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Historically Speaking — The Little Engine That Could

By: Patricia Harris, DC Historical Society President

With Trail Days coming soon honoring our amazing North Bend Rail Trail, I thought I’d pass on a bit of history regarding another local railway of which you may not have heard.  It ran from Smithburg to Big Isaac and was documented by Dr. Alton Childers in 1976 soon after he founded the Doddridge County Historical Society.  This long-forgotten little railway has been spoken of by the “old timers” in the county in past years. Men like Clyde Chrislip, Brady Sutton and Earl Gum shared their stories with Dr. Childers in 1976, as I said previously.  

   This thriving enterprise hailed two engines.  One of which was named the “Nick of the Woods”, and the other was called “Limber Jim.”  The track upon which they ran was built of wood and unfortunately there were numerous wrecks throughout the life of both engines.  Brady Sutton, who lived on Lick Run, had a wooden rail from the railway bed.  It may have been disposed of at this date.  Many would not know what it really was, if they saw it.

   The photograph included was taken in 1870 and it is of “Limber Jim.” We could not find any photographs of “Nick of the Woods.”  Should anyone have one and would be willing to allow the Historical Society to make a copy, please contact us at our Facebook page or call me at 304 873-1540. 

   The railway was built some one hundred and forty-six years ago when two Clarksburg businessmen, R.T. Lowndes (a banker and merchant) and Ira Haught (a builder of boilers, sawmills and other machinery), bought a large tract of standing timber between Avon and Big Isaac.  At that time the area was nothing more than wilderness that included a large amount of prime yellow poplar.  One old-timer described it as “powerful timber.”

R.T. Lowndes was the son of Lloyd and Elizabeth Lowndes who moved to Clarksburg from Virginia in 1831.  Lloyd died in 1879 and left his many business enterprises to his two sons.  One of whom was the R.T. Lowndes of this article.

   Mr. Lowndes and Mr. Haught were aware of the value of the timber and knew that they would need a way to get the timber to the B & O Railroad at Smithburg, if they were going to get top dollar for their prized material.  They made the decision to build a railroad from Smithton (Smithburg today) to Big Isaac by way of New Milton and Avon.  It was about 20 miles long and was known as the Middle Island Railroad.

A gentleman by the name of Guy Brown of Big Isaac showed Dr. Childers a business form used by the company.  The letterhead’s wording was exactly as follows:

   M.I. Junction, W.Va., Dec. 1st, 1879, Mr. James Ward

   To Middle Island Railroad Co. Dr.

   Transportation of and Dealers of all kinds of POPLAR AND WHITE OAK LUMBER, HOOPS, STAVES, TAN BARK, PINS, ETC.

Also Family and Mill Supplies, Flour, Bacon, Salt, Oil, Coal, Etc. on hand an Furnished to Order.

Depot at M. I. Junction, Near Smithton, Doddridge Co., W.VA., Principal office, Clarksburg, W.Va.

Nov. 17- To Board W. Henry….

21 1/3 days…………………. 8.68

Nov. 29      22 days

In Nov. 22.75

Balance   14.07

     It appeared that the railroad was paying a board bill for someone named W. Henry.  The location of this precious document is currently unknown.

     Limber Jim met its demise when it experienced unrepairable damage and was destroyed from a final horrendous wreck.  It was a sad end to an era.  Thereafter the flat cars that were previously pulled by Limber Jim and Nick of the Woods were drawn by oxen and horses.  It was kind of ironic when you think about.  Horses and oxen were replacing engines.

     The importance of the railroad in the development of Doddridge County cannot be overstated.  When we realize that at the time of “Limber Jim” and “Nick of the Woods”, the Northwestern Turnpike was unpaved.  It took at least 2 weeks by horse and wagon to travel from here to Baltimore for further shipping to other cities in the east.  It is undeniable that the B & O Railroad made progress in Doddridge County possible.

     Just a note…the first railroad cars were pulled by horses.  Then in 1830, Peter Cooper built the railroad steam engine called the “Tom Thumb.”  On its first trip to Baltimore, it lost a race with a horse.  Quite a humiliation then, but by 1837, after the use of the horizontal boiler-type locomotive, the railroad could out-distance all competition.

     In an article published in the West Union Record dated April 9, 1897, the sad story of a terrible accident which occurred at Smithton on a Monday was written.

“A most distressing railroad accident occurred at Smithton on Monday which resulted in the death of Captain F.M.F. Smith of that place.  He was struck by a westbound freight train and was horribly mangled.  Captain Smith had resided at Smithton, the village that took its name from him for nearly half a century.”

     We owe our veteran railroad men a debt of gratitude for all that they did for the improvement of the people of Doddridge County.  Travel to Clarksburg or Parkersburg was made possible in a day because of the railroad.  At that time when you boarded a train bound for either city, you had to search for a seat.  Today they only a memory in the seniors of our fair county.  

     Long live our seniors!  You are one of our greatest treasures.  You are the keepers of our yesterdays.  To our younger citizens, may I suggest that you take the time to listen to their stories so that you might pass them down to your own children one day.