I’ve been intrigued by the Clinchfield Railroad almost from the start of my interest in trains and railroading. The CRR mainline ran north-south for 277 miles (274 after the 1970 Johnson City mainline relocation) in 5 states: Kentucky, Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and South Carolina. My interest in the Clinchfield stemmed from the railroad being relatively small but running big-time operations through the Appalachian mountains of my native North Carolina. I still remember following the line labeled Clinchfield on the NC DOT highway map and wondering what it all looked like.
I first encountered the CRR in person in October of 1982, shortly before the railroad ceased to exist as an independent entity. Three other railfan friends and I made our first trip to the CRR to photograph trains and observe operations of this railroad first hand.
At the time I only had a Kodak Instamatic 126 camera borrowed from my mother. I couldn’t afford much film or processing, so I didn’t take many pictures, which was probably just as well since most of the ones I took aren’t that great. No matter how much I’ve forgotten in general, I still have plenty of images from this trip embedded firmly in my mind.
The power on trains was painted predominantly in the CRR black and yellow scheme, but there were still gray and yellow painted units to be found. The French gray paint scheme of the Family Lines System had appeared on plenty of locomotives as well, including the infamous Clinchfield F-units. Cabooses, including some of the ATSF style offset-cupola cabooses, still provided a punctuation mark at the end of trains. Many of the depots were still open with agents still working in them. In fact, conversations with the agents at the Clinchfield’s Marion, NC depot provide some of my fondest memories of railroading.
A railfan friend had provided us with a letter of introduction to one of the CRR officers at the railroad’s headquarters in Erwin, TN. When we arrived we found out this officer was on vacation, but we were allowed to walk around the inside of the headquarters building. We even had a brief visit in the dispatcher’s office, where we saw the Clinchfield’s CTC machine in action. We spent the better part of a three-day weekend exploring the CRR between Erwin, TN and Bostic, NC.
I made another trip to the CRR in April 1983 to explore again from Marion, NC to just north of Johnson City, TN. However, this trip occurred after the CRR disappeared into the Seaboard System (SBD), and at the time the railroad didn’t seem quite the same to me. Looking back, I wish I had been able to make trips to the CRR more often in the 1980s, but I generally railfanned closer to home on other CSX and NS (NW and SR) lines because funds were tight while I was in high school and college.
After graduation from college and getting a “real” job which paid “real” money, I started making more frequent trips to the CRR when time allowed. Of course, now the railroad was being run by CSX. Locomotives and rolling stock reflected a rainbow of CSX and predecessor paint schemes, making the late 1980s and early 1990s a very interesting era to model. The CRR railroaders were still moving coal and merchandise traffic as efficiently as ever, and I attempted to observe the CRR in action as much as possible. Of course, I’ve never been able to go the CRR as often as I’d really like, partly because of the distance from my home.
After the Clinchfield was folded into the Seaboard System, the route has been part of several different SBD and CSX divisions over the years. Immediately after the merger, the railroad was the SBD Clinchfield Division. During the CSX era, the CRR has been part of the Corbin Division, the Appalachian Service Lane, the Appalachian Division, and the Huntington Division.
Erwin, Tennessee was the home to the CRR corporate offices and main classification point. Erwin served as the division point between the North End and South End. During SBD and CSX operations, the CRR has been split into two subdivisions. The North End is the CSX Kingsport (KP) Subdivision and the South End is the CSX Blue Ridge (BR) Subdivision.
For a while in the early and mid 1990s, the CRR was part of the CSX Blue Ridge Division, with headquarters in Erwin. The name of this division, along with the division HQ in Erwin, revived my notion of the CRR operating as its own entity rather than as part of a larger CSX division. The CSX Blue Ridge Division consisted of the Kingsport Subdivision, the Erwin Terminal, and the Blue Ridge Subdivision, along with several other adjacent subdivisions. The CSX Blue Ridge Division was relatively short-lived, and the CRR was folded once again into larger CSX divisions.
While the Clinchfield Railroad has been gone since December 31, 1982, I have continued to make one or more trips to the CRR in most years since the early 1990s. I still refer to the railroad as the Clinchfield or the CRR even though CSX now runs the route. Regardless of what company has run it or what paint scheme is on the motive power, operations on the Clinchfield Route have inspired my model railroading for nearly 30 years.
Once the mountains and railroading gets into your blood, it’s hard to resist the siren’s call of railroading on the Clinchfield. Trips to the current day CSX Kingsport and Blue Ridge Subdivisions are always enjoyable, and observing the former CRR in action never fails to provide inspiration for my CSX Shenandoah Division layout.