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Father, son inducted into Clinchfield Railroad Hall of Fame

A.J. “Alf” Peoples poses in front of the historic Clinchfield Railroad train station in Erwin, Tennessee.

By Bryan Stevens

A father and son will be the latest inductees into the Clinchfield Railroad Hall of Fame. While the award is a posthumous honor for the late Jack Peoples, organizers hope they will be able to bestow the award in person on his son, A.J. “Alf” Peoples.

The 2021 double award is the first time in the Hall of Fame’s 26-year history that a father and son will be inducted. With the announcement, both men are officially now members, but due to the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, the usual public ceremony will be held at a later date. The Clinchfield Railroad Historical Society, which chooses the honorees, hopes an event can be held this summer or fall.

Jack Peoples worked for the Clinchfield Railroad for 41 years. His son worked for the Clinchfield and its successor, CSX, for 45 years, eventually retiring in 2014. Alf Peoples started work with the railroad in 1969 at age 19. His first job was as a car marshal for excursions conducted by the Clinchfield No. 1, but he went on to become an engineer, following in the footsteps of his father. While Alf Peoples is now a fellow inductee with Jack Peoples, it was, in fact, Alf who nominated Jack for the award. Alf did not know the committee not only chose his father but also opted to award the honor to Alf, as well.

Jack Peoples’ service with the Clinchfield Railroad began as a fireman in December of 1941. His service in the railroad was interrupted by two years in the U.S. Navy during World War II. After the war, he was promoted to locomotive engineer in 1948 after passing the very difficult air and machinery test the railroad had at the time. He remained with the railroad until April of 1983. In a letter nominating his father for the honor, Alf wrote that “during his 41 years of service, beginning with his first trip on a Kingsport pusher, Dec. 18, 1941, and continuing until his last trip as engineer on No. 97 Spartanburg, South Carolina, to Erwin, Tennessee, April 23, 1983, Jack did not have any lost time due to personal injury.” During his service, Jack served for 13 years as secretary of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Fireman & Engineers. He was delegate to that organization’s convention in both 1953 and 1959. He also served as a legislative representative and vice president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers.

Not only did Alf have his own career as a railroad engineer, in recent years he’s become a noted Clinchfield historian, most notably co-authoring two award-winning books about the Clinchfield No. 1 and its celebrated excursion trains that ran from 1968 until 1979. With Mark A. Stevens, a former publisher of The Erwin Record, Alf helped collect photos and stories that told the story of the historic steam engine, now housed as the B&O Railroad Museum in Baltimore, Maryland, but had a long history with the Clinchfield and Black Mountain railroads. Alf’s first book with Stevens was a hardback titled “The One & Only: A Pictorial History of the Clinchfield No. 1.” It was originally published by Star Publishing in 2013 and sold out in less than two months. A second edition in paperback quickly sold out, as well. A limited edition of the book was published in 2018 with a portion of the proceeds benefiting the Clinchfield Railroad Museum in Erwin. A second book, published by The History Press, was titled “The Clinchfield No. 1: Tennessee’s Legendary Steam Engine” and serves as a written history of the famous locomotive. Upon release, the book became an Amazon best seller and was purchased by railroad enthusiasts around the world. The Knoxville-based East Tennessee Historical Society endorsed both books with “Award of Distinction” honors. Some of Alf’s father’s accomplishments are documented in his son’s two books. Interestingly, Jack often served as engineer for the Black Mountain No. 1, which would later be renamed the Clinchfield No. 1. Family photos show Alf as a toddler aboard the steam engine with his father.

Contributed Photo • Jack People enjoyed a great career spanning 41 years with the Clinchfield Railroad.

Alf also enjoyed the honor of twice serving as the engineer for the famous Santa Train. Each year the Santa Train travels from Pikeville, Kentucky, to Kingsport, Tennessee, on the Saturday before Thanksgiving in celebration of the holiday season. The excursion makes 14 stops in Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee, distributing more than 15 tons and $300,000 worth of clothing, food, candy, toys and gifts to thousands of people. The annual project, co-sponsored by CSX, Food City, the Kingsport Chamber of Commerce, Appalachian Power and Soles4Souls, is one of Appalachia’s most anticipated holiday traditions.

Fellow railroaders and Clinchfield enthusiasts were quick to heap praise on father and son honorees.

Tony King, a CSX locomotive engineer, offered adulation for Alf’s railroad career and his efforts to promote the Clinchfield line. “Not only was Alf an engineer that started out on the Clinchfield, he was a multi-generational Clinchfield employee.” King said. “He is one of the biggest fans of his beloved railroad. In my mind, there is no one more deserving of this honor.”

Mike Tilley, president of Watauga Valley Railroad Museum, also lauded Alf’s career. “Alf Peoples, who had a long railroad career on the Clinchfield, is a true railroader,” Tilley said. “Alf got bit with the railroad bug at a very young age with his father taking him down to the Erwin yard.”

Tilley noted Alf’s tireless efforts to document and preserve the history of the Clinchfield, specifically the Clinchfield No. 1. “Alf helped write two great CRR books,” he said. “No one else deserves any more than Alf Peoples to be inducted into the Clinchfield Hall of Fame.”

The late George Hatcher, who was fireman for the Clinchfield No. 1 excursions, was a friend of both Jack and Alf. In his nomination letter for his father, Alf noted that Hatcher told him that he and Jack worked together to invent a method for engineers to be able to take a train off the Blue Ridge Mountain without stopping to turn up retainers. In addition, Alf noted that his father trained engineers for the Clinchfield Railroad, including a grateful son. Jack ran engines from the No. 1 to the big Challengers to diesels. One of his particular accomplishments involved his deft hand with an engine’s braking system.

“Back when dynamic brakes were very weak, if they worked at all, the air lines leaked and didn’t charge up good enough to put the brake on evenly throughout the train,” his son wrote. “He somehow could handle the train better than people can now days with unbelievably strong, dynamic brakes.”

Alf Peoples noted that the feel his father had for that old equipment was nothing short of amazing. “Jack could take a heavy coal train off a mountain and stop it like a bird landing,” his son wrote. His son noted that Jack Peoples grew up against the historic backdrop of the Great Depression and World War II. “He worked hard all his life,” Alf wrote. “He shoveled coal 16 hours a day. He is the epitome of the ‘Greatest Generation.’ Strong and quiet, he didn’t have to say something twice. He was a husband, father and grandfather.”

Alf, too, is a devoted husband, father and grandfather. Stevens has long hoped to see his co-author inducted into the Clinchfield Hall of Fame. In fact, he wrote a nomination letter urging the selection committee to do just that. “I was lucky enough to work with Alf in producing two very successful books about the Clinchfield No. 1,” Stevens wrote in a nomination letter, “and I can truly say that neither project would have happened had it not been for Alf, who’s tenacious drive helped us meet deadline after deadline and led to discoveries few knew about it. He conducted a number of important interviews, as well as doing tireless research. “He and I sometimes would talk early in the morning and then late at night on getting just the smallest details correct. … Alf helped preserve an important part of Clinchfield history in these two books — not just the story of the steam engine itself but the men who helped rebuild ‘Rosebud’ and who worked on the famed steam engine. During the nearly 11 years the Clinchfield No. 1 led excursions, newspapers, radio stations and TV stations did stories about the steam engine and the Clinchfield Railroad. The New York Times wrote about the No. 1 three times. The Chicago Tribune highlighted the engine in print, as did magazines and newspapers around the nation each and every year.

“Many of the people in Erwin never realized just how much attention the little engine received and just how beloved it was beyond the Clinchfield. Telling that story — no, preserving that story — is something Alf should receive the honor of being a nominee into the Clinchfield Hall of Fame.” Past Hall of Fame inductees have included George L. Carter, W.C. Hatten, Thomas E. Goodin, Jack Conley, James A. Goforth, P.O. Likens, Jack Hawkins, Eugene Peters, George W. Hatcher, Mrs. George R. Cook, A. Ray Poteat and Blanche Holley Martin, among others.

In previous years, railroaders and their families have attended a Hall of Fame ceremony, which is part of the society’s annual picnic on the grounds of the Unicoi County Heritage Museum. COVID-19 forced a cancellation of the ceremony and picnic in 2020. Organizers are cautiously optimistic that the picnic and ceremony can be held this year.