© Jerry F. Couch
NOTE: This story originally appeared in the printed edition of the Clinch Valley Times in an abbreviated form several years ago. Since then, I have obtained additional material and incorporated it into the story.
Transforming all these memories into written words has been an intense labor of love for me. Through this story, I recall some of the good people who were my earliest friends. They were hard-working, and were the best neighbors you could ask for. I will never forget them and their kindnesses to me.
It is said that “it takes a village” to raise a child. The people mentioned here were MY village.
IT’S SUMMER AND WE’RE ABOUT TO TAKE A WALK
You’ll need sturdy shoes and old pants because you’ll probably get grease or creosote on them. Where are we going? Well…..we’re going on a trip back in time to the 1950’s. We’ll amble down the Carolina Clinchfield & Ohio tracks from St. Paul to the Clinch River Quarries.
Before we leave St. Paul, let’s stop at Molinary’s for a cool drink. We’ll need it. Though it’s still early, the temperature is already hovering around seventy-five degrees – and it’s going to be even hotter along the tracks. The orangeade served at Molinary’s sure tastes good. I could probably drink three of them. Okay….are we all set to go? Good.
As we walk down the tracks we quickly adjust our stride to match the distance between the railroad ties. Walking on the track’s stone ballast is not a good idea. It’s easy to turn your ankle and then you’d have to hobble the rest of the way home. Our walk quickly takes on a rhythm, as if we’re marching in step.
We look to our right and notice the local inebriates lounging in one of their favorite places. The honeysuckle vines between the CC&O tracks and the N&W tracks form a shady bower at this spot. Nearby, the town’s creek/sewer passes through culverts under the tracks behind St. Paul Supply. Earlier this morning, the fellows resting down there were patiently waiting for the ABC store on Fourth Avenue to open its doors. Then, they lined up and bought their favorite beverages and are now consuming them. They hurt no one and they mind their own business, so that’s what we do, too.
Next we come to the Clinchfield Section Crew’s workshop. The crewmen are in the process of moving a motorcar onto the tracks. It is their work vehicle and they will ride it to a repair or maintenance site. They’re a friendly group of men and we exchange greetings. The men then hop aboard the motorcar and take off in a cloud of blue smoke accompanied by the singing sound of steel wheels rolling on steel rails. We listen to the cheerful putt-putt sound of the motorcar’s engine until it rounds the curve ahead and disappears from view.
The CC&O trestle between St. Paul and South St. Paul has a pedestrian walkway with a guardrail on one side. Before we cross, we listen carefully for the sound of an approaching train. It is unlikely that a train is nearby, however, because the motorcar and section crew are on the tracks. Dispatchers make sure everyone is safe and there’s no conflicting rail traffic.
There are two extended platforms that support water barrels on the CC&O trestle. These are for fire protection, a holdover from the days when sparks from steam engines could ignite fires. There’s also an auxiliary pair of rails installed between the primary tracks. These are designed to prevent a de-railed engine or rail car from sliding off the trestle and into the Clinch River.
To us, the river appears to be far below. We hurry across the trestle, walking on boards that have been boiled in sticky creosote. We wave to a man in a boat below us. He’s checking his a trot-line and we see him remove a large carp, hit it with a maul, then toss it into a wash tub. We jokingly refer to carp as “sewer trout.”
We’re near the South St. Paul side of the trestle now, and we see a young lady approaching from the other direction. She’s probably on her way to town to check for mail and pick up a few groceries. Many people do this almost every day. We stop and exchange pleasantries. It would be ill-mannered to do otherwise, even if we happened to meet her at this spot ten times each day.
As we pass through South St. Paul we wave to Bessie Casteel. She smiles and waves back, then continues sweeping her porch as if her life depended on it. Her house is neat as a pin. Next we see Slemp Jessee sawing some boards at his house. It was just a three-room house to begin with, but he’s remodeling and enlarging it. It’s going to look quite modern when he’s finished. We wave and he waves back. It’s a nice day but it’s definitely getting hotter. O’Connor Collins’ hound dog runs out to greet us and we pat it on the head. It follows us for a while before it returns to its home.
After we pass the South St. Paul community, there is only one house between us and Clinch River Quarries. Across the river is Sugar Hill which is owned by the Glovier family. We see Ted Glovier going up the hill with his team and wagon. Ted is an old-fashioned farmer and his days begin early and end late. In addition to raising crops, he has some fine horses which he trains, trades, sells, and shows. He’s particularly proud of one of them. Its name is “Mile High.” Mile High is a beauty. He has better breeding than most people, and he knows it.
Are you thirsty again? I am. Let’s stop and get a drink from the spring here at the old Murphy house where Wess and Inez Bailey and their children now live. The spring from which the Baileys get their water flows from an underground source beneath the cliff above the tracks.
As we dip cold spring water in our cupped palms to drink, a train passes by, heading south. Its steel wheels sing an unbroken high and loud note as it negotiates the curve. We’ll have to stop speaking until it has passed. You wouldn’t be able to hear a word we’re saying.
There’s Roy Bailey, the oldest of the Bailey children. He’s home on leave from the U. S. Army. Roy is talking to his parents’ neighbor, Tommie Couch. Everyone is glad to see Roy and hear him tell of the new places he has been and the things he has seen.
Refreshed from our cool drink, we follow the path back up to the tracks and there we meet Clyde Powers. He’s on his way to town. Clyde didn’t have much to say today – he’s probably in a hurry to get to town and back home. His farm is between the rock quarry and Burtons Ford, so his trip to town is a long one.
We sidestep a messy pump oiler which shoots grease onto the wheels of passing trains. At this point, the curves in the track resemble a snake. When a long, heavily-loaded train stops here, it takes considerable skill for the engine crew to get 175 freight cars moving without pulling some of them off the track. Even so, it sometimes happens. When it does, a work crew quickly gets the de-railed cars back on the track.
A few years ago “The Clinchfield,” as we call it, increased the load capacity of its tracks by installing new and heavier rails. And in 1953, they completed the transition from steam to diesel power. Electronic dispatch has resulted in tighter scheduling. Now, more trains than ever roar through the Clinch Valley all day long. They’re loaded with coal heading south, and freight heading north. For the railroad company and its employees, time is money.
As we round the curve we spot some bright red wild strawberries nearby. For some reason, the birds haven’t found them yet. They’re sour but nothing can match their intense strawberry flavor. Perhaps they grow so well because of the bed of crunchy black cinders that lines both sides of the track. Even though steam engines no longer ply Clinchfield’s rails, those crunchy black cinders will be here for a long time – a reminder of those vanished titans of the rails.
Good thing we picked the strawberries today. The railroad keeps its right-of-way clear by spraying herbicides a couple of times each year. It’s about time for that to happen again. The herbicide sure does have a strong smell – makes your eyes water. Within a day, every green thing on both sides of the tracks is wilted and brown.
We are now walking along the straight stretch of the Carolina Clinchfield & Ohio tracks between South St. Paul and the small company town once referred to as “Crusher“ in the railroad’s timetable. In years gone by, there were several company-owned houses here as well as a commissary. The commissary ceased to operate in the 1930’s and was torn down by the Couch brothers. They used salvaged materials from the commissary to build a large barn for Mark Hillman across the Clinch River on Sugar Hill.
Before the CC&O discontinued rail passenger service on April 30, 1954, trains made stops at Crusher. This was not just for the benefit of people who lived in the quarry’s company houses. People who lived along Castle Run could walk to the quarry via what had originally been “the Frenchman’s road” that led to Sugar Hill. Prior to the quarry commissary’s demolition, passengers could wait there for the train near the junction of the CC&O’s main line and the quarry spur.
As we walk along, we look ahead and see distorted light waves caused by heat rising from the rails. The landscape shimmers like a mirage. In a few minutes we come to the switch used to route trains onto the quarry siding where empty cars are delivered and cars loaded with crushed limestone will depart. In fact, a line of loaded cars are waiting for pickup right now.
Most of the company houses at Crusher have been torn down. Only two of them remain and one of them has been unoccupied since the Flood of 1957.
Ira and Thelma Minton and their son Haskew were the last occupants of the abandoned house. After the Flood of 1957, they did not return. They left their ruined furniture and kitchen stove behind. It’s eerie now – yard overgrown, windows broken, doors ajar. Dried flakes of creek mud still cover everything. It’s like a ghost house.
Bob and Drucilla Minton are the only remaining residents of “Crusher.” Their house stands just a few feet from the railroad siding. They have stayed on in this remnant of a community because it is convenient for “Big Bob.” He and several other Mintons and their kinfolks work at the quarry. Bob does not drive a car – he has never needed one.
Drucilla Minton is a tiny woman who can get more done in five minutes than most people get done in an hour. One of the happiest and most friendly people you’d ever meet, she can often be seen making the long walk from the quarry to St. Paul, then returning with a big bag of groceries. You and I would find this difficult but she does not – it is her life.
In the distance we hear the clatter and rumble of the stone crusher. It is operated by powerful electric motors in the very modern 1950‘s, but the crusher was originally operated by steam. The quarry’s heavy equipment (bulldozers, front-end loaders, shovels) are now diesel-powered. However, an old steam shovel, inoperable and disused, serves as a reminder of the past. When asked why he didn’t sell it for scrap, the quarry’s owner/manager “Buck” Smith replied, “It made me my first million dollars.” And over all of it, limestone dust floats in the air like grey snow.
A whistle operated by compressed air has replaced the quarry’s original steam whistle. This loud, shrill whistle is sounded to mark the beginning and the end of the quarry workday as well as the employees’ lunch break at noon. It is also sounded to warn workers to gather at a designated safe zone when raw stone is about to be blasted from the highwall, or “cut.” Afterwards, the whistle sounds an “all clear.” A special coded alert is sounded in cases of emergency – and there have been emergencies in the past (with more to come in the future). During the quarry’s existence, men have been killed or seriously injured when things have gone wrong. It can be a dangerous place to work.
The sounds of the quarry – the whistle, the crusher, the blasting – all can be heard in South St. Paul, St. Paul, and parts of Riverside Drive. For years the quarry’s whistle has been a reminder to everyone within earshot that it’s lunchtime. It’s also a reminder that a viable business is engaged in manufacturing a product that’s in demand, and brings money into the community. The pay is decent by the standards of the time.
One of the disadvantages of Clinch River Quarry is the extremely steep road which heavily loaded trucks must travel. Trucks have been known to begin sliding backwards as their drivers negotiated the mostly one-lane road up the steep hill. When that happens, the driver has two choices, (1) stop the truck by steering it into the embankment, or (2) sliding backwards and hope the truck will eventually stop. Plan 2 is inherently flawed because there is a ninety-degree curve near the bottom of the hill. Trucks have been known to go over the embankment at this point.
As we stand in the “cut” we yell in order to hear our voices echo back from the highwall. It’s very cool here. The strata that form the bedrock of our area is clearly visible. Nature is revealed and all shades of blue-grey are represented. In its own way, it is majestic and beautiful.
Well, we’ve had a good look around and now it’s time to return to St. Paul. Hope you enjoyed your walk today. I certainly did.
The following article was transcribed from the January 21, 1952 edition of the Bristol Herald Courier.
By Mrs. Turner Gilmer
LEBANON, Jan. 30 — Do you wish to see a really big hole in the ground? Would you like to hear three and one-half tons of dynamite go off at one time? If the answer to these questions is “yes,” we recommend that you visit the Clinch River Quarries near St. Paul.
Any time you happen that way you can look down in the 222-foot deep hole, the rim of which is more than 1,000 feet. And the hole extends back underground 850 feet. It is credited with being one of the larges man-made excavations in the world. Since the quarry was opened, more than six million tons of stone have been removed and there is still sufficient Grade A limestone to last one hundred years at the present rate of depletion.
To hear the dynamite explode, a date will have to be made with the operators for two shots of this type of loosen enough material for a year’s supply of stone – about 250,000 tons. Well drilling is the method used. Seven holes are drilled won from the top to the bottom of the quarry, or a depth of 222 feet, in which the explosive is inserted.
The quarry was opened by the Holston Land Company in 1907 as a subsidiary of the Carolina Clinchfield & Ohio Railway for the purpose of supplying stone for the road bed of the railroad then in the process of construction in this area, and for the lining of tunnels, etc. It is located one mile south of St. Paul in Russell County on the railroad’s main line.
When operated by the Holston Company, 40 company houses and a commissary operated by the company were built. Much of the labor was imported.
In 1938 the property was leased by D. B. Smith and Charles J. Jessee and renamed the Clinch River Quarries. In 1941 the entire plant was destroyed by fire. In 1948, Mr. Smith and Mr. Jessee purchased the rebuilt plant and 58 acres of limestone and have completely modernized it.
It is now one of the most up-to-date quarries in the south. The steam engines at first replaced with diesel power are now supplanted by electric power, the Appalachian Power Company having run a special line to the plant about two years ago.
The old-fashioned bucket elevator has been replaced by a modern 190-foot conveyor which carries the stone from the priming crusher in the quarry to the top of the plant in record time and in abundant quantities.
The old rotary-type screen which made one type of stone at a time and required hours of laborious work in changing screens for another type of stone has been replaced by three crushers with shake and vibrator screens which can make any size stone and even agricultural stone [crushed lime]. Under the rotary-type screen, the capacity was 250 tons for 60 men in 10 hours. The new equipment has a capacity of 800 to 1,000 tons per day with 26 men.
Bristolian is Manager
The accident record has been phenomenal. Not a life has been lost since 1938. The quarry produced 150,000 tons of Grade A limestone last year. This stone is used for all kinds of buildings, concrete blocks, railroad ballast, and highway construction. Most of the stone goes into highway construction.
In 1946-49, 20,000 tons of agricultural lime were produced for the farmers of Russell and Wise counties. Stone is shipped to North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia.
The plant employs 26 men, two secretaries, one foreman, and the general manager, D. B. Smith. Mr. Smith has spent thirty years in the quarry business. He was born and reared in Bristol, Va. In 1917 he was employed by W. W. Boxley Sons and Co., Roanoke, Va. and later until 1938 was with the Blue Ridge Stone Corp., Blue Ridge, Va. Charlie Minton, general foreman, has been at the quarry 40 years or more in one capacity or another.
Mr. Smith states that the men now employed at the quarry are practically all natives of Russell or Wise and that they are experienced workers and professionals in their lines. They are members of the United Construction Workers of American, Local 179. The annual payroll is approximately $50,000. Maintenance and supplies run about $150,000. The value of the plant and property is estimated at $150,000.