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Carter County writer hits the rails again

By Brian Reese

editor in chief


You could call it No. 1 book No. 2.

Mark A. Stevens and A.J. “Alf” Peoples have returned to the track they laid with “The One & Only” to create a second journey through railroad history with “The Clinchfield No. 1: Tennessee’s Legendary Steam Engine.”

This time, the writers go beyond the more well-documented tales of the Clinchfield No. 1 locomotive to journey on a track less taken: the everyday stories that fueled the locomotive’s rise from ruin to national fame and adoration along Appalachia’s rails and beyond.

Published by The History Press, the book includes nearly 80 vintage photographs, many unseen by the general public. Many of the stories, too, will be new to readers, despite the locomotive’s considerable media coverage.

“The story of the Clinchfield No. 1, including how it was rebuilt in 1968 to lead excursion trains throughout the South, had been well documented over the years,” said Stevens, a Carter County native and former publisher of the Elizabethton Star. “But Alf and I wanted to explore the stories behind the story. In particular, we wanted to tell the stories of the men who shaped the steam engine’s life on the rails.”

Stevens’ and Peoples’ first rail-writing excursion, a limited-edition pictorial history book, cleared the way for the more extensive history found in the second.

“There was such an outpouring of interest, Mark and I quickly realized that there was more to do if we were to really tell the No. 1’s whole story,” said Peoples, who retired in 2014 as a locomotive engineer after a 45-year career on the railroad.

“The Clinchfield No. 1: Tennessee’s Legendary Steam Engine” explores the twists and turns of the little steam engine, from its 1882 birth in Logansport, Ind., to 1889, when it was the first relief train to reach victims of the Johnstown, Pa., flood. Then it explores the decades it spent helping build the Clinchfield Railroad, working deep inside the Appalachian forests hauling timber and feldspar.

From there, the story travels down a gloomy side track that left the little engine forlorn and forgotten, a rusted relic lying in near ruins in an Erwin railyard.

That’s where a railroadman with a businessman’s — or perhaps a showman’s — vision, Thomas Moore, found the No. 1 and hatched a plan from his office as general manager of Clinchfield Railroad to resurrect the antique locomotive. That plan, to rebuild the engine to lead excursions from Kentucky to South Carolina, went against the grain: in 1968, steam engines were long gone from the rail scene, replaced by their modern diesel counterparts. And the Clinchfield, like many railroads, had left passenger service behind years before.

Much as Moore reassembled the No. 1 out of obscurity and ruin, Stevens and Peoples used East Tennessee State University’s Archives of Appalachia, a series of interviews and research ranging from the Midwest to the deep South to reassemble the story of the real-world “Little Engine That Could.”

The book focuses on the railroaders who worked to turn the antique steam engine into the nation’s oldest working locomotive, including an interview with 94-year-old George Hatcher, who served as fireman aboard the No. 1 for 11 years.

Also interviewed were current U.S. senator and former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander, who rode behind the No. 1 in 1972 and 1978 as part of a whistle-stop campaign launched by U.S. Sen. Howard Baker Jr.

The New York Times wrote, in 1969, “The Clinchfield Railroad, which had abandoned its last passenger train in 1955, has found a new way of making money out of passenger traffic: put an 1882 steam locomotive out in front.”

The stories of some of the thousands of excursion passenger are also used to detail the No. 1’s history, through interviews and original correspondence between passengers and Clinchfield Railroad officials, preserved in the archives.

“The Clinchfield No. 1: Tennessee’s Legendary Steam Engine” will be available for purchase at local bookstores and online at Historypress.net and Amazon.com. Autographed copies can be ordered directly from the author by sending a check or money order for $19.95, plus $5 for postage, to Mark A. Stevens, 390 Lumbee Circle, Pawleys Island, SC 29585.

A series of book signings has been scheduled for “The Clinchfield No. 1: Tennessee’s Legendary Steam Engine,” including one Friday, Aug. 22, from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. at the Elizabethton Star. Other signings include:

• Friday, Aug. 22 – 12:30-2:30 p.m., Kingsport Chamber of Commerce, 400 Clinchfield St., Kingsport.

• Friday, Aug. 22 – 3:30-4:30 p.m., Tupelo Honey Cafe, 300 Buffalo St., Johnson City.

• Friday, Aug. 22 – 5:30-7 p.m., Clinchfield Railroad Museum, 529 Federal Hatchery Road, Erwin.

• Saturday, Aug. 23 – Noon-2 p.m., Watauga Valley Railroad Historical Society & Museum, 210 Spring St., Jonesborough. At this signing, the public is invited to tour, for the first time since it was refurbished, Car 100, the opulent railroad office car once used by Clinchfield Railroad general managers.