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E Unit for Sale: $1

A C&O engineer's offer makes an impression on a 4-year-old boy

At age 4, I looked forward to 2 p.m. That was the hour my grandfather would return to our house on Wicome Avenue in Newport News, Va., for his afternoon break, followed by our daily trip to trackside. Shortly after Granddaddy's cup of coffee, we would drive in his white fin-tailed Cadillac over to the Hampton Roads transfer station on Warwis Boulevard. This was a long platform that sat at the end of a large parking lot across the street from Collis P. Huntington Park on the edge of the Chesapeake & Ohio coal yard.

In the late 1960's, C&O's George Washington would come up from downtown Newport News and pause briefly a little after 3 p.m. for the bus connection from neighboring Hampton, Va., before continuing to Richmond, Charlottesville, and Cincinnati. I can remember only one time that the bus actually met the train during our many visits. Yet, each day the C&O would stop there for about 2 minutes. The train was your typical late 1960's streamliner: elegant E8's trailing a mix of heavyweight and lightweight head-end cars and stainless-steel (or steel with stainless-steel fluting) coaches and sleepers. Those afternoon trips were the beginning of my life-long love for passenger trains.

It was close to my fifth birthday when Granddaddy had to go to Richmond on business. We boarded the train at the Newport News depot on the pier track. I remember the plush seats in the coaches and linen covers atop the seats with the C&P herald embossed. The porter gave us funny little pillow shortly before the train departed. Our trip would end in Richmond, only a couple of hours away, and at that age I did not consider the overnight passenger going farther west in coach who made good use of the pillows. After the trip, I kept funny little pillow until it was threadbare and the stuffing came out.

The journey went quickly with the stop at the Hampton roads terminal, then Williamsburg, and on to C&O's Main Street station in downtown Richmond. Stepping down from the coach onto the wooden platform three stories above street level, I noticed how the tracks made a "V" around the station. We went into the elegant brick building and then down what seemed like a million steps before we reached the taxi stand.

We checked into one of Richmond's fine old hotels for our overnight stay. Granddaddy went to his meeting and returned later to take Grandma and me out to a restaurant that featured a magic act.

Early next morning we checked out of the hotel and took a taxi to the station. Going down those million steps was nothing compared to climbing back up to the platform. Granddaddy checked in with the ticket agent, and grandma took a seat in the waiting room. Always the independent child, I went out to the platform. The morning train to Newport News pulled in just as I went out. I headed for a place on the platform to view the locomotive close up. Again the train was led by an elegant E unit. The engineer climbed down and walked over to me.

"You like that engine, son?" he asked, rubbing my head.

"Yes sir!" I said, excited.

"I'll sell it to you for a dollar." The engineer replied. With his statement, that E8 has remained a pristine image in my memory for 32 years.

This 5-year-old boy high-tailed it into the waiting room and found his granddaddy.

"Can I have a dollar?" I asked, tugging at Granddaddy's coattail.

"What do you need a dollar for, son?" he responded.

"I'm going to buy that engine out there."

Granddaddy's puzzled look turned to a big smile and a hearty laugh when the engineer who had followed me into the station explained things to him. Most of the station staff and other waiting passengers got an early-morning chuckle from it, as well. Granddaddy gave the old engineer a dollar as my eyes grew big, and everyone laughed more loudly.

Our return trip to Newport News went too quickly. We ate breakfast in the diner for the length of the trip. I sat near a window trying my best to see "my" engine out in front of the train. I wasn't very happy to leave my engine on the pier track when we reached Newport News. My grandparents offered reasoning to the situation.

"You don't have room for it in your bedroom," said grandma.

"We'll let the C&O use it to pull our train for us," granddaddy offered.

Oblivious to engine numbers and even paint schemes at that early age, I identified every locomotive I saw thereafter pulling a passenger train as "my engine" when we sat on the platform at the Hampton Roads transfer station.


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Three stories written and photographed by Jim Shaughnessy.


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