"Chasing the Powhatan Arrow" What's Life Like Along the Line?

Nov 18, 2016

A new book about a legendary locomotive that once ran from Virginia’s Tidewater to the Ohio Valley, offers a different perspective on rail travel.  Southwest Virginia Writer, Michael Abraham, has written a book, that is not so much about the magnificent train itself, but rather, the places it passed through. Robbie Harris prepared this report.  

“Michael Abraham says what he “found so compelling about The Powhatan Arrow is, I have this vision of hopping on a train in Fargo North Dakota and going west and for a thousand miles on your way to Montana, as you look out the window you see the same thing. You see grain silos and high prairie. I go fifty miles on this corridor and what is see is completely diff. It’s different culturally, it’s different economically, it’s different geographically…”

Instead of a table of contents, Abraham gives us a timetable.  Each an actual stop is a visit to a city or town. He calls his book a ‘Travelogue in Economic Geography/ and his interviews with locals ask tough questions about how the towns are doing since the train came and went.

For example he says, “Christiansburg is my home town. It’s a relatively prosperous community, it’s relatively diverse, it’s linked tightly with Blacksburg and Virginia Tech and it’s been growing steadily since I was a kid. Bluefield, West Virginia, 25-thousdand people were in Bluefield in 1950. Today there are about 12-thousand. It’s lost half its population. Most of the downtown buildings are derelict, they have significant excess infrastructure.  And when I asked the Mayor, ‘How you do you market this place? What do you do to draw people here?’ His answer was, we struggle with that all the time. And I thought to myself, that’s the wrong answer. You’ve been 50 years in decline. You better know by now. So forward thinking communities who’re looking at, realistically where their market is headed are going to do better than those that yearn for the good old days.

Abraham traveled the Arrow’s entire 668.7 mile route, sometimes by car, by motorcycle, by bicycle even canoe.  The luxury passenger train stopped running in 1969.  But the ribbon of steel is the tie that binds the book together. And At each stop along the way, Abraham peppers his interviewees with questions about things like the local economy, when was its heyday, what made it prosperous, what are its problems, its charms, and its mysteries? Here's an account of his conversation with the Superintendent of the “Surrender Grounds,” in Appomattox, Virginia, part of the national Historic Site where General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant at the end of the Civil War.

“…Then I had one of those crazy notions to ask a question that may or may not have been appropriate. ‘Is this place haunted? Have you ever felt a supernatural presence? After a pensive moment, Ernie the park ranger said, ‘Haunted? I guess there are a lot of ways to take that word.  In a sense, I will say that I have. Every year it strikes me, it never fails. We are open December 24th but we are not open on December 25th. That is one of the three days of the year that we are closed.  So when we leave here on the 24th is one of those few times when I leave this park, this village, that none of us are coming back the next day.  It’s almost dark, because at 5:00 in the winter, it gets dark early.  When I’m walking down that hill.  I have always had this feeling that, no matter how you think about it or feel about it, or articulate it; “OK folks, the next 36 to 48 hours, y’all can have it back.”

Writer, Michael Abraham Reading from his new Book,  “Chasing the Powhatan Arrow; A Travelogue in Economic Geography.”  

Michael Abraham is the author of 8 books, all of them about Virginia or West Virginia

The public is invited to a free event Friday November 18th from 5:00 -8:00 pm at the Virginia Museum of Transportation in Roanoke, celebrating the new book, “Chasing the Powhatan Arrow.”                                            The address is: 303 Norfolk Ave SW, Roanoke, VA 24016