The Prototype


Growing up in the Kanawha Valley….

Just a short introduction here. The following has been contributed by a friend of mine F Douglas (Doug Bess) Jr., who grew up in the Kanawha valley. Doug has an extensive knowledge of the area, is a retired railroader with NS, and has an excellent website which I hope you’ll check out at:

On February 2, 1948 I was born in Huntington, WV at St Mary’s Hospital. My dad was a student at Marshall College (now University) and Mom stayed at home. We lived in my paternal grandparents home until 1950 when Dad graduated with high honors. He had an engineering degree with a minor in chemistry. So his first job landed him in the chemical industry in the Kanawha Valley town of Nitro located 40 miles east of Huntington. The company he began with was General Chemical Company which was a part of Allied Chemical located in the chemical complex in Nitro. It specialized in industrial acids. Among other industries there was Monsanto, Ohio Apex and FMC.

When we moved to Nitro in 1950 I was two years old. Mom and Dad’s first house was a rental on 9th Street. It was owned then by the Nitro Industrial Corp. Even at two years old I was already interested in railroading. Our rental home was about a block and a half from a railroad that I had not seen before. In Huntington there was the Chesapeake & Ohio and the Baltimore & Ohio railroads and in nearby Kenova was the Norfolk & Western. The railroad I’m referring to is the New York Central.

As I was growing up in Nitro, a town itself rich in history, I began to realize more about the NYC and its operation in the Kanawha Valley. The yard in Nitro stretched along 1st Ave from about 20th Street to 38th Street approximately 0.7 mile. There were also leads into the various plants and switching leads on the north end of the yard for another 0.5 mile. In addition a passing siding was installed in later years sometime in the 1960s and is still in place today for Norfolk Southern.

There were a few businesses along 1st Ave that faced the tracks and as a little boy I enjoyed anytime my parents would go the Valley Bell to eat or when my dad would take me to the barber shop to get our haircut. I would watch for any train movements or even enjoy watching cars being switched in the yard. I remember the sound as cars were being “kicked” in the yard to a coupling. It was almost like an explosion. Many of the cars switched were tank cars but I assume as I look back today that they hopefully were empty.

Of course the Kanawha Valley hosted several other railroads besides the NYC but the most notable was the Chesapeake and Ohio. It ran on the opposite side of the Kanawha from Nitro and was a mainline operation compared to the NYC which was a branch operating from central Ohio. I enjoyed watching trains from the old depot in St. Albans. Besides the many coal trains that traversed this line, there was also manifest freights and passenger trains. The only daytime scheduled passenger train through St. Albans after 1962 was westbound Train #3, the Fast Flying Virginian. That train made its last run on May 12, 1968. St. Albans was also a junction for the Coal River branch which ran into the southern West Virginia coal fields. Coal trains coming off the branch could travel eastbound or westbound which made for an interesting operation.

Going back to the other side of the Kanawha, the NYC operated a small yard in Charleston about 15 miles east of Nitro, and another 15 miles east of Charleston was Dickinson Yard. Dickinson was a gathering point for coal from mines located beyond Gauley Bridge and Swiss on the old Nicholas Fayette and Greenbrier. The NF&G was a railroad jointly owned by the C&O and NYC.

Dickinson Yard was also a servicing point where locomotives were fueled and sanded. There was also a Wye for turning locomotive that exists today. During the 1960s, Norfolk and Western had trackage rights over the New York Central between Dickinson Yard and DB Tower which was 18 miles to the east of the yard at the point of navigation of the Kanawha River. DB (Deepwater Bridge) Tower was the western end of the former Virginian. The trackage rights were inherited as a result of the merger of the Virginian Railway into the N&W on December 1, 1959. N&W time freights #71 and #72 ran trackage rights on the NYC until sometime in 1968. Apparently there wasn’t enough traffic to continue operating these trains. I was fortunate to have seen and photographed the trackage rights operation while it still existed.

I mentioned the C&O and NYC. The B&O also had a branch line into Charleston along the Elk River, a tributary of the Kanawha but I did not see any trains on that line at least during daylight hours. Two short lines worth noting, the Kelley’s Creek and Northwestern out of Cedar Grove and the Winifrede Railroad at Winifrede Jct., which is located across the river from Dickinson Yard, were built to haul coal from mines they served to barge loading on the Kanawha River. The KC&NW was built a few years before New York Central predecessor Kanawha & Michigan Railroad built their line from Charleston to Gauley Bridge. Since the K&M was last to build through Cedar Grove, K&M trains had to stop at the crossing diamond in Cedar Grove for KC&NW trains moving to the barge loading facility on the Kanawha River. The Winifrede on the other hand ran under the C&O main line so there no issue there.

As a side note, it wasn’t until I was old enough to drive and get out on my own, with my parents’ permission of course, that I began taking photographs around the valley. I did not own a camera at the time but my dad graciously let me use his Graflex 35mm camera. He took time to show me how to use it. It was a challenge to take photos then compared to today’s digital cameras. The Graflex did not have a built-in light meter so Dad had purchased a separate light meter. After taking a reading on the meter you had to set the f-stop and shutter speed on the camera manually. Partly cloudy days made it hard sometimes to get a good photo with the sun peaking in and out of the clouds especially when a train was about to approach but most of the time I had good results.

In conclusion, as I look back, the Kanawha Valley was truly a great place to railfan in the years I lived there. You did not have to go great distances to see action around the valley. With chemical plants at Nitro, Institute, South Charleston, Belle and Alloy, and the C&O with its mainline and coal branches at St. Albans, Cabin Creek and Paint Creek and the short lines, there was no end as to what you could see and photograph.

F. Douglas (Doug) Bess, Jr.

Growing up in the Kanawha Valley-Part 2

As mentioned in a previous article, the Kanawha Valley town of Nitro was a great place to live. The town almost resembled the fictional town of Mayberry on the Andy Griffith show in the respect that most everybody knew most everybody. Our next door neighbor for years organized a block party usually held around the Fourth of July. I helped my dad carry our picnic table down the street. We all cooked out on our grills. There were wonderful side dishes that my mom and other ladies prepared as well as great deserts. It was a time of fellowship with our neighbors that I will never forget. 

From a railfan standpoint, living in the Kanawha Valley enabled a railfan like myself to view mainline and branch line operations all within the confines of the valley. The Chesapeake & Ohio with its two track main paralleled the Kanawha River from west of St. Albans to Kanawha Falls which is located across the river from Gauley Bridge. Coal branches of the C&O joined the main at St. Albans, Cabin Creek and Paint Creek. Coal trains could run east to Newport News, or west and eventually north to Toledo.

The mainline operation of the C&O was quite impressive, however the branch line operation of the New York Central had a uniqueness of its own. Constructed around the mid 1880s, approximately 10 years after the C&O had built through the area on the west side of the Kanawha, NYC predecessor, Kanawha & Ohio (later Kanawha & Michigan) built on the east side of the river from Pt. Pleasant to Charleston initially. Later the line was extended to Gauley Bridge with the acquisition of the Charleston and Gauley Bridge. This is where the New and Gauley rivers converge to form the Kanawha River.

As I got to know the different railroads that existed during the years, I was impressed that a railroad with the prestige of the New York Central would have a rail line serving West Virginia. Even though it was a branch line, the NYC was fortunate to have most of the chemical plants in the valley located on its line. Besides the ones mentioned in the previous article located in Nitro, there was Union Carbide’s plant at Institute and another facility at North Charleston, DuPont plant at Belle east of Charleston, and Union Carbide Metals plant at Alloy.

After graduating from Nitro High School in 1966, I returned back to Huntington to attend Marshall University. My paternal grandparents lived in the city and I stayed with them during my years at MU. I was very close to them as I lived in their home for the first two years of my life. Also I would spend a couple of weeks with them in the summers.

During the period I was attending Marshall from 1966 to 1970, the Vietnam War was going on. Like every guy who turned 18, I had to register for the draft. The Draft Board in Charleston was after me beginning around 1968. To make a long story short, I was able to remain in school until June, 1970 when I got my notice to report to the Draft Board to be inducted into the Army. I was majoring in civil engineering but was not taking the full load of classes necessary to finish in four years even though I was a full time student.

After being drafted, I enlisted in order to try to avoid going to Vietnam. I did put in for Germany and thankfully ended up serving there from December, 1970 to March, 1972. Normally I would have been there for another 18 months beyond March, 1972 but I was able to secure an early release from active duty. The stipulation to the early release was that I had to serve the remainder of my enlistment in a local National Guard unit which I did.

After the early release, I was able to return to Marshall in the fall of 1972 and finish up my requirements for obtaining my degree in civil engineering the following year. Also by that time my enlistment in the guard was completed.

Near the end of my last year at Marshall, I began looking around for employment. There was no doubt in my mind that I desired to work for a railroad in the area. The first choice was the C&O. Unfortunately they were not hiring. I applied with the N&W but they turned down my application. Penn Central was not considered since they filed for bankruptcy two years earlier.

Then I started looking outside of the area. Southern Railway came to mind. I didn’t know much about the company then, but I have seen many adds in magazines like Trains. I filled out an application and mailed it in. Before long, a letter came in the mail offering a position with the company. Southern, at that time, was looking for civil engineering graduates to fill the role of Track Supervisor. The training program was designed to be completed in a year’s time which by then the trainee would move to a track supervisor position.

Accepting the position meant that I would be moving from my home area. It was sad but also at the same time exciting to work for a company that was finding innovative ways to run a railroad. So in September, 1973, I moved to Valdosta, GA and began my training.

I learned quite a bit about the various facets of maintaining track during my year in the program, but in the back of my mind I was desiring to use my civil engineering training. I notified my training coordinator of the desire to work in the bridge department which was located in Atlanta. He arranged for an interview with the Chief Engineer Bridges. While there I visited the office and talked to the various engineers about their work. Returning to Valdosta that day, I did not know if a position would open up in the department. I was pretty much resigned to the fact that I would become a track supervisor somewhere on the system and that was ok.

A little time had passed and then I was notified that a position had opened up in the bridge department and was asked if I was still interested. Of course I jumped right on it. So in September, 1974, I moved to the Atlanta area and began working there. The bridge department of Southern was not only responsible for bridges, but also tunnels, culvert structures, stations and roadway signs.

June 1, 1982, was an eventful day as Southern Railway and Norfolk & Western merged to form Norfolk Southern Corporation. Not all departments were consolidated at the time of the merger. Only the sales departments of both roads were combined on day one. Other departments such as the operating, mechanical, communications and signals were consolidated one at a time. Some of the mentioned departments were combined either in Norfolk, Roanoke or Atlanta. On June 1, 1986, the engineering departments of both roads were the last to be combined. Atlanta was designated to be the headquarters. It certainly was in some respects an exciting time but also a time of getting things organized and working as one department. Both roads had different systems of filing bridge plans, correspondence files, etc. These were resolved as the years went by.

One area that I got involved in was the standardization of roadway signs. I was assigned the duty of drawing up and specifying standards for NS. Many Southern signs such as the milepost sign were oval shaped with numbers positioned horizontally while the N&W used a rectangular shaped sign with a vertical orientation and numbers. For whistle post signs, Southern used a vertical sign with two black horizontal dashes followed by dot then another black dash, while the N&W used the keystone “W” which is an influence from the days the N&W was partially controlled by the Pennsylvania RR. In short the sign standards for NS are of the shapes most commonly produced by sign manufactures today.

While it was tempting to specify Southern style signs, I knew it wouldn’t fly. However I was able to preserve a piece of Southern heritage with the station (or control point) signs. Southern used white lettering on a green background and management approved that standard for NS.

June 1, 1999 was another eventful day as NS began to operate its portion of Conrail. While this was a different type of consolidation, there were many challenges similar to that of the merger of Southern and N&W. One challenge for me was converting the Conrail bridge database to the NS database. It took a lot of coordination with the IT Dept to get it done.

Norfolk Southern announced in September, 2003 that it was offering a buyout/retirement option. I struggled with the decision for many days but after praying and considering the options, I accepted the offer and I retired effective November 1, 2003. After a few months I began working for engineering firm Ralph Whitehead and Associates (later STV/RWA). By the end of 2016 I decided to retire fully.

I’m truly thankful to have been a part of the rail industry. It was a dream come true.

The above part two of growing up in the Kanawha Valley was also written by good friend F. Douglas (Doug) Bess, Jr. of his career and recollections of the railroads in the Kanawha Valley….


Union Carbide

photo courtesy

Memories of my dad working for Union Carbide….

As I mentioned in my post on Growing Up in the Kanawha Valley my dad, Doug Bess, Sr., graduated from Marshall in 1950 with honors majoring in engineering with a minor in chemistry. Marshall did not offer a degree in chemical engineering then nor does it today but essentially he was a Chemical Engineer.

Dad began working for General Chemical in 1950 and we moved to Nitro about the same time. It was a small operation as I remember. Sometimes he would take me to work but usually after office hours. I remember the company had a fence around the plant with a gate that was controlled by a push button control box inside the premises. When we were ready to leave, Dad would park the car outside the gate then go back and push the button to close the gate then make a run for it before the gate completely closed. I did it with him a few times and it was fun.

Then in October, 1952, Dad began working for Union Carbide at their Institute Plant. This was the beginning of a long career that would take him to other Carbide facilities in the valley and eventually Carbide’s headquarters in Danbury, CT where he worked a couple of years before retiring in 1986.

The Institute Plant was located about six miles from our home and was about five miles east of downtown Nitro along the east side of the Kanawha River and was served by the New York Central Railroad. The plant was built in 1943 by the government to produce synthetic rubber for the war effort. Carbide purchased the 450 acre site in 1947 and began producing chemicals and plastics for the consumer products industry such as Prestone Antifreeze, EverReady Batteries, Glad Bags and other products. The fact that potentially dangerous chemicals were being produced prevented entry into the plant except by employees. That was disappointing to me at the time but later I understood why. One time the company did conduct an open house for employees’ families and I think that helped to make us feel a part of Carbide.

Plants located up and down the Kanawha River for many years allowed waste from chemical and other processes to go directly into the river without being treated. Carbide was no different. Cities and towns throughout the valley I’m sure had concerns about the quality of their water supply especially if the water company’s intakes were located downstream from one of the plants. Carbide began plans to construct a waste treatment facility that would be located just west of the main plant and my dad was tapped to manage the construction and operation of the facility. Since it was outside the main plant, I was able to go with Dad to the facility and enjoy seeing any trains that would go by on the NYC line that was adjacent.

Some years after the plant was well underway, Dad was transferred to Carbide’s Research and Technical Center in South Charleston which was known simply as the Tech Center. By this time he became involved more with Federal and State regulations concerning air and water pollution and how it affected Carbide’s efforts to conform to the standards. Sometime later his office was relocated to Carbide’s office building along McCorkle Ave in South Charleston which was located across the street from the South Charleston Plant. The office building was known as Building 82 and was nine stories high. Besides offices it also housed a small department store for employees and families. As a side note the South Charleston Plant was served by the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway.

In conclusion my dad had a very successful career with Union Carbide and I am proud of his service. Carbide at one time during the 1950s and 60s was the largest employer in the Kanawha Valley. As the saying went back then, it was hard to come in contact with someone who did not work for or had family members not associated with Union Carbide.

F. Douglas (Doug) Bess, Jr.


The Shark….

An interesting name for a diesel indeed. Just mention the name “shark” or “sharknose” to a rail enthusiast, and they’ll know what it is. Here is a short history on the Baldwin company’s sharks, which ran on the secondary in West Virginia.

Baldwin was always known as a builder of quality steam locomotives. After World War II, the writing was on the wall for steams demise, as manufacturers including then powerhouse EMD started rolling out more and more diesels. Even though Baldwin would always be number three behind EMD and Alco, it began cataloging cab unit diesels after the war, using a knockoff design of EMD’s bulldog nose, which was to become known as the “babyface” design.

Wanting to distinguish itself from EMD, Baldwin turned to Raymond Loewy, who among other designs, designed Pennsylvania’s T-1 streamlined steam locomotive. He in turn designed the classic “sharknose”. The sharknose design was very unique in its styling. The nose had much sharper angles which were tapered towards the headlight, giving the design its nickname. The styling behind the cab was also more sharply angled.

Baldwin started producing cab units in 1945. The DR 6-4-2000 was actually introduced in 1945-46, producing 2,000 horsepower, with 76,200 pounds of starting tractive effort. No wonder the entire series were known for their lugging long heavy freights. This series started out using the babyface design, with the final run having the sharknose carbody. One other variant of this series was the dual or double cab design, with only six being built for the CNJ from 1946-48.

The DR 4-4-1500 began production in late 1947, developing 1,500 horsepower with a 608 SC prime mover, with 55,700 pounds starting tractive effort. This model was built with first the babyface design, then later with the sharknose carbody. This model however was not very popular with the railroad community, with only slightly over 100 A and B units built and sold.

The last variant of the series was Baldwin’s most popular diesel and design, the RF16, and one odd variant, the RF 615E, which was sold to the Argentine State Railway, which purchased 51 units. The “E” I’m assuming was for “export”. With over 150 built and sold the RF16 featured an upgraded prime mover, plus by now the standard sharknose body. Production started in 1950, and was now a product of the merged Baldwin/Lima/Hamilton works. The model featured BLH’s new 608A SC prime mover developing 1,600 horsepower. Starting tractive effort was 59,000 pounds. This model also featured dynamic braking, a feature lacking on other Baldwin models, unless it was custom ordered. However, Baldwin omitted a most important feature on these: MU capability. Production finally ended in 1954. Somewhat trouble prone mechanically, all railroads who purchased these models had them scarpped by the end of the 1960’s, except for two. These two units were originally built for the NYC before being sold at the end of their careers to the Monongahela Railway, who then sold them at a later date to the D&H, who painted them in their fabulous paint scheme. These eventually wound up on the Escanaba & Lake Superior Railroad in Michigan, where they today are locked away in a secured building, after vandals reportedly stole their builders plates.

Among the buyers of the RF16 were the B&O, the NYC, and the Pennsy which had the most RF16’s at 100. The PRR had scrapped or sold all their units by 1967, with the NYC doing the same prior to the PC merger. In later years I recall seeing NYC sharks running around the Cincinnati area, being based as I understand at Sharon yard north of the city. In fact, these sharks were one of the very first locomotives I ever saw as a 5 yr old railfan.

Some stats for the RF16: wheel arrangement: B-B, length: 54 ft 4 in, weight: 266,000 pounds, prime mover: four-stroke turbocharged 608A SC, with 8 inline cylinders, displacement of 15,832 cu inches, DC generator and DC traction motors, and electric transmission.

Transfer cabooses….

Sometimes research and fact-finding for an article/story is harder than pulling teeth. Such was the case with finding information for this short story. Penn Central transfer cabooses, as with most railroad’s transfer cabooses, were used primarily for yard to yard transfers and short switching runs, especially runs where numerous back-up moves would be made. Thus the reason for the large “porches” at either end. Carrying just one desk and one bunk, they weren’t constructed for long freight runs.

New York Central originally constructed 189 transfer cabooses starting in March 1966 using 1942-1946 era 40″ boxcar frames with welded bodies attached. A second lot was built in 1967. NYC classified these as N6A. These cabooses originally had roofwalks and ladders, and in some photos in research it appears that some had wooden decks.

Penn Central then constructed the first of their transfer cabooses starting in 1968-1969 at Despatch Shops in upstate New York. Classified as N9 and N9E, a total of 140 were built. These were built at first with two 100 pound propane tanks at one end for heat, no roofwalks, nor ladders. Some photos, in fact many, show a small roof overhang over the end doors, and what looks like a “rain guard” over the propane tanks. The N9E class and N11E class had 6v electrical systems, hence the “E” designation.

Penn Central starting in 1969 through 1970 constructed 75 class N11 and 75 class N11E transfer cabooses, again at Despatch Shops. These cabooses were the last PC built. These classes had a wider platform step, no roof overhang, simpler handrails, and were only 32″ in length, but carried the same dimension body for the crew.

As far as research can determine, except for wrecked cabooses, all NYC transfer cabooses made in into Penn Central, and all PC built units made it into ConRail. A few of these classes are preserved today.

Workin’ on the railroad….

With this being the 50th anniversary of the formation of Penn Central with all the media coverage, it’s a good time to write a little about my time on the railroad. For you see, I guess it’s either ironic or fortuitous that I actually worked on both ex-PRR and ex-NYC lines in and around the greater Cincinnati area.

The railroad as I believe I’ve mentioned before was the family owned Indiana and Ohio Railroad. The rail line started with four families buying these by then ex-PC lines. One line was ex- NYC from a connection at Valley Jct. outside Cleves, Ohio along the Ohio River west of Cincinnati up through Harrison, Ohio and West Harrison, Indiana to end of track in Brookville, Indiana. This line at one time ran on past Metamora, Indiana home of today’s Whitewater Valley tourist railroad.

The next line, and first line I worked on was the ex-PRR line from just south of Mason, Ohio north past a connection with another Pennsylvania line at Hageman Jct. up to the historic town of Lebanon, Ohio. The Pennsylvania line crossed at Hageman branched off the Pennsy Little Miami line at Middletown Jct. and went west up to Reed yard and Armco Steel in Middletown, Ohio. For those that know a bit about railroad history in Southern Ohio, the Little Miami Railroad was the first line built into Cincinnati. While the ex- PRR line up through Mason to Lebanon started at Court St in downtown Cincinnati and ran through Mason, Lebanon, and Lytle up to Dayton, and was originally narrow gauge built by the Cincinnati Lebanon and Northern.

The next line was again an ex-PRR line that ran from a location known as Brecon, between Blue Ash, Ohio and Mason down to the main yard named McCullough in the Cincinnati suburb of Norwood. This was also ex-CL&N trackage that ran south in PC days to serve a large General Motors assembly plant at the connection with the B&O.

In the years I worked for the I&O as a brakeman/ conductor, I mainly worked the Mason Lebanon line, but did work the Blue Ash line several times. There were a few major customers still left on the Mason line, including Hamilton Plastics and International Paper, and quite a few on the more industrialized Blue Ash line. Customers were few and far between on the Brookville line however, with the major shipper at that time being in Brookville.

My final year with the railroad I was trained by the FRA as a track inspector, so I started working all three lines, inspecting each line of course throughout the week. As track inspection also meant track maintenance, I became adept at handling ties, spike mauls, acetylene torches, rail, signage, and all sorts of other equipment. Thank goodness I was young, as track maintenance is hard, tough work. Two experiences I remember distinctly was working a jackhammer busting asphalt on a state highway crossing in the middle of the night while putting in a rubberized crossing, and another time cutting out and replacing rail with torches on a 103 degree day. Another experience I remember was finding a date nail on the Brookville line dated from the late 1800’s. A lot of good experiences working on these lines, but a hard, tough, demanding job.

So there you have it! Some of my time on the railroad. Below is the only photo I have left of my time on the I&O. This shows our first locomotive on the Mason line, ex-BN geep #1579 sitting in the middle of Mason near an old grain elevator now long gone, as myself and another employee get ready to fire up the engine.