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Clinchfield's Duke Branch Operations
by A.R. Poteat

In his group’s March 1999 newsletter, The Jitterbug, A.R. Poteat, of the Carolina Clinchfield Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society, wrote of the Duke Power-Cliffside/Clinchfield association. Mr. Poteat, editor of the newsletter and president of the Chapter, resides in Bostic, N.C. Here's the article in full.

From the very beginning the main purpose for the construction of the Clinchfield Railroad was to supply an outlet for the vast seams of coal discovered in the Appalachian range of mountains in eastern Kentucky and western Virginia. Upon completion of the road's construction, and the tapping of these resources, it then became prudent to develop a market for that coal in order to justify the expense of that construction.

Major markets were established during the course of time, but mostly on the lines of the roads that connected with the Clinchfield. On the local road, however, only Eastman at Kingsport, Tennessee, and a lesser market at Johnson City, provided any sizable degree of coal consumption. There were a few cars consumed by customers at points all along the line, but mostly in insignificant amounts. This does not take into account the Clinchfield Coal Company's storage facility at Bostic Yard, where as many as 2400 cars per year were unloaded and then reshipped to destinations in the Southeast. Even the actual consumption of this coal was at sites on the Clinchfield's connecting roads.

In the late 1930's, as the small towns and cities of Western North and South Carolina were expanding their borders, and farmers and residents in the rural areas were beginning to discard their kerosene lamps and battery powered radios in favor of electric lights and other electrical appliances, the need for additional electrical power became evident in the Piedmont and Thermal Belt sections of North Carolina, and Duke Power Company began to make plans to remedy the power shortage.

Duke Power Company bought up a large tract of land on the south side of Broad River, just below Cliffside, N. C., and contacted the railroads to see what could be done about getting track laid to the plant that they proposed to build. The Cliffside Railroad, whose track came within two miles of the proposed plant, provided the nearest railroad access. This line would have required the construction of two railroad bridges, one of them very expensive, somewhat on the order of Clinchfield's own spectacular crossing of Broad River.

A view of Unit 5 in an early stage of construction in 1970, seen from the unloading tracks of the older plant. A. R. Poteat collection.

Neither the expense of railroad and bridge construction, nor the lack of expense due to the close proximity of the line actually had any bearing on whether or not a connection with the Cliffside Railroad would have been feasible. The truth of the matter was that this line would necessarily have resulted in considerably higher freight rates. Coal coming from the mines would have had to move down the Clinchfield to Bostic Yard, then via Seaboard Air Line, by way of Ellenboro and the Caroleen Branch, to the Cliffside Railroad at Cliffside Junction. By dividing the freight accruals between all three carriers, a higher freight rate would be required in order for the railroads to make a profit on the haulage.

The alternative was to have the Clinchfield Railroad construct a six and one half mile spur track from Brice, just south of their Broad River bridge at mile post 259, to the proposed facility near Cliffside. Having agreed on this concept, the two parties began their separate construction projects; the railroad building the railroad, and the power company building the plant.

Construction was begun on both projects in January, 1939, coincidentally the same year that the coal storage facility at Bostic Yard was destroyed by fire. By June 18, 1940, Unit # 1 was started up by Duke Power, and on July 30, unit #2 was started up, with each of them in commercial service six weeks after start up, providing 40 MW of electricity each.

The railroad construction had been completed in time to have coal in place by the start up date. The rail facilities consisted of a double ended storage track near the mainline at Brice, capable of handling some 40 cars or more, the actual branch line trackage, and two tracks for dumping coal at the power plant. The nearly seven mile long track leading to the plant left the mainline off the storage track, and had to be entered from the south. The Duke Branch was built in a somewhat roller coaster style when compared to the rather smooth and compensated grades of the mainline, bottoming out in the valleys before going over the tops of the hills. The two tracks that served the plant crossed over an unloading hopper, and two cars could be dumped simultaneously, and that without the use of vibrators. The use of sledge hammers banging on the sides of cars was the method of dislodging coal that stubbornly clung to the cars.

The most coal that was unloaded by Units #1 and #2 was 26 cars, when building up the coal pile in preparation for erecting Units #3 and #4 in 1948. The new units were capable of producing 65 MW of electricity each, and the plant would operate at the production level provided by the combined capacity of the four units for the next 24 years.

For operating and accounting purposes, the coal was not billed to Cliffside,or even Duke, but rather to the point on the mainline known as Brice. In fact, as far as railroad billing and operations is concerned,no such place exists at the end of the Duke Branch. Having worked as a freight agent on the railroad for over 40 years, this is a point that has greatly intrigued me for most of my career. In spite of my inquiries to various officials during those years, no resulting explanations for that unusual circumstance have been forthcoming in all that time, and in fact, those same officials were just as intrigued when they stopped to think about it. I do know that the same situation does not apply on the branch lines on the north end of the railroad. The 14 mile long Fremont Branch, for instance, has spur tracks, or stations, all along the line, with names such as Holly Creek, Dickenson, Cranes Nest, Mullins, Lick, Phipps, which is still active today, and Moss, at the end of the line. Yet, oddly enough, the same situation does not apply on the Duke Branch, in all likelihood due to the applicable freight rates in effect at the time the plant was built in 1939. There was already a railroad station called Cliffside on the Cliffside Railroad, and if the Clinchfield had called its station Cliffside, and used it as the billing station, the applicable freight rates would have been the same as the rate that would have applied on the Cliffside Railroad, which would have been considerably more than the rates applying to Brice.

In the beginning, and until the concept of unit trains were begun, practically every coal train leaving Erwin would have a hand full of Duke Power coal billed to Brice, North Carolina. The Agent and operators at Bostic Yard then made the decision whether to have the coal set off at Bostic Yard, or taken to Brice and set off in the storage track. If the storage track at Brice was full, then of course, it had to be set off at Bostic. There was a local that operated out of Bostic Yard called the Duke Shifter, which reported at 7:00 a.m. each day except Sunday, whose primary purpose was to take coal to the power plant and bring back the empty cars from the previous day. That job also worked Forest City, Harris, and Chesnee in its normal tour of duty.

The personnel at Duke Power would call the Agent at Bostic Yard each day at about 3:00 p.m. to find out how many cars were available for the next day, and then leave instructions for how many cars they actually wanted for the 4 units then in production. The usual practice was to order either 22, 32, or 42 cars, but occasionally as few as 16. Sometimes they would simply say, "Bring `em all!"

By 1970, Duke Power was ready for another expansion, and this time it consisted of an entire new facility, constructed by Bechtel Corporation, which started up in May, 1972. This plant, called Unit #5, was able to exceed the output of the combined Units #1 through #4, by nearly three to one, at 595 MW. This increased production would dramatically increase the amount of coal required to operate the plant. In order to handle the increase volume of coal, a new unloading facility was built adjacent to the new plant. A new three track coal receiving yard, capable of handling 100 or more cars at a time was built, and a return loop was built to simplify and expedite the operations.

Just about the time that the new facility was going on line, the Clinchfield Railroad had begun to offer, and participate in, unit coal train rates, which benefited both the customer and the railroad, and Duke Power Company quickly agreed to the concept. However, this would create an operational problem in getting the longer trains onto the Duke Branch. It would have necessitated taking a coal train to Chesnee, running around it, then heading back onto the branch from the south. To prevent this requirement, and to insure an efficient, smooth operation, another outlay of funds was approved by railroad management to remedy the situation.

A new signaled turnout was installed just south of Broad River Bridge that allowed a southbound coal train to leave the mainline, swing to the left, connect with the existing Duke Branch, and proceed on to Duke in one continuous operation. Returning empty trains entered the mainline on signal indication located at mile post D-1. If the dispatcher could handle the train on the mainline, the train could conceivably leave the power plant and not have to stop until reaching Erwin. But then again, how often do we see that happen in actual practice?

The storage track and south entrance to the branch were left intact, and in effect created a Wye at Brice. The old tracks were then used mostly for storage. During the mid 70's there was at least one Brice coal train that had come down from Corbin via Atlanta, Greenwood, and Spartanburg, and entered Duke Branch through the so called South leg of the Wye. The Brice storage track was destroyed in a derailment at Brice about 1974 when a north bound train hit a truck at a crossing and struck a car sitting in the storage track. The south leg was removed sometime later when vandals knocked the brakes off a cut of cars that were stored on the track, allowing them to roll down the hill, over a derail, and pile up in a heap just west of US Highway 221 overpass.

While on the subject of derailments, we might add that a major incident occurred during the late 80's, when a 90-car train left the mainline at Brice and derailed over the Highway 221 overpass. The engineer was not familiar with the steep descending grade and tight left-handed curve that is encountered immediately upon leaving the mainline, and did not have his train under control as he began the descent. As the train continued to pickup speed, the rear 25 or so of the cars were not able to make the curve, and derailed, tearing down the bridge and spilling into the highway below. The caboose came within one car of being derailed itself, with the car immediately ahead of it being off the track, but still upright. It was a spooky time for those riding the rear of the train, but luckily, no one, either on the train or in the highway below, were injured. It was reported that the brakeman, riding in the left cupola of the caboose and observing the mayhem unfolding before him, turned to the conductor on the other side and said in a slow drawl, "We're wrecking!--- I'm talking, Big time!"

When the new unit train operation began, in 1971, a crew brought the train to Bostic Yard from Erwin, and left it on the mainline between the passing track switches. A regularly assigned crew at Bostic would report each morning at 7:00 a.m., take the train to Duke, unload the coal, and return the empties to Bostic. A crew was then called to match up with the local to take the empty train back to Erwin.

Nowadays, a crew from Erwin takes the train, usually 90 to 100 cars powered by two 4400 horsepower locomotives, all the way to the plant and starts the unloading operation. A relief crew is called at either Bostic Yard or Spartanburg to finish the unloading. Usually, that crew will have time to finish dumping and start back to Erwin with the train, but occasionally a third crew will have to be sent to the plant to handle the empty train.

Earlier we spoke of coal consumption, and it will be interesting to refer to Jeremy Taylor's survey of traffic on the Blue Ridge from the December, 1998 issue. In that survey we learned that 1,292,000 tons of coal were consumed at Cliffside in 1997, which translates into 141 ninety car trainloads per year, or an average of 2.7 trains per week, quite an increase over the amount consumed in 1940 by units 1 and 2.

That brings us up to date on the operations, but there have been some changes in the accounting procedures as well. In the beginning, the freight bills were prepared by the Agency at Chesnee. Then, in the early 50's, a full time Agent was assigned to the Harris station, and the job was awarded to Clark Stewart, who remained on the job until his death in the mid 60's. When the Harris station was closed, the billing was again handled by the Agent at Chesnee, a job that I held from 1974 until 1984. In about 1982, the responsibility for preparing Duke Power's freight bills and collecting the freight charges was transferred to the Customer Service Center in Jacksonville, Florida.

Before closing, we will briefly mention the motive power that has been used by Duke Power in their daily operations. According to their records, the first locomotive was a 20-ton coal fired steam engine transferred to the plant from construction in 1939. It had been built in 1913, and cost the plant a whopping $75.00. Worn out when received, it could only handle four loaded 50 ton cars at a time, but yet the plant held on to it until January 1954, five years after getting their first diesel-electric locomotive, a diminutive 25- ton job. The plant now uses two diesels, one of 50 tons, and the other a larger 80 ton unit.