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Momentum builds for return of the Clinchfield No. 1

Some call her “Old Number One,” while others refer to the nearly 128-year-old steam locomotive as the “Clinchfield No. 1.”
Sometimes, it’s simply, the “No. 1.”
Whatever name the locomotive is called, there seems to be one clear consensus for railroad and local history enthusiasts — bring her home to Erwin.
“My gut feeling is it belongs in Erwin,” said Mike Tilley, who has worked for the railroad (now CSX) for 34 years and is president of the Watauga Valley Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society. “It belongs to Erwin and its citizens.”
Since June 1979, the locomotive has been housed in the B&O Railroad Museum in Baltimore, Md. For years, residents have called for its return, but Tilley said he now believes it’s possible. That is, if enough interest and a suitable location could be found here and the B&O is willing to let go of a valuable piece of railroad history.
“It would be an absolute dream come true to have the No. 1 back here,” Tilley said.
A lot of people seem to think so.
A Facebook “Cause” page started by Erwin resident and longtime railroader Alf Peoples has had 211 join since it was established last month.
Posts on the social-networking Internet site have been enthusiastic.
Shanna Slemp wrote, “Help!!!!!! Bring this train home,” while Phyllis McCourry White wrote, “This old steam locomotive should be placed inside a museum in Erwin so everyone, especially the younger generation, can see and learn the history of the Clinchfield #1.”
In her post, Betty Tipton said, “Let’s return our history to its home base.”
Both Tilley and Peoples have fond memories of actually working on the Clinchfield No. 1 after the locomotive was refurbished and used as an excursion train. From 1969 until 1979, the No. 1 traveled the rails as the “Clinchfield Special,” shuttling paying customers to Spartanburg, S.C., for a daylong trip.
Peoples, who said he’s the oldest engineer working at the CSX, worked as a car marshall on the “Special.”
“Basically,” he said, “I was a porter. I helped people on and off, I checked tickets and took care of the passengers.”
For Peoples, the Clinchfield No. 1 remains a special part of his life.
“The passengers were just amazed to be on that train,” he said. “I don’t know how to describe the experience.
“Hearing that whistle and everything was just something special. I wish I could hear it again. It was a lot of fun.”
Peoples recalled that he was playing football at Unicoi County High School and sped away after the game to Spartanburg, where he would board the train and work aboard it as it made its way back to Erwin.
Like Peoples, Tilley was also aboard the Clinchfield Special.
“I helped sell the concessions aboard the train and sold souvenirs,” he said. “It was for the YMCA. It was a nice feeling to get to ride it. So many people remember the No. 1 from the excursions.
“It was a nice feeling to get to ride it.”
Even if the No. 1 could be returned to Erwin, her days as a working locomotive are long since passed, but the engine could be a showcase — as it is in Baltimore — for Erwin’s rich railroad heritage.
The Clinchfield No. 1 had a long history — but not all of it in Erwin or, even, as part of the Clinchfield.
Jim Goforth, the late Erwin historian, wrote her story once, describing how the locomotive was built in August 1882 in Logansport, Ind., in the shops of the Columbus, Chicago & Indiana Central Railway.
The locomotive was originally designated the CC&IC No. 423.
Several railroads, including the Clinchfield, owned the locomotive over the years, including the Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Chicago & St. Louis Railroad.
For much of its service, from 1913 and until 1955, it was known as the Black Mountain No. 1, according to Goforth’s research. In ’55, the power of diesel replaced engines like the No. 1, and the Clinchfield Railroad, headquarted in Erwin, once again acquired the locomotive.
The Clinchfield sold the locomotive to the town of Erwin, which had plans to put the engine on permanent display under a protective shed. Earl Hernden, a member of the Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen who had spearheaded those plans, died suddenly and with no one else interested in the project, the engine was left rusting away in the railyard.
In 1968, the town sold the Clinchfield No. 1 back to the railroad for only $1. It was then that the No. 1 was restored to its former glory and began, on Nov. 23, 1968, a decade-long stint as the lead on the popular Clinchfield Special excursion.
In 1976, Sen. Howard Baker used the No. 1 for an old-timey whistle-stop campaign swing across Tennessee. The powerful senator quickly found that at his stops, the Clinchfield No.1 often eclipsed him in popularity, as throngs of people gathered around the train to admire it, leaving Baker giving speeches to obliged dignitaries and high school bands.
The No.1’s time in the sun, though, was over by June 1979, when she was moved to the B&O Railraod Museum.
Over the past 30 years that the locomotive has made its home in Baltimore, folks like Peoples and Tilley have resurrected the idea of somehow returning the Clinchfield No. 1 to Erwin.
“Other towns would sure like to get it,” Tilley said, “but we feel Erwin should have it.”
Peoples said the latest plan has been met with enthusiasm from local leaders to retired railroaders.
“Everybody I talk to wants to see it happen,” he said.
B&O Railroad Museum Chief Curator Dave Shackelford said that he has received a letter inquiring about the museum’s interest in taking the No. 1 out of its collection and a return to Erwin.
Shakelford stressed that such a decision would be based on many factors — and would not come quickly.
“Right now, it’s not gone any further than having received the letter,” he said. “We discuss a lot of things. Whether such a request goes to fruition, I couldn’t possibly tell you at this point. There will be a lot of decision making to come, and it will something our collection committee would take up.”
Shakelford said the Clinchfield No. 1 is a “pretty significant piece of our collection,” noting that visitors are allowed to board the engine and “see what it was like to ride a steam engine.”
“It’s hands-on history,” he said, “and the Clinchfield No. 1 has a very respectable spot in the Round House here at the museum. It’s one of our premier pieces.”
Any decision to allow it outside the B&O’s protection would, Shackelford said, be based, partly, on how the antique engine would be housed and cared for in a new location.
“It’s an old engine,” he said, “and in reality, you can’t just put it outside along the sidewalk.”
Shackelford said the museum has received various offers for the No. 1 over the years — some from folks who want to make the locomotive operable again.
“It’s a pretty important component to our visitors’ experience,” he said. “Taking it out of the collection would be something discussed at high levels of the museum here.”
The curator said he understands the desire for Unicoi County residents and railroaders to see its return to Tennessee.
“It’s possession and passion,” Shackelford said, “and we have that with many pieces in our collection. Whether they are rail fans or simply based on nostalgia, everybody takes it personally, and that’s OK, because people are passionate about history.”
Tilley hopes the B&O will be open to the request for the Clinchfield No. 1’s return.
“It would be something really special if we could find a way to bring the No. 1 back to Erwin,” he said.