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MANN TALK: My Ties to Chesapeake and Ohio Railway
Thus, rather than build 15 miles of railroad along the river around the mountain, the C&O dug the Big Bend Tunnel which was just a mile and a quarter in length. Helping to cut through the mountain was a steel-driving man named John Henry, who became a legend that is well-known.
In 1893, my grandfather had about ninety acres surveyed on top of Big Bend which he bought from the Rollyson family. He built his house there and raised with my grandmother five children to adulthood. My father was one of them. My mother’s father had a few hundred acres of bottom land bordering the river where the railroad would have gone had no tunnel been constructed. My father courted my mother and they married and honeymooned in Washington D.C., having traveled there by the C&O Railway.
My father’s prospects in Summers County were not promising. World War I had just ended and there was work in Charleston, WV. He took his bride and boarded the train at Hinton and left Summers County and never returned except for visits via the C&O and later by auto. He acquired a house on Russell Street and with his bride set up housekeeping. Children came. I was first born March 12, 1921. At the birth with my mother were her mother and my father’s sister. They had come to Charleston on the C&O and returned home on the train. When my sister came two years later, my aunt came to help my mother through the birth and she took me with her to the farm by train.
I was the first male grandchild and I was treated as a prince by my grandparents and spinster aunt. Even at that early age I began to love the place. I had a dog and cat. I fed chickens with my grandmother. My grandfather would come in from the fields with something in his pocket and ask me to reach in to see what it was. Once I remember well it was a rabbit so tiny it would fit in a teacup.
I watched my aunt milk cows, I watched my grandfather slop the hogs, I saw meadows and woodlands and creeks and sky and clouds. And at night the heavens in all their glory unadulterated with the light of any other thing but maybe lightning bugs. Once my grandmother took me to the chicken house to a setting hen’s nest. She lifted the hen in spite of her protests and revealed a nest full of fuzzy chicks. The consequence of this love was that I was on that farm with them every chance I had throughout my early life. And the way I got there was, you guessed it, the C&O Railway.
During the Depression, I spent many months and years with my grandparents. I used to beg my parents for the $1.93 which was the fare from Charleston to Hinton on what else but the C&O Railway. I never had more than the fare. When the porter came through hawking coffee and ham sandwiches, I had belly rumbles over the thought of a ham sandwich. But the sandwich, which was two thick slices of bread between which was a sumptuous slice of ham, was 25 cents. I had not a nickel on me. I was happy when he went to the next car. The yearn for that sandwich somewhat subsided.
I spent at the farm every Thanksgiving, every Christmas, and every Easter Holiday I could get the $1.93. Also, matters got so bad at home that I went to live with my grandparents year around. It was an education one could not receive any other way or place. I learned the basics and realities of life. I helped to prepare soil for seeds, to cultivate them, to harvest them and to watch the process of tabling them. I watched my grandmother choose a chicken for the pot and see that it got there. I have been there and helped in November to kill the hogs, butcher them, carve out the hams and shoulder, grind the pieces to sausage and watch my grandmother in inclement weather squatting to clean intestines for soap making. I have helped to shear sheep for their wool and to clip the tales of lambs and castrate calves and pigs. That is I have worked at the bottom of the economic mountain, the top of which are those players who gamble with the wealth that the bottom has produced just as the Saturday-night kind role dice to gain by luck.
In December of 1941, I boarded a New York Central car to be transported to Columbus, Ohio, where I was inducted into the Army Air Corps (the independent U.S. Air Force wasn't created until 1947). From there by train I was transported to Jefferson
Barracks, Missouri. Months later I hitchhiked from St. Louis to Charleston. Then back to the C&O for a ride to Detroit and some basic training, after which I boarded a C&O train to be carried to Newport News, Virginia, to become one of hundreds on a troopship. The train passed through Charleston on the way and stopped there in the middle of the night. I had my last sight of my hometown for a while. In December, 1945, I entrained the C&O at Union Station, Washington, D.C. for a transport to Charleston and home.
Incidentally, while going through my grandfather’s papers years after the war, I discovered a document showing that he had sold to the C&O Railway 18 chestnut oak railroad ties he had hewn with a broadax. The farm he got from the Rollyson folk was rocky but also tree wealthy.
Today, the C&O tracks are a football-field distance from my front door. I hear the trains often and see the coal trains going east full and going west empty. And I hear Amtrack blow its horn from time to time. The Fast Flying Virginia and the George Washington, C&O’s super passenger trains, are memories come alive on Railroad Days.
Editor's note: Perry Mann will autograph copies of his "Mann & Nature" quality paperback book being sold at Otter and Oak in Hinton, WV on Oct 20 and 27 during the town's Railroad Days celebration. For David M. Kinchen's review of "Mann & Nature", click: http://www.huntingtonnews.net/12041