The Cliffside Railroad
A Special Brand of Southern Charm
From Shop Talk, Bulletin of the N.C. Transportation Museum, Winter 1998
By John McRae
Trained, because they shared a love of railroading with the fine breed of men known as railroaders.
Four particular chickens were ardent fans of North Carolina’s Cliffside Railroad, legend has it. In fact they were railfans extraordinaire!
The story of the Cliffside Railroad chickens goes back to the 1930s.
The story is true, though it sounds romanticized.
One day as one of the railroad’s steam locomotives approached Cliffside Junction on the 3.7 mile line, the fireman Van Macopson, saw a bantam hen with her three chicks on the right-of-way beside their nest.
Some folks say the chicks had already hatched. Others say they were still on the way. But in either case the train was stopped and the chickens and their nest were put on board the locomotive’s tender.
The next day, Macopson stopped the train again and gathered up the chickens for a short ride.
After repeatedly being put on the train at the sound of the whistle announcing the train’s movement, the story gores that the chickens began to place themselves on the tender. And soon they learned a new trick: Whenever the train stopped or pulled into the shop between runs, chickens flapped to the ground to scratch and peck about the yards. When the whistle called, they could be seen scurrying along to get on board.
The railroaders named the mother hen Bessie, after the wife of Cliffside’s Walter Haynes, and one of the community’s leading ladies.
The chicks were named Charlie, for the president of the railroad, Charles Haynes; for Maurice Hendrick, then secretary of the railroad and general manager of the mill in Cliffside; and Hollis, for Hollis Owens, the railroad’s treasurer.
The railfanning family of chickens were a hit, and everyone knew that the story would live on long after the railroad might stop operations.
Later, an article in Trains magazine by H. Reid drew visitors and mail from around the world to see the spectacle of these trained chickens.
Alas, neither the chickens nor the Cliffside lasted.
The little line, formed in 1905 to serve the textile mill there, shut down in 1992 and officially closed in the summer of 1997.
But the story of the Cliffside, even without the chickens, is fascinating.
A local business man, R.R. Haynes, started the mill in 1899. Transportation of the mill’s products was a great concern. The closest railroad was the Seaboard Air Line, slightly less than 4 miles away. Haynes had discussed the matter with this good friend, B.D. Heath, a prominent businessman in the Carolinas. And the two launched the railroad.
Phillip White, principal of Cliffside Elementary School and the town’s historian, has built a wealth of history on the road.
One of his favorites is about the train’s engineer, who played a prank on the local school children.
It was usual for the train to be returning to Cliffside when the children were returning to school after eating lunch at home. Customarily, the engineer stopped the train and boarded those who lived along the right-of-way, bringing them back to the school grounds.
“All they had to do when the train stopped was jump off, run across the ballfield and they were at the schoolhouse,” White said.
The kids apparently took the free rides for granted. To tease them, the engineer one day decided not to stop to let them off, and instead took them all the way to the scheduled stop. With a good laugh, White adds, “Of course they were late!”
The Cliffside started out with three second-hand 15-ton Forney Type locomotives in its earliest years and three second-hand passenger cars. That service only lasted until 1926 when the automobile became a dependable mode of transportation, especially for such short distances.
The line was extended to Avondale in 1916 when Haynes Mill began operations.
Raw materials as well as supplies for the community were hauled into Cliffside and Avondale, and the finished products were hauled the other direction to Cliffside Junction for shipment on the Seaboard to market. In fact, numerous sources have indicated that the railroad hauled over 50,000 tons of textiles from the factories for many years.
In later years, Cliffside Railroad locomotives 40, a beautiful 2-8-0 with a capped stack, and 110, a low-slung Prairie type, became celebrities themselves by virtue of their longevity. Years after most other railroads had switched to diesels, the Cliffside’s steamers kept going—until July 20, 1962. Two General Electric diesels took over, and one served until the line’s end.
Today, No. 40, built in 1925, hauls tourists for the New Hope & Ivyland Railroad in Pennsylvania. No. 110 is on display at the Stone Mountain Scenic Railroad near Atlanta. One of the Cliffside’s wooden cabooses is a permanent part of the N.C. Transportation Museum collection, parked on track No. 1 in the Roundhouse.
They’re there today to remind us of the colorful little railroad that once made it way through the countryside of Rutherford County to the delight of all who had the good fortune to know the line, chickens and humans alike.