The Charleston Gazette
WILLIAMSON (AP) — Steam locomotive No. 765, which appeared in the opening scenes of the movie “Matewan” and pulled numerous excursion trains through the New River Gorge in the 1980s and 1990s, is returning to West Virginia this month for a six-day appearance in the Williamson area.
Railfans from across the country are expected to travel to Mingo County on July 31 to record the sights and sounds of the locomotive as it takes Norfolk Southern Railway employees on a series of excursions along the Tug Fork River.
To celebrate its 30th birthday, Norfolk Southern has hired the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society, which owns and maintains locomotive No. 765, to operate 22 employee appreciation excursions from rail terminals in West Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Illinois and Missouri.
The 4,000-mile journey by the 68-year-old steam engine began with a deadhead run from Fort Wayne, Ind., to Bellevue, Ohio. After making a series of excursions from Bellevue, Bucyrus and Toledo, the locomotive and its 10 to 12 passenger cars will roll on to Portsmouth, Ohio, and points southeast, arriving in Williamson on July 31.
“It will be the first time the 765 has been in West Virginia since 1993,” said Zac McGinnis of Dunbar, who routinely makes the six-hour drive to Indiana to work on steam engines as a member of the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society.
“I grew up in Montgomery, and I saw the locomotive fill up with water there when it was making the New River Gorge trips,” McGinnis said. He later rode on many of the New River Gorge excursions powered by the 765, and followed in the footsteps of his grandfather in working on the engine as a volunteer.
“This will be the busiest year for the engine since it was restored in 1979,” McGinnis said.
Built in Ohio at the Lima Locomotive Works in 1944, the 765 was one of a new generation of “Super-power” steam locomotives with enlarged fireboxes and a new wheel arrangement that gave it increased horsepower and pulling ability. The Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad used the locomotives in the mountainous coal country it served, and nicknamed the engines “Kanawhas” in tribute to the river sections of its main line followed.
The Nickel Plate Railroad in Indiana bought the 765, and operated the steam locomotive on its track until the mid-1950s, when its steam engines were replaced by diesel power. The 765 was put on display in a Fort Wayne city park, but under constant exposure to the elements, gradually began to disintegrate.
In 1972, the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society was incorporated to care for and restore the locomotive. Restoration work began in 1975, and by 1979, the locomotive was once more operating under its own power. During the 1980s, the locomotive powered rail excursion trips from Illinois to New Jersey, and ventured south to Georgia and West Virginia.
The sightseeing trains it pulled through the New River Gorge were the longest excursion trains ever operated.
During the 1980s, the locomotive appeared in the movies “Four Friends” and “Matewan,” the John Sayles film shot in the New River Gorge at Thurmond.
After racking up 52,000 miles of excursion service, the locomotive returned to its Fort Wayne shop for a complete overhaul that took until 2005 to complete.
By then, opportunities for operating steam-powered excursion trains on mainline railroads had been reduced dramatically due to insurance issues and conflicts with commercial rail traffic.
This year’s 4,000-mile lineup of excursions by the 765 on Norfolk Southern track could make other railroad operators more open to the idea of accommodating steam-powered excursion trains, according to Kelly Lynch, spokesman for the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society.
“This year, Norfolk Southern is recognizing that locomotives like the 765 are their industry’s greatest goodwill ambassadors,” Lynch said. “They build peoples’ interest in railroads and the role they have played in America’s history. “Hopefully, other railroads will see how it could be to their advantage to invite locomotives like ours to operate on their track. We have a pretty solid record of operating them safely and responsibly”
This year’s series of appreciation excursions for Norfolk Southern’s 20,000 employees takes place during the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society’s 40th anniversary. A feature-length documentary dealing with the trip, and the locomotive’s history, is being filmed to commemorate the anniversary tour.
When the 765 and its passenger cars roll into Williamson, the public will be able to photograph the train and talk to members of its crew, but they will not be able to ride along on the excursions unless they are Norfolk Southern employees or members of their families.
Excursions departing from Williamson will begin on Aug. 4, with a 50-mile roundtrip to Ought One, the railroad name for a scenic sweeping curve along the Tug Fork located one tenth of a mile from an intersection with a branch line crossing the Tug into Kentucky.
On Aug. 5, the destination will depart in the opposite direction to Naugatuck, a town along the Tug Fork to the northwest of Williamson. On Aug. 6, the 765 will depart Williamson on a deadhead run to Columbus.
For more information on the train, visit the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society’s website at www.fortwaynerailroad.org.