Ridin’ the Rails

It’s been a busy at our house since my birthday – we’ve had several events to attend and I traveled to West Virginia for a quick visit with my parents.  Unfortunately, the visit left me  ill.  My mother seems to smoke twice as much now as she used to (and she’s never been a “light” smoker and only occasionally considerate).  The bright side of that is that it has possibly conquered my cravings – I may never want to see or smell another cigarette again! Next time I think I’ll stay at a hotel.

Before I get into the meat of the post – Baby is doing great.  Her blood work came back from her regular vet as “top notch,” and he saw no problems there on in her exam.  She’s eating and playing normally and being a happy bunny!

I generally take the train from Alexandria to Prince, West Virginia, which is just a few miles from my parents’ home. I’m not a fan of long distance driving (especially not by myself) and the train is cheaper than renting a car and a lot cheaper than trying to fly into Beckley (Charleston is only a little cheaper and then you have an hour’s drive to Beckley).  You have to handle your luggage yourself, for the most part, but on the plus side they don’t care if you take giant bottles of hair product or a bottle of water.  Most of the time it’s an easy trip:  I just sit back with my kindle and read a lot.  For a while, I was making the trip to see Alex about every other month.  So I’m kind of “old hat” at it by now. Sometimes you do get an annoying seatmate, and sometimes there are loud/misbehaving children in your car. And sometimes, the train is five hours late.  Just like any other mode of travel, there are pros and cons.  Most of my experiences have been positive.

One of the pros of traveling by train, in my opinion at least, is traveling into and out of Prince Depot.  The station is old and the town has a lot of history. It also happens to be where my father grew up.

Prince is down the mountain from where I grew up* in a valley created by the New River. When my dad was young, the Prince/Quinamont area were quite busy because of the railway.  Coal is still king in West Virginia (more’s the pity) but in those days, the railroad was queen**. Rail was the preferred transport for the coal mined in the region.  Rail also brought in goods from other areas.

The depot that stands in Prince today was built in the 1940s in the art deco style.  Passenger rail was becoming just as common as freight in and out of Prince, and the president of the C&O wanted something stylish and modern to serve the travelers.

A better image of the front of the depot, taken from Great American Stations.

A better image of the front of the depot, taken from Great American Stations.

I took this of the outside of the station.  It's not the best, but standing in the road isn't a great idea.

I took this of the outside of the station. It’s not the best, but standing in the road isn’t a great idea.

C&O became The Chessie System, and then CSX.  My dad started with them before he joined the Navy.  He had a job waiting for him when he got out, and he would remain there until his retirement.  One of the benefits of the job was that he and his entire family could travel the rails for free.  We rarely took advantage of this (my parents were not travelers). But I do remember my first train trip to Baltimore to visit an aunt, when I was about six or so (in the 1980s). I enjoyed the ride, but I think my favorite part was the Chessie Cat mosaic on the floor.

The Chessie Cat. She was a huge part of my childhood. Her little face was on a lot of CSX merchandise. Dad still has the thermometer he was given on the back porch! As many times as I’ve made this trip and this was the first time I thought to take her picture.

The station has changed very little in all that time.  It’s only open Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays, as fewer trains come through.  The Cardinal that I take is the only passenger train now.  She starts her journey in New York and ends in Chicago, only to turn around and go back again.

The ticket window.  Notice the signs!  The TV, soda machine, and baggage scale are very recent additions - they weren't there when I first started traveling to visit Alex.

The ticket window. Notice the signs! The TV, soda machine, and baggage scale are very recent additions – they weren’t there when I first started traveling to visit Alex.

Walking into the station is like walking back in time, and not just because so little has changed in terms of style/architecture.   The building and the surrounding area just feel old.  You can sense the history.  It’s easy to imagine, while sitting there looking out the windows, the excitement people felt back in the 1940s, when train travel was still just a little glamorous.  I can almost see the station crowded with people, travelers and porters rushing about; hear the conductors in their uniforms crying out “All aboard!”

The back wall of the station is a huge old photograph.  Notice the arrivals and departures board...

The back wall of the station is a huge old photograph. Notice the arrivals and departures board…

Sometimes my dad will sit with me for a little while when the train is late and talk about what Prince was like when he was a boy.  Relatives of his ran the general store across the street from the station for many, many years, but now it’s gone.  People still live in Prince – there are actually some lovely homes along the river.  But the glory days of the railroad are over and Prince, and other towns like it, aren’t what they used to be.

The sign that visitors see as the train enters the station.  Photo by Brian M. Powell (user Bitmapped on en.wikipedia)

The sign that visitors see as the train enters the station. Photo by Brian M. Powell (user Bitmapped on en.wikipedia)

Business might start to pick up at Prince Depot now that the Boy Scouts have built a permanent camp at Summit Betchel.  When I got on the train at Prince to come back home, so many Scouts detrained that I lost count! Apparently the rail line will be an important part of getting the Scouts to and from the camp site, which is great.  Rail has seen a bit of a comeback since 9/11 and the restrictions placed on airline travel as a result.  I don’t think that rail is going to be what it was a hundred, or even fifty years ago.  But I know there are romantics out there who love history or just the idea of “riding the rails.”  Train excursions, often with special dinners served during the ride and historical presentations,  are becoming quite popular. Prince should be part of that.

For anyone interested, Great American Stations has more information and history on the Prince Depot and other stations around the country.

*Yes, the town I grew up in is literally built on the side of the mountain. Piney View, West Virginia sits at an elevation of 2,339 feet. I always get a really strange feeling when in Prince or on the New River.  When I was younger, I used to think the whole place was haunted! Then I realized  that my body was just reacting to the lower elevation.

**My father and his father before him were railroad men.  My mother’s dad was a coal miner.  I’m from West Virginia, all right.

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4 Responses to Ridin’ the Rails

  1. I’m new to your blog but absolutely love this post! I love trains and actually am an extreme from Richmond, VA to D.C. Most of my commute is spent on the Amtrak or the VRE and I love it even when there is a delay because hey there are bathrooms and my foot isn’t sitting on the clutch on I-95. I also like the history behind train travel as you noted about your family and that the pace is a bit slower intentional. You spot and appreciate the landscape and the architecture of these old stations. Plus, you get a little quality time with your father 🙂

    • mrslucard says:

      I won’t lie – the bathrooms are a huge part of the appeal for me, too! I can’t imagine commuting from Richmond to DC, for that very reason! If I ever had to attempt something like that, I would totally take the train option if I possibly could.

      Back when I was doing the Prince to Alexandria trek regularly, there was on station on the route that was decorated for Christmas for a whole year. I was on the wrong side of the train both ways this last time, so I missed seeing if it still was. I also tried to find a photo of it online to add to the post, but couldn’t find it. 😦

      • Oh I’m right there with you with the bathrooms. I do pride myself on being able to balance my approximately 30 lb bag and a coffee while using Union Station bathrooms without touching a thing.

        I doubt anyone wants that long of a commute but I do get to see sunrises over the river and have a great deal of time for reading (and/or grading papers). I call it my “lifestyle choice”.

  2. I didn’t realize that one could take a passenger train where you live! That is pretty neat. I had never travelled on a passenger train until I visited Europe last year.

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