The Cliffside Railroad
There’s not another’un like it
Reprinted with permission from the Nov. 1955 issue of Trains Magazine
Magazine edition provided by Charles B. Deviney, Spindale, NC
When engineer Odell Biggerstaff and Fireman-Shop Foreman Corda “Shine” Freeman climb into the well-scrubbed green cab of a steam locomotive bearing the gold herald CLIFFSIDE RAILROAD CO., a good many Americans will clean up on it.
At best Biggerstaff and Freeman will ride their little train 3.68 miles, but that’s long enough to move towels from a huge North Carolina textile mill to a connection with a much larger railroad. After the interchange, thousands of Turkish towels, washcloths, corduroys and suitings will go on display in American stores for housewives who have an eye for material that’s easy on the purse and tough on wear.
The big link between the mill supplying us with goods is the minute Cliffside Railroad which totes 50,000 tons of freight over its well-tailored rail line each year. Imported are loads of coal, starch, dyestuffs, machines and petroleum.
Now to fully appreciate Cliffside, the railroad, one must be acquainted with Cliffside, the town. It’s near Henrietta. That’s a hop, skip and a jump from Six Points. Well, Six Points isn’t too far removed from Avondale. Still no go, huh? All right then. Check your atlas. See Charlotte? Go on down the road a piece to Shelby and next to Forest City. The dot between them is Cliffside.
The town is so named because Second Broad River runs right through the place and there’s a cliff at the side of the town. Cliff. Side. Oh, yes—the First Broad River is off somewhere else.
Smack dab in the middle of Cliffside is a sturdy brick building with an enormous sign–with but one word painted on it: OFFICE. Everybody for counties around knows whose office it is, so further details on the Cone Mills Corporation, Cliffside Division, Cliffside, N.C. weren’t deemed necessary by the sign painter. Besides, it wouldn’t all have fitted.
Each of the main Cliffside streets fans out from the Office. A generous free lot keeps visitors to the Office as well as town shoppers in remarkably fine parking fettle. One of the leading restaurants—atop a garage, oddly enough—displays a placard ENGAGE MIND BEFORE STARTING MOUTH, a rather sound policy reflecting the humor Cliffsiders maintain. On the serious side, Cliffside Boy Scouts meet in a rustic den eagerly provided by loving parents. Other civic projects are big league too.
Nourishing a sense for the historical past, Cliffsiders proudly preserve their last public and well. There used to be hundreds of them. The final one is topped by a trim red roof, and the water drawn up over a wooden wheel is as cool as a gambler’s mind and twice as clear. The well, as you would suspect, stands in the shadow of the Office, near the iron path of the little train puffing into the Cone mill. There, too, is a towel shop in a block of buildings nested under a gigantic village clock set to tinkle off 15-minute intervals. A clerk in the towel mart adds a tinge of historical present too, as she firmly advises customers of the Cliffside Railroad, “There’s not another’un like it.”
In chronicling Cliffside town and Cliffside Railroad (they grew up together), one must deal right off with R.R. Haynes, a paternal personality for both. Mr. Haynes was an umbrella-lugging classic of local-boy-making-good. He started out by setting up store on the mantelpiece of his home in Ferry Community. He was an honest, considerate fellow, and his business soon expanded. By 1899, Mr. Haynes had enough capital to found Cliffside Mills, and the town of Cliffside happened along promptly.
Then Mr. Haynes commenced to thinking of a way to move out the towels. The Seaboard Air Line tracks turned off three miles from Cliffside. Mr. Haynes hobnobbed with B.D. Heath, a South Carolina industrialist interested in railroads too. By 1903 the men point Cliffside Railroad toward the Seaboard. In 1905 Cliffside was chartered. Heath was named president and Haynes vice-president. Haynes was later president. Directors and stockholders included big names in Carolina banking and pharmaceutical circles. The line has always paid dividends. One year, exceptional to be sure, Cliffside rendered a 400 per cent return.
All said and done, Haynes was to Cliffside Road what Henry Hudleston Rogers was to the Virginian and Billy Mahone to the Norfolk and Western and C.P. Huntington to the Chesapeake & Ohio. Haynes rode his train at least three times a week, even if no business provided an excuse to board the steam cars.
In the beginning, Cliffside operated three secondhand steam locomotives bought from elevated railroads up in the northern big cities. These 12-ton machines machines were nicknamed “dummies”; and pretty soon Mr. Haynes’ railroad got to be known as the “Dummy Line.”
Mr. Haynes didn’t cotton to that.
“Our railroad is named Cliffside,” he reminded people. To this day, no one belittles the Cliffside.
Why, a filling station attendant at Henrietta brags of building his home near the tracks just to enable him to watch the train chug by his porch. Housewives near Cliffside High School—which sports a stone stadium fashioned from a small cliff—think nothing of hanging out their wash before the train comes. They know Engineer Biggerstaff will see to it that the smokestack doesn’t burp cinders at their clothesline.
This live-and-let-live routine goes back to Mr. Haynes. Back in hard times, a man once asked Haynes for a job as carpenter. “I’m sorry,” Mr. Haynes said, shifting the ever-present umbrella in his hand, “but we have no positions open just now.”
The man turned away, and as he walked off he stooped to pick up a bent nail, stuffing it into his pocket.
Mr. Haynes called to him. “Hold on here. What was the idea of picking up that nail?”
“Oh,” the man said, “I always pick up things that I might use later on. I can straighten out this nail. Sometimes I pick up corn, or beans, pieces of wood and all.”
“I think you are the kind of man we need,” Mr. Haynes mused. The man was hired.
Even today, Cliffside is frugal. The caboose is remodeled from the former express car used during passenger service days.
Cliffside’s steam engines were brought from other railroads throughout the years. The coffeepots bore Manhattan descent; #26, a Mogul, came from the famed used locomotive lot of Southern Iron & Equipment in Atlanta, Ga.; and the #18, an 18-ton saddletanker, was a Glover Machine Works product. Today’s power moved in after ownership elsewhere. The big engine, a Baldwin, formerly donned Lancaster and Chester Livery. Before Cliffside bought the engine in 1947 the 2-8-0 served the textile mill in South Carolina which runs the funny ads about sheets. The smaller Cliffside locomotive—sh-h-h-h— has a flaming past. The #110, we’ll have you know, was once a wood burner. The Vulcan prodigy now contents itself on a coal diet. (Read the complete roster of engines owned by the Cliffside Railroad.)
Somebody ought to make a movie about Cliffside anyway—at least a short subject because it’s such a short line. Movie goers would get a big bang out of the true story of Mother Cliffside’s chickens.
One rainy day not very long ago, Biggerstaff and Freeman spotted amongst a spinney of roses a forlorn band of bantam biddies flopping about in the mud. Mama hen, alas, tended to business elsewhere and she’d neglected to recruit a baby-sitter.
Biggerstaff and Freeman stopped the train, picked up the chicks and scooped out a hole in the coal pile on the tender where it was nice and dry. When the train ended run, the biddies refused to budge. There they stayed, thank you.
“Those chickens lived perfectly normal lives,” Secretary-Treasurer Hollis M. Owens recalls. “They’d hop off and go scratching about while the engine switched. When it came time to go, Biggerstaff’d blow twice and the chickens would come a-running. Now that’s the truth and no fixing about it.” [We have photographic proof that these chickens actually existed.]
One of the larger chicks was named Hollis, for Owens. Another was called Charley, for Charles H. Haynes, who was president. A third was dubbed Maurice for Maurice Hendrick, former secretary.
The littlest one of them all turned out to be a lady chicken. The Cliffside people knew better than to kill the golden chicken that might lay the egg in the coal pile, so they named her Bessie, and allowed her to enjoy full sway in the tender.
It is not every railroad, then, entitled to make this claim. It won’t pull a setting hen off her nest, but it is strong enough to pull a long train of freight cars.