At the very southern end of the Elkins-Otter Creek Lizard Map you will find the town of Durbin. And there you’ll find the Durbin Rocket, which is an 1920s coal-fired steam engine with an assortment of vintage train cars, including an open car, dining car, a cargo car and a caboose, that you can wander through while enjoying a two hour ride. In train-world, this is called an excursion, and for train aficionados, the Durbin Rocket is a Heisler No. 6 locomotive. It is a great experience for the whole family and a great way to see the beautiful and remote Greenbrier River as the railroad winds its way along the riverbank through Monongahela National Forest.
The Durbin Rocket lets you step back in time and experience what travel was like over a 100 years ago in America. The excitement of travelling by train is still palpable, you can see it in the faces of the children and adults as we board the gangplank connecting the restored rail station to the train car. The train starts up with all the clanking, whistling, thumping and general noise and vibration you may have expected, because this is nothing like the smooth commuter trains or subway cars they evolved into. This is a vintage steam powered locomotive that burns coal to make horsepower. The steam and coal soot spews out of the stack and settles back on the passengers riding in the open car directly behind the locomotive. This is as far from zero emissions as possible – this is heavy particulate exhaust, and we are loving it.
The trip takes 2 hours to cover 10.5 miles, so the term ‘rocket’ is definately a throwback to what people thought ‘fast’ was at the turn of the 20th century. That's the turn of the other last century—as in the 1900s. However, at the time the Heisler was the fastest of the geared steam engine designs. About 625 Heislers were produced and less than 35 survive today, and most of those are in museums, so it is a rare treat to be able to ride on one.
Once you get used to the noise and smell of the locomotive you can turn your attention to the Greenbrier River. The Greenbriar is a fairly remote river in west Virginia, and this section is not accessible by road or trail, so riding the train is the only way to see it, other than boating down it. I like to think much of this is very similar in appearance to 1920, although I know the legacy of logging would have made the panoramas very different. Today we enjoy a thick forest that offers every shade of green imaginable.
I wonder how often the residents of this long-forgotten cabin would look up from their daily activities and wave as the train rolled by. They would have had plenty of warning as the rumbling sounds of the Heisler #6 rolled up the valley.
The train moves at a slow pace and gives us time to wander through the cars and think about what life was like over 100 years ago. Behind the locomotive is the coal car, called a tender, which carries the fuel. Then comes the open car that has a long bench running the length to sit on. You get used to swaying back and forth with the rhythm of the train. The conductor warned us when we reached any slight grade that the smoke would increase along with a dusting of coal soot, which instantly sticks to skin and clothing. When this warning came, we retreated to the covered open car, which has seats facing both ways. There is also a cargo car, which now has some windows and a few restaurant style tables and benches.
And finally, the car that captures everyones imagination, the caboose. This car served as the conductor's office, and it was the place to cook food for the crew and provide sleeping areas. The caboose is charming with two high seats above the main roof that children, and this childish adult, love to climb up into and watch the world go by. The real purpose of these is for the crew to visually inspect the train for shifting loads or other potential concerns because in its era these trains were mechanical beasts of burden and it took a crew to keep them running. It has a wood stove all the way in the back, and then you reach the final 'porch'. Because this excursion was out and back, the first leg of the trip has the caboose going forward, so one of the best views is from the porch.
We had no idea what a fusee or torpedo was, but being the working office of a train, they were kept here. Further research informed us that a fusee was a primitive version of what we would call an automotive safety flare today. It was more volatile, but the general idea was that if your train broke down and you needed to warn a following train of that fact you could light the fusee on the ground behind the train. Now remember, it takes quite a distance for a train to stop, so this is where the torpedo comes in. The torpedo, as the name implies, is a small explosive device that explodes when a train runs over it. It doesn't hurt the train, but it sends a clear message to the crew that trouble is ahead and they need to hit the brakes. If your train broke down and you needed to warn a following train of that situation you had to guess how long it would take for that train to stop, and walk down the tracks that distance and place the torpedo on the track. Then walk back to your train and light a fusee. And then, one supposes, begin the hard work of repairing a train in the middle of nowhere under the immense pressure that another train may run into you at some point. This was a very self-reliant and resourceful generation of people.
On this particular trip, we were retrieving another caboose. This bright red caboose can be rented as a private cabin in the wilderness, which sounds just magical. They call this the 'Castaway Caboose'. The train will drop you off on this side spur, where you have a private deck overlooking a remote stretch of Greenbrier River, and retrieve you in a few days. The rental caboose is well equipped with a modern kitchen, bath, shower and sleeping quarters for 4 adults.
The train had to stop and a crewman jumped out to throw the mechanical railroad switch so the Durbin Rocket could leave the main track and retrieve the Castaway caboose.
Once the private caboose was hooked up, our journey continued. In our modern world of hyper-automation, where mysterious gadgets connect via bluetooth, it was kind of amazing to see, and actually feel, the raw mechanical coupler in motion. It made bare toes seem extremely vulnerable, even from a safe distance.
The entire experience of riding the Durbin Rocket for a couple of hours made us understand why they call this an excursion. It's an adventure with an element of time travel, offering a glimpse into our past that helps provide context for our present day lives. For a short time we were back in the early 1900s, there is no cell service so that distraction of a phone could only be useful as a camera. Trains just like this moved goods and people across America, and the world, for over 100 years and for those who travelled in this era, the Durbin Rocket must have seemed like the 2020 Tesla of its time. Your options were to walk, ride a horse, take a horse drawn stagecoach, and later take early automobiles once a road network took shape—but for a very long time the most efficient, cost effective method was to take a steam locomotive. Rolling thru the West Virginia countryside on a train from the last century is a trip I hope everyone gets to experience while they can.