The Day the Trains Stopped Running

How do you measure progress? In the early 1900s it was a railroad from my hometown into the mountains of eastern Kentucky that was considered progress.

The coal that George Carter’s railroad hauled from the mines of Kentucky and Virginia to factories and power plants in the Carolina Piedmont was a powerful economic engine. It pulled my hometown through the greatest events of a century. The Great Depression, two world wars, and the emergence of America as a world power were all driven by coal as its primary fuel source.

The railroad fueled the growth and stability in little Erwin, Tenn., that gave it its identity as a “railroad town.” It’s where almost every kid I grew up with had a dad, an uncle or a brother who worked for the railroad.

Few realized that someday it all would end in the name of progress.

Government regulations designed to wean America off coal for cleaner energy sources were at the core of a disastrous outcome. Add the progress of new technologies to extract cheap natural gas and oil as an alternative and the die was cast. It was only a matter of time till the coal trains would stop running.

At a recent morning meeting with railroad workers, the company announced the century of coal hauling was over. Most would receive 60 days pay, a pat on the back and a “so long.” On October 15, 2015, the last coal train left the Erwin yard. Most of the doors were locked and the lights turned off.

I’m not here to defend coal as an energy source. I’m not saying the railroad company didn’t have a duty to stockholders to shut down operations after losing $1 billion in coal-hauling revenue over the past four years. I’m here to lament a way of life much like other small towns that have been impacted by forces much beyond their control in the name of progress.

So, raise a glass to the men and women who built the Clinchfield Railroad. Here’s to CSX, who kept it alive as long as it could. I applaud the town whose identity will remain, for a couple generations, a railroad town. All of the best to town and county leaders working to find a new title describing Erwin’s economic identity.

Most of my posts try to lead you to a communications or technology solution in the name of progress. Sadly, this one doesn’t have a happy ending—at least for now.