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A Railroad Short Story – Hi, Ho Silver…Away!

“Hi, Ho Silver…Away!” by G. R. “Rich” Nuckolls

Rich Nuckolls, grew up in Bluefield, WV in the shadow of our beloved East River Mountain, and worked for the Norfolk & Western Railway. Rich wrote this short story in 2002, and as he confesses, based on “mostly” true events. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. Merry Christmas!

It was a cold, bleak, snowy day. One of those kind of days into which only the hardiest souls dare to venture out. In typical Appalachian winter fashion, the temperature hovered around zero and the wind had begun to pick up, howling in out of the Northwest with a promise of even colder weather to come.
I, and the rest of the transfer gang, had just finished shoveling snow, sweeping ice and debris and spreading salt on the sidewalk around the Bluefield passenger station, anticipating the arrival of No. 3, the Westbound passenger train, better known as “The Powhattan Arrow” and then later “The Pocahontas” destined for Welch, Iaeger, Williamson, Kenova, and points West to Cincinnatti. Only a few passengers had arrived, most preferring to wait in their warm homes rather than at the railway station. The interior of the station was cozy, though, warmed by steam sent through underground pipes from a coal-fired central boiler located on the other side of the rail yard.
We were not so much interested in the passengers as we were in the mail truck that was to arrive at any moment. When the truck pulled in, our otherwise slow-paced shift would then get really busy, as we would begin stacking the mail sacks and boxes on baggage wagons. Yes, baggage wagons, the wooden hand-pulled carts with steel wheels that so many folks prize today as “quaint” antiques or large decorating props. We thought of them, however, as heavy, unwieldy, outmoded, man-powered appliances that had been around since the 19th century. (I think some actually had.) When the train arrived, we would then rush to unload the inbound mail, then load wagon’s burden of outgoing mail and packages onto the mail car during the scheduled station time. It was imperative for us to do this quickly so as to not delay the passenger train from it’s very tight schedule.
That night, as the truck backed in, we broke the ice away from the handle and flung open the door. Much to our chagrin, the mail bags were stacked from the floor to the ceiling. Behind the mailbags were rows and rows of boxes. Since none were loaded on pallets, each had to be transloaded by hand. Some were filled with printed material and were very heavy. Many of the boxes and bags, though, were lightweight, packed with Christmas presents, going to far away people and places, each with a wish for a happy holiday season.
At the very front of the truck, pushed up into a corner, stood one last Christmas toy. It was a wooden broomstick horse. Not wrapped in fancy paper or decorated with ribbon, the lone adornment was an address tag that was affixed to the handle just below the head and barely visible under the mane of yellow yarn. As I carried the small item to the mail car, I couldn’t resist the urge to “saddle up”, throwing my leg over the steed’s back and proclaiming, “Hi, Ho Silver…Away!”
My fellow workers, startled at first, began to laugh as hard as I’ve ever heard anyone laugh. I found myself laughing, too, as they were laughing with me, not at me. No thought of embarrassment or apology ever entered my mind. One of my co-workers, a rather elderly gentleman (or so I thought at the time…I think he was about the same age as I am now) confided in me later, with a trace of tears in his eyes, that he had felt the urge to do the same thing, but had resisted, fearing the ridicule of his peers. “I always wanted a pony for Christmas and never got one”, he said sadly, “not even a wooden one”, he muttered as he shuffled off into the cold night.
I vowed then and there to right that injustice, the following day purchasing a stick-horse from a local hardware store and writing his name on a gift tag. I slipped it anonymously into his locker in the Railway Express office, envisioning him riding like the wind around the benches and tables there. I was working in another area when he came in to work that night, so I was unable to see his reaction to the unexpected gift. I was not surprised later, though, when, under his breath, he whispered “Hi, Ho, Silver…Away!” to me as we loaded the mail into the mail car. We exchanged knowing nods and smiles and returned to our task, each bag and box feeling a little lighter…
I was saddened some years later to learn that my fellow rider had suffered a stroke and would not be returning to work. When I went to his home for a visit, he could not speak, nor write, but his eyes shone and sparkled with understanding. A niece had moved into his home to help take care of him and as I was preparing to leave, her small son raced though the living room, riding a stick-horse and proclaiming, “Hi, Ho Silver..Away!” My friend and I exchanged those same knowing nods and smiles.

Later that year, my friend passed away. His family was puzzled over an arrangement of flowers that was delivered to the funeral home with no signature, simply endorsed with the phrase, “Hi, Ho Silver…Away!”

NW Passenger Station BLFD WV

 Pictures from Randy Galpin – Bluefield Historian

Old Depot Bluefield WV Bluefield Yard NW logo

Bluefield WV

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Remembering Another Fine Railroader – Cousin Richard McHaffa

Cousin Richard was one of the most pleasant relatives that I remember. He was kind and encouraging to me and complimentary of my children. I loved his smile. Richard seemed more like an uncle, rather than a cousin since he lived many years with the Buckland boys at Falls Mills, having lost his parents at a young age.  My paternal grandmother, Mary Jane Davidson Buckland and his mother, Nannie Crockett Davidson McHaffa were sisters. Richard would have been 89 today and we still think of him often. And yes, he was a railroader, as was his father. Richard had a 42-year career as a Locomotive Engineer with the Norfolk and Western and Norfolk and Southern Railroad.2012-08-15 06.51.09

September 27, 1924 – August 13, 2012

 McHAFFA Richard 1942 GHS football McHAFFA Richard Graham Class of 1942 McHaffa Richard military MC HAFFA Richard_McHaffa

Richard played football at Graham High School and served his country in the military. He married Jessie Odom on October 4, 1950 in Falls Mills, Virginia. They had three children and for as long as I can remember, they lived out Hwy 52 in Bluefield, WV.

McHaffa Richard Bday 86 - 2010  MCHAFFA Richard 87 in 2011

MCHAFFA, NATHANIEL RICHARD – 87, passed into the arms of his Savior on Monday morning, August 13, 2012, after a short illness. He was a resident of Trinity Hills Senior Living, Knoxville TN, since November of 2011, having moved from Bluefield, WV. Awaiting him were his wife of over 50 years, Jessie Odom McHaffa; his parents Nathaniel Ezra and Nannie Crockett Davidson McHaffa; his brother, Charles Hiram McHaffa, and his sister, Mary Ruth Rutherford, as well as cousins with whom he was raised. He is survived by son, Richard and wife, Debbie of Stuarts Draft, VA; son Michael and wife Debbie of Bluefield, VA; and daughter Eva Pierce and husband, Les of Knoxville, TN; grandchildren Libbie (Tony), Steven, Kristin (Micah), Evan (Sara), and Lance; also 5 great-grandchildren, extended family and friends. Mr. McHaffa was born on September 27, 1924 in Williamson, WV. He was a football letterman and graduate of Graham High School. He served in the Army Air Corps during World War II, stationed in Puerto Rico and Trinidad. He worked briefly as a Surveyor for the Virginia Highway Department, before beginning a 42-year career as a Locomotive Engineer with the Norfolk and Western and Norfolk and Southern Railroad. He was a longtime member of the American Legion, Riley Vest Post. He enjoyed hunting, fishing, high school and college football. Receiving of friends will be held from 5:00-7:00 p.m. Wednesday evening, August 15th, at Centerpointe Baptist Church, 2909 North Broadway, Knoxville, TN, with a Celebration of Life to follow. Visitation will be held at Craven-Shires Funeral Home, Bluefield, WV, Thursday, August 16th from 6:00-8:00. A funeral service will take place Friday, August 17th at 1:00 p.m., with entombment to follow at Woodlawn Cemetery in Bluefield, WV. Family and friends will serve as pallbearers. In lieu of flowers, Mr. McHaffa requested that memorials be made to A Hand Up for Women, P.O. Box 3216, Knoxville, TN 37927.

Railroad Payday, the Call Office and Train Order Hoops

I’m one of those people who just can’t throw away anything with a family memory attached, and we have a garage and attic full of junk to prove it. If you’d ask my husband (CSX Engineer), he’d confirm the fact that the old primitive items, handed down or salvaged by me, are my most prized possessions.

The wooden lock box below is one such treasure. At a point in time before direct deposit, people who worked received real paper checks on “payday“. And if you were like most of us who grew up in the mountains of Virginia & West Virginia, your family lived from payday to payday. The Norfolk & Western Railroad paid-off on the 1st and 15th of each month.

The “call office” on the northside of Bluefield was where the crews were called to work, reported for work and signed off when they finished work. Inside the dusty old homemade box are slots or shelves which held the coveted paychecks in alphabetical order. Notice the letters scratched inside. The crew clerks held the checks under lock and key as the employees stopped in, a crew at a time, to pick up their checks. The railroad has been our bread & butter my whole life – even before me – and for our children too.

The box itself is probably worthless, but it meant enough to my dad that when it was replaced with a more modern system, he came home with the box and stashed it in the basement.

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Dad was known for bringing home the strangest items from the railroad, usually something that would otherwise be thrown away. The iron finial below is one such piece that he had lying around the backyard for years. So heavy that I can hardly move it, I somehow managed to get it in my van and bring it back to Florida and place it among the flowers.  As a railroader’s daughter, and as a railroad clerk operator myself, I’m familiar with many of these antiquities once used on the railroad. This particular piece is the top of a semaphore board or signal board. define 2013-07-19 19.51.15

Train Order Operators would leverage the signal board (below left) from inside the depot to signal the crew. The image (below right) is a V-shaped Train Order hoop.

I actually own such a V-hoop and still have a yellow tissue copy of the first train order that I ever wrote. I have personally set the signal, written the train orders issued by dispatcher and handed up the train orders to crews as their train flew past me. I have stood apprehensively along side the mainline and held the hoop high and still.  As the engines roared by the train order office, a crew member reached his arm out the window and through the hoop. The simple design allowed the twine loop holding the orders to easily slip away from the hoop.

Ditto for the cab crew.

Train Order

Old time railroading is fascinating. If you like it, please follow the blog and my Facebook page.

See more about Train Orders here

hooping_up3          Limon6_27_2005_019

Train orders were of two types: “31’s,” which had to be signed for by a member of the train crew, and “19’s,” which did not. The former were employed when the dispatcher needed to know that the affected train actually had the order, while the latter were used when he did not.

Train-order forms themselves came in pads printed on a thin onion skin paper, or “flimsy,” which enabled crews to read them over the light of a firebox or against a kerosene lantern.source

What is this blog about?

It’s a reasonable question to ask, “Who is The Railroader’s Daughter and WHAT is this blog about? If you’re following this blog, you may wonder why you started following it.

Perhaps, your interest lies in railroads or the old bustling towns of Bluefield, WV and Bluefield, VA, built around the rise of the railroad industry.

On the other hand, you may be my family and you’ve been supportive of my efforts to uncover mounds of genealogy relating to our mountain roots in Russell, Tazewell and Mercer Counties and our relatives who fought to protect their families from the Indians and who were instrumental in establishing county governments and founding towns.

You may be an antique enthusiastic who shares my love of old things, primitive utilitarian items that tell a story of the pioneer ancestors who blazed the trails down through the Shenandoah Valley and into Southwest Virginia.

You may be totally unrelated to any of the above and just like the vintage junk that I drag home and transform into something fun or functional. Whatever the case…..

what is

Evolving over a period of years, The Railroader’s Daughter is an attempt to bring together all the things I’ve learned and loved. You’ll find an array of information, images, family history and surnames as they connect to my roots. There is a page of vintage finds for sale. I also showcase a collection of hand-me-down personal family items that reveal a glimpse into a child growing up in the mountains of southwest Virginia –  a lifestyle I now treasure.

Both of my grandfathers and several great uncles, my father and three of his brothers, one of my brothers and many of our cousins, my husband and I have all worked for the railroad. There have been good times, bad times – stories of coal mines and accidents, floods and survivals, living on the rails and beautifying the railway. It’s a strange way of life to many modern families, but a wonderfully exciting life for those who have experienced the romance of a dining car breakfast with fine linens, a childhood dream of a trip in the Norfolk & Western observation car or the stories of ancestors who moved all their worldly possessions in a boxcar. It’s a plethora of adventure.

I am The Railroader’s Daughter!  I am old enough to have learned a few things and to realize that those who came before me knew a little somethin’ about life. They had it harder than I have it. I appreciate my parents because they cared enough to teach me respect for my elders and how to say, yes ma’am, no sir and thank you. Although I moved away from the beautiful mountains of southwest Virginia when I was only 21,  I well up with pride when I brag about East River Mountain and Ward’s Cove and my roots in Appalachia.

Thanks for visiting, and I hope you’ll come back soon.