I don't know exactly what excited me about this, but I knew I absolutely HAD to ride this train! A group of friends piled into my Plymouth station wagon with me and we took off up route 168 to Moyock. Wow! There was a big crowd there. I mean, this was a BIG crowd. Moyock had a population somewhere near 100, but there must have been 1000 people there that day all crowding around the tracks through the little hamlet.
Then there was a murmur through the crowd. Somebody had heard a steam whistle. And very quickly it came around the bend in the serpentine tracks into view. Golly, it was belching smoke! My adrenaline hit max. That this was making a very strong impression on me would be an understatement.
We tried to follow the train back to Elizabeth City along the highway which ran parallel for quite a lot of the way. I even knew the back road through Snowden that all the others following didn't know about. There was quite a traffic snarl following that thing. Only the leaders got to run next to the locomotive. There was a motorcycle with a rider on the back facing the wrong way with a camera. He could run up the center line and get around the traffic even when the other lane wasn't clear. Since then I've seen that done in Italy, but it was very striking to me at the time.
Eventually we got to the old brick depot in Elizabeth City. The train stopped and exchanged passengers. They let everybody get up close to the locomotive and get a good look. I negotiated with my friends to get a designated driver to run to the next town and pick us up. Then we rode the steam train and somebody at home made a tape recording that day. You could clearly hear the steam locomotive whistle on the tape. I still have that tape.
Before this steam excursion, I had little interest in history. Actually, even today, my history interests are very narrow. I grew up in the South and everybody was always re-living the Civil War (or the War of Northern Aggression). I didn't find much of this very interesting. My friends were finding arrow heads from the Indian days, and musket balls from the Civil War. I politely acknowledged them but didn't really have any interest in it.
Now I have a keen interest in railroad history. Later I found out that an individual had saved that locomotive 4501 from the scrap heap and restored it to operation. Later in the process he got some help from a museum and others. Southern Railroad at the time had a steam excursion department. There were other steam locomotives that had been restored and were operated on their main-line railroad. Literally thousands of people were made aware of railroad history, and Southern's concern: they were made more aware of railroad safety.
Having a real live artifact that can be experienced doing what it was made to do can have a profound effect on everybody who has the opportunity to see it. I have the book that documents the restoration of this locomotive. It isn't a story of steel and coal. It's a warm story about the people who came to help make this locomotive a reality. It's a story about the volunteers who came to sweat in a dirty old locomotive shop. It's about the volunteers who didn't want, nor ever ask for any pay. These people gave huge amounts of their time, effort, and cash to preserve a connection with their own past. With your past and my past.
People need roots. We need to know where we came from. It is an incredible experience to actually LIVE a little of our past and to actually smell the steam and coal smoke.
It was a time trip! It was so easy to imagine it was 45 years back to the time when the Army was there. You could easily imagine the card games that must have gone on there. The bets on just about anything and everything. There must have been a whole bunch of guys living there with a lot of free time spent in those Quonset huts.
They were brought together by a war. War is not good. War, however, does bring out a few notable human traits. These guys were far from home. A bunch of them were forced to live here together in these Quonset huts. They had a very strong bond in their mission against the enemy. It wasn't easy being here. Their loved ones were far away. Maybe they left something of these very strong emotions here. The common emotion of being united in one cause. That can really bring out strong feelings. The emotions of dealing with new technology. Some of these guys ran the radar at Chiniak. These things were very secret then. There had been astounding technological advances in a very short time. Life was uncertain. Any time the enemy could show up on the horizon. These guys you shared this hut with might be the guys you died with. They kept thinking about wives and sweethearts back home. There were letters read here. They wrote letters back to friends and family back in the states. Hurry up and wait. The lousy food. This damn stinking little Quonset hut.
I stood there, in the woods, inside that Quonset hut. Thinking. What was it like back then. I was almost there. I could almost convince myself it was 1945. This was powerful. I couldn't get this feeling reading a book. I couldn't get this feeling watching a documentary on PBS. Being there in that Quonset hut was a real experience.
Today I can't go there. I can't share the Quonset huts at Chiniak. I can't say, "Look at this. Wow!"