construction of the railroad began. Four years later, towns along the route, including Concord, witnessed the passage of the first train to traverse the length of the railroad in January 1856.
After the tumultuous Civil War years, the Richmond & Danville Railroad (R&D) signed an operational lease with the NCRR in 1871. This lease remained in effect until the R&D was acquired by the Southern Railway in 1894. Maps of Concord during this era are in existence and indicate the exact location of the first depot. However, there appears to be no photographs or artist renditions in the public domain to reveal the early appearance of this structure.
During the early 1890s, the Concord Railroad Company constructed a line from the depot area into the downtown district to serve the local businesses. Due to the topographical layout of Concord, the town is located on the heights above the railroad and the public sought improved efficiency for transport. Rather than walk or traverse these grades by horse and wagon, an inner city line was constructed to alleviate these concerns. Designed as a “steam” line and dubbed the “Dummy Line”, this street track diverged from the Richmond and Danville main line and ran on Corban Avenue until reaching the business district at Union Street. Here, it turned west and split numerous times with spurs to serve the local proprietors. Within a few years, it was extended further north on Union Street and to the Gibson Mills plant at present day McGill Avenue. In spite of these efforts, the “Dummy Line” was plagued with problems, most notably pertaining to reliability issues. Concord was among the first urban areas in the United States to utilize battery powered street cars and their usage on this route was generally unsuccessful. The battery life was short and passengers frequently assisted by pushing these cars. By the end of the century, the “Dummy Line” was history and Concord constructed a true streetcar system which partially utilized this former route.
By 1892, a Sanborn Fire Insurance map indicates that a small wooden passenger station existed on the west side of the now Southern Railway main line opposite the freight depot and cotton platform on the east side. A separate smaller structure was located adjacent to it. Perhaps this was also the location for the original station as well—structurally repaired as needed but oddly located opposite the town district side of the railroad. It was also during this era that the Cabarrus Cotton Mills was constructed opposite the station on the same side of the tracks as the freight depot.
At the turn of the century, a new passenger station was constructed on the east side of the railroad by the Corban Avenue grade crossing south of the freight depot. This structure was also of wood construction and included a separate baggage office. The life span of this station was through the first decade of the 1900s until 1913. It was that year that a new passenger station would be constructed serving Concord until the 1970s.
Construction began on the larger station several hundred feet south of the existing depot. The location, in effect, sandwiched the new site between the Southern Railway main line and the Cabarrus Cotton Mills. This new station, built with brick and trimmed in wood, was resplendent in the Victorian influence of the era. Solid and attractively designed, it became the railroad centerpiece for Concord during the halcyon years before the end of passenger service. The World War II years in Concord, as in countless other stations throughout the nation, proved a bright but brief zenith of the passenger train in full glory. As an example, in 1941, fourteen trains still called at Concord. Name trains such as the Piedmont Limited #33 and #34, the Peach Queen #29 and #30, and regionals such as #11 and #12, the Danville, VA – Greenville, SC, all stopped at Concord.
In the postwar years, as passengers left the rails in mass exodus, trains were either combined or abolished. Examples affecting the patronage at Concord included combining service from two trains into Southern’s flagship Crescent Limited. The southbound Aiken-Augusta Special was absorbed into the Crescent in 1956 and the northbound Peach Queen several years later in 1964. Further cutbacks would ensue as the passenger base eroded and services were discontinued. In 1971, what remained of the national passenger network was forged into Amtrak but the Southern Railway remained a stalwart by continuing to provide its own service that would continue through the 1970s.
In March of 1974, northbound manifest train 158 was passing through Concord when a defective wheel on a freight car picked a switch causing a derailment. This resulted in a pile up at the station area and the building sustained damage to its south and west sides. The damage was repaired but by this date, the venerable old structure was nearing the end of its useful life. In 1976, came the coup de grace. Trains #1, the southbound Southern Crescent, and #5 and #6, the Piedmont, remained on the timetable but by the end of the year, the Piedmont was abolished. With the discontinuance of the Piedmont, Concord was eliminated as a passenger stop. The Southern Crescent existed for another three years until the Southern Railway turned over its passenger operations to Amtrak.
On March 28, 1978, an epoch ended. The noble Concord passenger station, standing in silent vigil to a bygone era, met its end. Demolition began on this date and as the bricks crumbled, the visible connection to passenger rail at Concord belonged to history. It is, in a sense ironic, as a regional passenger rail renaissance occurred the following decade. In 1984, a joint effort by the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT)and AMTRAK resurrected the Piedmont train although it lasted but a year due to agreement conflicts. After a five year hiatus, service was resumed in 1990 and subsequently expanded in the 21st century. Today, eight passenger trains—the Crescent Limited and six Piedmonts— pass through Concord by the empty lot where its station once stood. With no structure to serve as a stop, Concord is now but a milepost location along the main line, nestled between the stops at Kannapolis and Charlotte. Whether a new station is constructed to restore Concord as a terminal may be a topic of future city discussion.”
Dan Robie – Photographs and text Copyright 2016
See more of Dan’s work at his website WVNC Rails.
At its beginning, the city of Nitro was not considered a railroad town. Prior to the 1880s, Nitro was just another tract of land along the east side of the Kanawha River. However, the construction of the railroad through this undeveloped area played a significant role in its development a year before the end of World War I.
The history of the railroad through Nitro began with the construction of the Atlantic & Northwestern Railroad Company(A&NW) which was originally chartered as the Guyandotte & Ohio River and Mineral Company on February 28, 1872. The name was changed to A&NW on April 1, 1881 and it was during this year that right of way was acquired to build the railroad. The following year, the A&NW was acquired by what was then the Ohio Central Railroad which had a line into Ohio northwest of Point Pleasant, WV. The Ohio Central went into receivership on October 31, 1883 and the portion of the Ohio Central in West Virginia became the Kanawha & Ohio Railway. The Kanawha & Ohio went into receivership on February 19, 1889 after which emerged the Kanawha & Michigan Railway.
The Kanawha & Michigan(K&M) was incorporated on April 25, 1890. On July 1 of the same year the K&M purchased the Charleston & Gauley Railway from Charleston to Dickinson. The K&M extended the line to Gauley Bridge where it connected with the C&O and began operations on August 21, 1893. Thus the K&M had a route from Corning, OH, (approximately 52 miles southeast of Columbus) to Gauley Bridge, a distance of 163 miles.
During its first 10 years of existence, the Kanawha & Michigan was controlled by the Toledo & Ohio Central Railway(T&OC), however, the K&M remained independently operated. Around 1900 the K&M came under control of the Hocking Valley Railway. It was during this period that the K&M was upgraded to handle the requirements of transportation for that period. Then in March, 1910 the Chesapeake & Ohio obtained half ownership of the K&M from the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern, which was affiliated with the New York Central Railroad. By June of 1914, the C&O sold its 50% interest in the K&M to the T&OC because of anti-trust actions brought by several railroads including the New York Central. The K&M remained an independently operated company through the first World War.
The United States’ involvement in WWI created a great and sudden demand for gunpowder. The government needed a location to build a plant and Nitro was selected tops among two other locations which were Nashville, TN and Louisville, KY in that order. Production at the Nitro and Nashville plants exceeded demands such that the proposed plant at Louisville was not needed. It is interesting to note that among the criteria called for in the Deficiency Appropriations Act” (passed by the US Congress on October 6, 1917) for the location of a plant was access to rail and water transportation, the availability of raw materials and the lay of the land. Nitro met those qualifications with the Kanawha & Michigan railroad, the Kanawha River and the 1,772 acres of land available for the plant and housing for the workers.
Ground was broken on December 23rd, 1917 at the site of the present Nitro City Park for the construction of the first of twenty-seven 200 person barracks. Construction of Explosives Plant “C” as it was known was also about to begin. During the 11 months that construction was ongoing, it was estimated that as many as 110,000 or more workers were on the payroll but there were never more than 19,000 on any given day. Turnover rate however was extremely high. The average worker stayed on the job for 40 days.
The Kanawha and Michigan was in place at the right time and certainly played a big roll in getting supplies and workers into this “boom” town. The government compiled a comprehensive report of railroad car loadings. A total of 37,236 cars were received at Nitro which worked out to an average of 104 cars per day. This included 4,339 carloads or 110,152,000 board feet of lumber unloaded. It was recorded that 141 carloads, or 31,000 kegs of nails were purchased, along with 4,634 picks and 15,879 shovels. In addition, 2,023 wheelbarrows and 2,225 carloads of common bricks were shipped to Nitro for use in constructing smoke stacks and buildings.
There was no laundry plant in Nitro so the laundry had to be shipped out by rail to places that had laundries like Charleston, Huntington and even Parkersburg. Also there were no bakeries, so bread was shipped by rail from facilities in Huntington and Charleston. They did a tremendous business shipping as much as 14,000 loaves of white bread and 3,000 loaves of Italian bread daily.
Because of the large amount of food and materials required, larger distribution centers were tapped. Meat, poultry and general supplies came from St. Louis, Chicago and New York; butter, eggs and cheese from Cincinnati; fish and oysters from Norfolk. Fruits and vegetables were shipped in from the south and west. In all a total of 1,132 carloads of the items listed above were received in Nitro in 1918.
The Kanawha & Michigan operated four through passenger trains between Columbus, OH and Charleston. It is interesting to note that all trains were designated with odd numbers. The usual convention was for eastbound and northbound trains to carry even numbers and westbound and southbound trains odd numbers. There was a depot in the southern part of Nitro named Lock Seven. The Nitro depot was located in the northern part of town and was moved in 1925 to the foot of 21st Street where it stood until it was demolished in 1967. A new building across the yard replaced the old depot and is still in use.
The end of World War I in November, 1918 brought on great celebration but also brought a sudden halt to the production of gunpowder. At that time, Explosive Plant “C” was producing 350 tons a day and 90% of the town was completed. Within two weeks after the end of the war nearly 12,000 people had moved away. The plant was gradually shut down and eventually it and the housing was surplussed and then sold to a group of investors approximately a year later for $8,551,000. People who elected to stay were allowed to buy houses and Nitro was on the way to becoming a self-sustaining community. The city of Nitro was incorporated in 1932.
The Kanawha and Michigan did its job to keep supplies and people moving in and out of Nitro through the 11 months of the war. However things were beginning to change for the railroad. On January 1st, 1922, the Toledo and Ohio Central began leasing the K&M, and on that very same day the T&OC was leased to the New York Central Railroad. Thus the mighty NYC began making its mark in the Kanawha Valley. On June 30th, 1938, the K&M was merged into the T&OC and on June 30, 1952 the T&OC was merged into the NYC thus giving it full ownership.
By 1921 Nitro had become an attractive location for a number of chemical companies and other types of businesses. One of the first to locate there was The Viscose Company, later American Viscose. It originally manufactured cotton linters, an ingredient used in gun powder but later turned to manufacturing rayon fibers. Afterwards other plants began operations including Monsanto, Ohio Apex, General Chemical, the Nitro Pencil Company to name a few. The plants provided much business for the railroad from this time into the 1980s when many of the plants were gradually closing down.
The New York Central served Nitro and the Kanawha Valley for a little over 46 years, but on February 1st, 1968 a new era began when the NYC merged with its rival the Pennsylvania Railroad to form Penn Central Transportation Company. Two years later Penn Central declared bankruptcy, setting the stage for the formation of Conrail on April 1st, 1976, from PC and six other bankrupt railroads in the northeast. The old NYC line through Nitro became part of the West Virginia Secondary of Conrail. Business was fair with merchandise trains, through coal trains from mines in Kanawha and Nicholas counties, and chemicals from other plants in the Kanawha Valley. There was enough business in Nitro to keep the yard operating but not up to the volume of cars that were handled between the 1920s and the late 1970s.
Conrail was government owned at its startup but by 1987 it was returned to the private sector. Ten years later Conrail was jointly acquired by the two other eastern carriers, CSX Transportation and Norfolk Southern Railway. On June 1st, 1999, NS began operating the West Virginia Secondary.
Between 2011 and 2015 Norfolk Southern claimed business on the Secondary had declined 57 percent. Part of the decline was attributed to a decrease in the shipment of coal as power generating stations switched from coal to natural gas. Also chemical traffic and other types of traffic declined as well. Because of this, Norfolk Southern decided in February, 2016 to discontinue the two daily (one each way) trains between Dickinson Yard, near Charleston, and Columbus, Ohio. Freight for Nitro and other points in the Kanawha Valley was rerouted on other NS lines to Deepwater on the former Virginian Railway. No trains operated north of Nitro except occasional one or two car movements to Point Pleasant for interchange to CSXT.
On May 20th, 2016 WATCO Companies, a holding company that owns 35 short line railroads in the United States agreed to lease the West Virginia Secondary (except the first seven miles out of Columbus, OH) from Norfolk Southern. In their press release, The Kanawha River Railroad, LLC, a subsidiary of WATCO, said they plan to return daily through freight service between Columbus and Dickinson Yard through Nitro. Kanawha River Railroad will also lease 53 miles of the former Virginian Railway between Deepwater and Maben. The lease will take effect sometime in July, 2016. This is certainly good news for Nitro and the Kanawha Valley.
While this article is geared toward the railroad’s service to Nitro, resources are available that detail the history of Nitro. One is Nitro-The World War 1 Boom Town by William D. Wintz. Another source that was very helpful in writing this article is The Kanawha & Michigan Railroad – Bridgeline to the Lakes 1888-1922 by Donald L. Mills, Jr. The City of Nitro website cityofnitro.org has more detailed information as well.
During a visit to Mississippi in the spring of 2013, I visited the small, out of the way, town of Bude which is about halfway between Brookhaven, MS and Natchez, MS. Bude was once a bustling railroad town built around a large sawmill. Today there is not much left but a sleepy main street and the old train depot.
The Natchez Railway, which provides service between Natchez and Brookhaven, passes through Bude and interchanges with the Canadian National in Brookhaven.
History of Bude
Founded in February, 1912 the Homochitto Lumber Company bought up vast tracts of timber in Franklin, Amite and Adams counties and selected a mill site in Franklin county. The town of Bude grew up around the new mill, which employed 800 people when it opened in 1913. The town continued to grow, attracting many businesses and stores including a Ford dealership, a theater, and a bowling alley. In 1936, the timber was cut out, the sawmill closed and Bude began its long decline.
The historic photos below are used with the kind permission of Mississippi Rails, a website devoted to the history of railroads in Mississippi. Many additional period photographs and a detailed history of Bude and the sawmill are available on their Homochitto Lumber Company page.
After the Homochitto Lumber Company closed down in 1936, the town of Bude was deprived of its primary source of employment and prosperity. It was not unusual for towns to spring up and then disappear as vast tracts of cypress and southern yellow pine in the Southern Timber Belt were logged.
Bude fared better than many former sawmill towns. Today there are still a few stores along Bude’s main street and the town is neat and well maintained. American Railcar Industries operates a repair facility in Bude.
Although the Homochitto Lumber Company brought Bude into existence in 1913, the railroad was a necessary ingredient in the town’s success and the railroad plays a key role in sustaining the town into the 21st century. Photographs from the early years of the 20th century are a stark contrast to a modern view of the town, but the railroad still runs through Bude, and the depot still stands as a reminder of better days.