Or, How I Discovered the Durbin Rocket
The sky was bright blue with a few decorative puffy clouds. A great blue heron waded in the Greenbrier River to our left as we passed.
Ahead lay a straight stretch of track. The engineer opened a valve and I could hear the tempo of the chugga-chugga-chugga increase. I was standing on the back platform of the caboose, wind in my face (yes we were going backwards). The clickity-clack of the steel wheels on the rails confirmed an increase in speed. We were moving along at the blistering pace of, ohh, five miles an hour! This is the Durbin Rocket!
It all started like this. I called Mark Kane, owner and operator of the East Fork Campground in Durbin, West Virginia, checking on the availability of a space for our camper. I had selected East Fork because of its proximity to both Elkins, WV (we were going to a reunion there) and Cass, WV so we could ride the historic railroad there. After confirming he had space, I asked, “By the way, how far is it to Cass? We would like to ride the trains there.”
Mark replied, “It’s twenty miles to Cass, but you know, we have our own railroad ride right here. It is next to the campground. They use a restored Climax engine; only one of three left in the world,” he said with some pride.
Sure enough, as we pulled into the campground, we could see the rail cars lined up between the campground and Route 92, the main street in Durbin.
The next morning, from the campground, we could hear the engine’s whistle getting ready for the day’s first run. We walked over to the station and chatted with the fireman, Frankie, a pleasant and good natured young man who seemed to really love what he was doing. He answered all of our questions about the engine and its history.
The Climax is a two-truck (four axel) engine. The wheels are driven by two angled cylinders, one on each side of the engine. The steam pistons drive a transverse shaft that is geared directly to the longitudinal main shaft that drives all four axels. The engines were designed to pull heavy loads (flatbed cars loaded with logs, for example) up and down steep grades. Speed was not important; pulling power was. The basic weight of the Climax engine is about 17 tons—that is before it is filled with 1000 gallons of water (for steam) and coal. Typically, the engine was operated by two crewmen; an engineer and a fireman.
In Durbin, the train consists of the engine, three passenger cars and a caboose, including an open flatbed, a fully enclosed dining car, a passenger car that has been modified with open sides, and one or two cabooses.
We crossed the street to the Rails and Trails Store for train tickets, coffee and to look at an ample assortment of train souvenirs. We purchased tickets for the afternoon run, and, outside, watched the morning run depart the station and disappear into a tunnel of overhanging trees.
We boarded the train from the station platform a little before the scheduled 2:30 departure. There were only twenty or so passengers, and there was plenty of room to move about, including from car to car.
It seemed most passengers preferred the open flatbed car or one of the covered passenger cars. I went for the caboose and rode much of the way outbound on the caboose’s rear platform. The train also has a conductor, and he also rides on the back of the caboose when the train is pushing the cars backwards.
The views from the caboose platform are pure West Virginia: the rocky Greenbrier River on one side, steep hillsides on the other. It also offered views of herons, geese, ducks, and kingfishers along the river. At one point, directly ahead, I watched a doe and her fawn taking their time crossing the tracks.
The train travels 5.5 miles from Durbin and stops at a shaded area by the river. Here passengers may get off the train and explore the area. As we came to a stop, I saw several families already down at the river, some of whom had been fishing. They had ridden out on the morning train and would return with us.I was surprised to see two bright red cabooses sitting on sidings near the river. We learned that it is possible to rent the Castaway Caboose by the night, like a hotel room on wheels. One family of six had rented the caboose for two nights. Their caboose had been at the station when they arrived for their stay. They boarded the caboose and that day’s run pushed the caboose to its place on the siding and, in their case, left them there for two nights. The caboose is outfitted with sleeping for six, a fully equipped kitchen, sitting area, bathroom, etc. The only thing passengers have to provide is their food and clothing. At the end of their stay, the train hooks up the caboose and brings them back to the station.
Because we could move around so easily, on the way back I tried out each of the cars. First, in the caboose, I climbed up into the cupola that let me look out over the rest of the train. The two passenger cars, one open, one enclosed provided the most comfortable seating for the trip. There is even a bathroom in the enclosed car.
The flatbed car was attached directly behind the engine. It provided a superior open-air experience and unobstructed views of the scenery. However, being next to the engine, when the train started to move forward, smoke, soot, and cinders from the engine began to rain down on the flatbed and most passengers moved back to the shelter of the passenger cars.
Steam engines require water. The Climax has a 1000-gallon tank behind the coal box at the back of the engine. The water has to be replenished. On the way back, the crew stopped the train on a bridge over a small creek. The dropped a large hose with a filter on the end over the side into the creek, moved a couple of levers and began to pump water out of the creek and into the tank. The fireman, Frankie, said they took on about 800 gallons of water.
Soon we were pulling into the station. I hung around to take more photos and talk with the crew. Since it was the last run of the day, they would put the engine in its barn for the night. The crew invited me to stay around and take all the photos I wanted. I even got to go in the barn and photograph the engine coming into the barn.
Many years ago, I rode the logging train in Cass. It is a slick, well run tourist operation. Train maintenance facilities are pretty much off limits to us everyday folks. So, while the Durbin Rocket does not climb a mountain and negotiate the switchback it takes navigate the hillside, it offers a more “up close and personal” experience. I spent some time taking photos “out behind the barn,” where there are the remains of some long forgotten engine, and rusty parts of all kinds, stacked semi-neatly, waiting to be refurbished if needed.
I want to thank Jim, our engineer, and Frankie the fireman for their patience in answering all of my questions and allowing me to observe the steps they go through before they put the engine in the barn for the night.
I believe you get out of an experience exactly what and how much you really want, and this was a truly memorable experience for me.
For more information, including schedules and fares, check out their website: http://mountainrailwv.com/choose-a-train/durbin-rocket
Text and Photographs © Jeff Richmond
“We Have Our Own Train Right Here!” The clickity-clack of the steel wheels on the rails confirmed an increase in speed. We were moving along at the blistering pace of, ohh…. See how we learned about the Durbin Rocket and go along for the ride.