Railroad Cooking No “Pie” Job

From the archives of the Clinch Valley Times, January 17, 1985

ALTHOUGH JAMES CECIL OF TAZEWELL often serves the railroad crew homemade pie, cooking for a work crew is certainly no “pie” job.

James Cecil, N & W

Cecil began cooking for the Norfolk & Western Railway 35 years ago.  He had returned from military duty and worked in the North for a while but wanted to return to his home in southwest Virginia.  He heard about an opening at N & W and was waiting at their office the next morning.  After a short interview, he was shown the cook car – a rebuilt boxcar with electric refrigerator and lights, gas stove and water heater, running water from storage tanks on an adjoining rail car, a dining room and storage room.

Cecil begins his day by preparing breakfast for the men who sleep in the bunk cars while they’re away from home on a work assignment.  Once breakfast is over, he begins preparing lunch – meat, three vegetables, and dessert that he takes to the men where they’re working.  After returning and clearing up after lunch, he begins dinner preparations for the workers.  This routine continues for each of the four workdays of the week.  He plans each meal with lots of the crew’s favorites including steak and chicken.

At present, he works with a small utility/carpentry crew which repairs buildings, bridges, crossings, and culverts.  The green work cars have been parked on a siding behind the St. Paul Post Office since November.  The crew left January 10.  Cecil’s last job in St. Paul was to store the heavy cast iron cookware, latch all drawers, drain the water heater and lines, and prepare for moving the cars to the next location.  He travels throughout the Clinch Valley District and Buchanan Branch of the Norfolk-Southern line, the result of a merger between the N & W and the Southern railways.

Cecil remembered the more hectic pace of cooking for 85 men on a continuous rail crew which carried and installed 1440-foot rails over the entire N & W system.  This kept him busy for five years.  His plans, he explained as he removed a homemade chocolate pie with three inches of golden-brown meringue from the oven, do not include any cooking after retirement.  “Just a little fishing,” is his answer to the future.  After preparing an estimated 19,000 meals, that’s understandable.

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