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 Ohio Revisited: Belmont County, Part 15 -- A Trip on the Poor Man's Railroad: From Woodfield to Bellaire.

by Henry Howe.

The initial letters of the name of a railway terminating at Bellaire are "B.Z.&C." Ask people on that line "What B.Z.&C. stand for? With a quizzical smile they will often answer "badly zigzag and crooked." Having just come over it I can say that exactly describes it. Its name, however, is Bellaire, Zanesville & Cincinnati. Its projector and builder of that part within this county was Col. John H. Sullivan of Bellaire -- a calm, dignified gentleman, clear and careful in his statements, whom it did me good to meet.

It was impracticable to build an ordinary railroad through the rough wild country of the Ohio river hills of Belmont and Monroe counties, so the colonel planned a narrow gauge with steep grades and sharp curves; and he called it The Poor Man's Railroad. From Woodsfield, the county-seat of Monroe, to Bellaire -- a distance of forty-two miles, on which passenger trains go about sixteen miles an hour -- it cost only $11,500 per mile to build the track, a miracle of cheapness even back then. This included land, grading, bridges, tracks -- everything exclusive of rolling stock. It was finished to Woodsfield in 1877, and all by private subscription. It is of incalculable benefit to the farmers of the Ohio river hills, for the cost of good wagon roads among them is enormous and a serious drawback to the development of the country.

A large part of the road is a succession of curves, trestle work, and steep grades. In places the road rises over 130 feet to the mile, and some of the curves have a radius of only 400 feet; at one spot there is a reverse curve on a trestle. Where curves are so sharp the outer rail is placed three inches the higher than the inner rail to hold the cars on the track; but the friction creates a horrid screeching of the wheels.

Like this railroad, the Colorado Central also is a narrow gauge. It leads from the Union Pacific to the mining regions of Colorado. Its extreme grade is more than twice that of this, 275 feet to the mile. Some gentlemen riding over it on a platform car to see the country said such was the irregularity of the motion that they were obliged to cling "for dear life" to the sides of the car to prevent being jerked off. From my experience I think the Badly Zigzag and Crooked railroad is a trifle less shaky.

I wrote the following in my notebook: Bellaire, Friday evening, May 28. -- Left Woodsfield early this morning and got on the train for Bellaire; only a single passenger car with a few men aboard, but no women! I felt sorry; I always like to see 'em about. Their presence sort o' sanctifies things (cleans things up a bit). Away we went on this little baby railroad, the "Badly Zigzag and Crooked."

The town I had left behind, placed high up in the hills, was quite primitive; it had scarcely changed since my first visit in 1846. In a few minutes we were zigzagging, twisting down a little run in a winding chasm among the hills wooded to their summits, the scenery very wild, every moment the cars changing their direction and shaking us about with their constant jar and grind, and wobbling now to one side and then to the other.

In twenty minutes I was peeping through charming vistas into a wild valley. In a few more minutes we were in it, crossed a little bridge some six rods wide, and paused at the farther side next to a little cottage -- in all aspects domestic and un-railroad-like, notwithstanding its sign "Sunfish Station."

The Pretty Sunfish

Yes, this little romantic stream was the Sunfish. I looked down the valley, a deep chasm, narrow, tortuous, with its wood-clad hills, the lights and shades on the scene all glorious in the early morning light. What a pretty name -- "Sunfish!" instinctively the mind takes in the little creature that dwells in the freedom of the waters and darts around clad in its beauty spots of crimson and gold, down there where everything is so clean and pure.

How I longed to get out of the cars and follow the thin winding little stream until it was lost in the Ohio River, some twenty miles away; to feast my eyes with its hidden beauties, all unknown to the great outside world -- beauties of sparkling cascades and laughing waters, and smooth, silent, dark reaches, where frowning cliffs and dense foliage and summer clouds seem as sleeping down below.

They tell me that the Ohio State Fish Commission in 1885 put into the Sunfish half a million California trout and salmon; the stream naturally abounds in yellow perch. At Sunfish Station a woman, modestly dressed, with children and bundles, came aboard. Out of respect to the woman the conductor asked the men to stop smoking. Out through the windows went the vile Wheeling stogie -- the poor man's cigar. (It is said that Wheeling annually turns out tens of millions, and all this part of the country smoke them -- in the millions.)

Then up out of the chasm our train went, again twisting, wobbling, squeaking, screeching with the same deafening, infernal grind, the engine one moment poking its nose this way and then that, like Bruno or Snow Flake searching for a bone. We were going up to the birthplace of a mountain rill that was on its way rejoicing to help along the pretty Sunfish.

A Future Jay Gould

After a little my attention was caught by a living object. On a cleared space of a quarter of an acre, ten rods away on a cleft in the hillside, stood a miserable log-hut without a door or a window in sight. By it was a boy -- about six years old -- wearing a single garment. It would have been worth a plum to have known what that boy was thinking as he gazed out upon our train.

To be interested in motion is a grand human instinct. A great minister said to me once, "From my study window I get just a glimpse of the top of the smoke-stack of the locomotive on the railroad thirty rods away; but no matter how absorbing my study, I invariably look up at every passing train." This was the late Leonard Bacon, the same person to whose writings Abraham Lincoln attributed his first insight on the wrongs of slavery.

As I looked upon this child I felt an inward respect for his prospects in life. I felt like taking off my hat to him: a human being, anyway, is a wondrous thing. He may be the Jay Gould of 1930. Certainly to be born poor and among the hills, seems to be no barrier to an eventual grasp of prosperity -- for what is better than to seek the highest, purest, noblest development of one's self.

Beautiful Belmont

A little later we were in the open, elevated country of beautiful Belmont County. It seemed as though we were on the roof of the world. No forests in sight, but huge, round, grassy hills, on which sheep were grazing, and a vast, boundless prospect stretching like a billowy ocean of green all around, with here and there warm, red-hued patches -- plowed fields. We could see white farm houses glistening in the morning sun, miles on miles away.

Henry Stanberry, once riding in a stage-coach on the National Road through this region, said: "I should have liked to have been born in Belmont County." "Why?" inquired a companion. "Because people born in a country of marked features have marked features themselves."

Captina Valley

The valley of the Captina was reached from the tablelands by a rapid descent, when we stopped a few moments at a mining point -- Captina Station Bridge. It was just long enough for me to sketch from the car windows a row of miners cottages. From these homes the occupants would go forth every morning to their work, descending a perpendicular hole in the ground seventy-three feet. To strike the same vein, "The Pittsburgh vein," at Steubenville, in the county to the north, they descend from 225 to 261 feet, being about the deepest shafts then in the state.

Reflections on My Mining Experience

I had a mining experience on 13 July 1843. On that day I got into a basket suspended over the Midlothian coal mine near Richmond, Virginia, and descended perpendicularly, by steam, 625 feet. Then, being put in the care of the overseer, I went down ladders and slopes so that I attained a depth of about 1,000 feet from the surface.

The overseer took me everywhere, exploring, as he said, about four miles. lt was noon when I entered the pit, and when I came out above ground and got out of the basket I was astonished to find the twilight of a summer evening pervading the landscape. I found the owner had never ventured into his own mine, and I learned it is often the same with owners in Ohio. I am glad I ventured, yet it was not an experience that I care to repeat. But the music of the sweet singers that evening at the mansion of the mine owner, whose guest I was, rested me after my toil, and lingers in my memory.

The Ohio River

From Captina we soon descended into a narrow valley, passing by some small, neat, white cottages with long porches and poultry trotting around in side yards. Then, suddenly, the broad valley of the Ohio River burst forth before us. Following the river banks, we were soon in that hive of industry and glass -- Bellaire.

This entry is adapted from Henry Howe's HISTORICAL COLLECTIONS OF OHIO (2 vols., 1907). The book has been reedited, updated, and restructured for inclusion in the Pierian Press Fulltext eBooks database, and is included on the Stratton House Inn Web site by special permission. This entry is licensed for use ONLY on this Web site. This entry may not be copied or downloaded, but may be used for educational purposes and personal pleasure under fair-use provisions via this Web site. Please note that the Stratton House Inn iteration of this entry does NOT include the subject headings assigned the entry for use in the Fulltext eBooks database.

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