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Harmony Creek & Southern RR

Born Again: The Harmony Creek & Southern
A Short History of a West Virginia shortline

By Charles T. Thacker
Trains Magazine
, April, 1956

While not nearly as well known as some of its brethren, the Harmony Creek & Southern, located deep in the hollows of West Virginia, shares a commonality of ancestry with such celebrated destinations as the Eastern Tennessee & Western North Carolina (Tweetsie), the Buffalo Creek & Gauley, and the Graham County Southern. Like all of these railroads, the HC&S started out life as a lumber line, with the small rail, poor engineering, sharp curves, and light capacity that were typical of such ventures. And like all those other, more well-known roads, the Harmony Creek faced extinction when the last of the huge, first-growth hardwoods were cut down and hauled to the last of the many sawmills that once dotted the West Virginia mountains.

With its primary reason for existence gone and its traffic dwindling almost by the month, the HC&S settled into a long decline, and, like so many other loggers before it, seemed destined for oblivion. Most of the branches were abandoned, leaving only the Herberts Valley and the Mill Creek Subdivisions as active lines. These branches, reaching to Herbertsdale and to Winton Grove respectively, depart the Rock Creek Subdivision at the hamlet of Rock Creek, at the west end of the railroad.

The Gordon Subdivision, at the east end of the line, was logged out long ago, and the long-neglected tracks held together mostly out of habit. Only the smallest and lightest of equipment could survive a trip to Gordon, and derailments and other mishaps were common. The tracks perched along Harmony Creek were one good flood away from the washout that would have doomed the line to certain abandonment.

But here is where the Harmony Creek’s long journey into night takes a detour. In an astounding reversal of fortune, a new, deep and wide seam of coal was discovered on the railroad’s east end, near Gordon. The seam was of such proportions that the Republic Coal Co. immediately began developing several new tipples in the area. As the only railroad serving Gordon, the HC&S became the recipient of Republic Coal’s financial support, and the entire Gordon Sub has been rebuilt, from Gordon all the way to the interchange with the Cincinnati & West Virginia Railroad’s main line at Harmony Junction.

The worn and brittle 80-pound rail has been replaced with brand new 110-pound rail, sufficient to bear the weight of modern diesel locomotives and new, 70-ton hopper cars. Over much of the line, new bridges have been installed. The old timber trestles still remaining have been completely rebuilt. Track and roadbed have been resurfaced and realigned where possible, drainage has been improved, tunnels have been relined, and a railroad that only yesterday was hanging on by its fingernails is ready for prosperity unknown in its former life as a logger.

Even the west end of the HC&S seems to be poised for a rebirth. While its plight was not as desperate as the Gordon Sub’s, the west end had never really recovered from the loss of lumber traffic as a plentiful and secure source of revenue. But a new shingle plant in Herbertsdale, as well as other burgeoning industrial activity in the area, promised better times for the west end.

The Rock Creek Coal Co’s tipple at Rock Creek, tipples near Herbertsdale and Winton Grove, and a couple of other, smaller operations along the Rock Creek Subdivision, are the only coal facilities still in operation on the west end, but the recent rise in coal prices around the world points toward a coal boom throughout West Virginia. Richardson Yard is teeming with traffic due to the upturn, and train crews that have been idle for years are suddenly finding work again.

While the west end is still hampered by the light rail and slapdash construction standards typical of its logging heritage, the HC&S is making due as best it can. Its stable of small, light industrial diesels is receiving constant attention, and some heavier-duty, but still nimble, switching locomotives have been leased from nearby Class I operations. Even several of the HC&S’s old steam logging locos have been recalled to life. Their reappearance in everyday service has been a boon to the area’s tourist industry, as steam and rail buffs from around the country have descended on the road.

And now, in what could be the best news yet for the little HC&S, the line is about to enter into a trackage-rights agreement with the Virginian & Ohio Railroad. The powerful V&O suffered a severe setback last year when the spring rains virtually destroyed its secondary line to Charleston, West Virginia. Faced with a multimillion-dollar rebuilding task, the V&O filed with the Interstate Commerce Commission for abandonment of the entire branch.

Citing the economic hardship faced by the area in the event of abandonment, the ICC, in an unusual move, decreed that rather than requiring the rebuilding of the destroyed V&O trackage, the railroad would be granted rights over the C&WV and the Chesapeake & Ohio as a way of reaching the West Virginia capital. But in order to get to the C&WV, the trains of the mighty V&O must tiptoe along the little HC&S from Herbertsdale to Harmony Junction, where they will join the parade of trains to the C&O and Charleston.

Preliminary tests have shown that some lighter eight-wheel diesel road switchers, such as the V&O’s capable Alco RS-3s, can negotiate the HC&S’s roller-coaster profile, and even its impossibly tight S-curve at Pratt’s Creek, as long as trains are short and speeds are low. But it won’t be an easy ride, either for the locomotive crew or the men in the caboose, as Alco’s and the V&O’s finest cope with the hills and dales of an HC&S right-of-way built for another time and purpose.

While it is not certain what will eventually become of the Harmony Creek, it does seem clear that its near future is secure. Railroad management hopes that income from the newly refurbished Gordon Sub, as well as continued high coal traffic, the benefits of new industry along the line, and the very welcome cash generated by the ICC’s V&O ruling will result in the long-term survival of the little logger.

Engineers for the HC&S are drawing up plans for improvements all along the west end. The straightening of curves, easing of grades, heavier rail, and bridge renewals are all in the offing.

But for now, these improvements are still on the drawing board. Now is the time to visit the hamlets of Rock Creek and Herbertsdale to discover what a valiant little logger, hampered by nature and circumstance, poor in equipment and resources, but rich in determination and imagination, can accomplish. For now, the bark and chant of small steam and diesel locomotives still echo off the green West Virginia hillsides, and trains of black hoppers squeal around the curves above Harmony, Pratt’s, and Rock Creeks.

The Harmony Creek & Southern, once dismissed and near death, has been recalled to life. Now is the time to witness the excitement of its rebirth.

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