Historic steam train visits the valley

RADFORD — An ample crowd converged on downtown Radford on Saturday afternoon to catch a glimpse of an iconic coal-fueled steam locomotive, which stopped in town on a round trip from Bristol.

The locomotive, operated by the Tennessee Valley Railway Museum in Chattanooga, Tenn., carried a series of passenger cars filled with travelers for the first time in many years.

Steam Engine 630 crosses the New River on its way to Downtown Radford. About seventy people gathered at a special vantage point below the Glencoe Museum to see the train come into Radford. Photo by Charlie Whitescarver.

The train, whose passenger cars brought with them over 500 riders into the city, sold out its seats weeks in advance. Rail enthusiasts and casual riders wasted no time in buying passage, bringing with them an undetermined amount of tourism dollars spent in Main Street shops and restaurants.

According to Foster Peterson, Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum’s director of safety and road foreman of engines, the excursion marked the train’s first passenger ride to Radford in a number of years.

“This is the first passenger trip here in … goodness, I don’t even know,” Peterson said.

The Southern 630 steam engine picks up speed after switching tracks for its return to Radford. Photo by Aaron Atkins.

The train made a non-passenger run to Roanoke last year, but did not stop in the New River Valley.

Peterson said that no matter where the train ended up, it always drew an ample crowd, much like the one that met it in Radford.

“They line up all over, everywhere we go. We see cars parked on busy streets with people standing in the roadways all the time,” Peterson said. “Sometimes it’s dangerous and scary.”

Spectators, residents and onlookers from all over Virginia, some from as far away as Bristol and Tazwell, lined the tracks all up and down Main Street in downtown Radford to catch a glimpse of the coal-fueled behemoth, its iconic plume of steam and shrill whistle being seen and heard all around as the relic rumbled down the track.

A handful of them went so far as to race the train from Main Street to meet the train at the triangle turnaround at Walton Road, where it performed a 3-point turn and switched tracks in preparation for its return trip to Bristol, where the leg of the journey to Radford began.

According to museum officials, the steam engine operated between 1952-67 on the East Tennessee and Western North Carolina rail lines. For the trip to Radford, the engine was assisted by a modern diesel locomotive that helped pull the 12-car train.

By Aaron Atkins


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