LANDGRAFF, W.Va. (AP) — After a lengthy do-it-yourself restoration of their newly bought 1922-vintage three-story brick building following devastating floods in 2001 and 2002, Dan Clark and Elisse Jo Goldstein-Clark were able to spend their first night in what would become the Elkhorn Inn.
After getting four feet of mud and water in the first floor, Dan had gutted and power-washed the building and stripped plaster off all the walls and pulled out all the insulation,” Goldstein-Clark recalled. “We were staying in a third-floor room with no door when the first train of the night went by. It felt like the whole train was coming through the building. I started crying, and after more trains went by, I stopped crying and started thinking, ‘We have to find people who love trains!'”
That task didn’t turn out to be as difficult as she imagined the following day.
“When I Googled ‘people who like trains,’ the whole world popped up,” she said. “It turned out that ‘railfans’ are everywhere.”
It also turned out that railfans around the world are familiar with the Norfolk Southern Railroad’s Pocahontas Division, nicknamed the “Pokey,” which sends 35 or more trains and helper engines up and down the dual tracks fronting the Elkhorn Inn each day.
“We’ve had railfan guests from England, Wales and even Australia who were passionate about the Pocahontas Division long before they came here,” said Goldstein-Clark. “We’ve got the best legal train-watching in America. In addition to all the trains passing by, we often have coal trains stop here to change crews.”
“You can sit on the porch and watch trains coming through all day, or drive to nearby scenic and historic spots to photograph and video them, as I like to do,” said Michael Saverino of Spartanburg, South Carolina, a 10-time guest at the inn. A number of trestles, tunnels, loading and fueling facilities found within a few miles of the Elkhorn Inn make great backdrops for Pokey line rolling stock passing through the rugged terrain of McDowell County. “The scenery and the mountains here are truly spectacular,” Saverino said.
While the just-out-the-window presence of rail traffic was briefly seen as a nightmare to Goldstein-Clark, it ended up creating a dream niche market for the Elkhorn Inn, located in a remote section of a county that has seen better times.
“Over 60 percent of our guests are railfans,” she said. “They are great guests. They are interested in the inn and the area’s history, and they tend to make return visits, even in the dead of winter, to photograph trains in the snow. Dan and I have become personal friends of many of them, and we’ve become railfans, too.”
To reach out to former guests and attract new ones, the Elkhorn Inn recently had a railcam installed on its second floor, making it possible to watch and hear passing Pokey Line traffic in real time from anywhere with Internet access. The remote camera is part of a railstream.net system of 12 railcams, placed at busy railroad sites from Nebraska to Pennsylvania.
Saverino developed a program that uses automatic train control signals to map rail traffic along the Pocahontas Division tracks between Bluefield and Williamson, allowing railfans at the Elkhorn Inn to view location displays on their personal computers, hear comments from railroad dispatchers, and estimate when the next train will pass by.
“Sometimes you will find as many as 75 people at a time looking at the feeds for this line at sites across the country,” Saverino said.
Saverino said he caught the train bug from his grandfather while growing up in the Pennsylvania coal town of Windber, founded by the Berwind family, for whom the McDowell County town of Berwind was named.
“My grandfather taught me how the coal trains worked the rail yard and introduced me to the guys who ran the trains and worked the yard,” he recalled. “Since the age of 5, I’ve never lost my interest in trains.”
Severino’s son, Mike, also a railfan, accompanied him on his most recent trip to McDowell County.
“For railfans, there are really only a couple of other places in the country — the Station Inn in Cresson, Pennsylvania and the Izaak Walton Inn in Essex, Montana — that come close to offering what the Elkhorn Inn offers,” said Severino. “You’re right on the tracks here, but Dan and Ellise are what really make the place. They make you feel welcome and anxious to come back.”
The waters of the inn’s namesake, Elkhorn Creek, draw the second-largest group of visitors to the former Empire Coal & Coke miners’ clubhouse.
“You just don’t find streams like this anywhere else in the east,” said inn guest Mike Trunzo, who works for the fly-fishing retailer Orvis in Arlington, Virginia. “The fishing is really phenomenal. I caught over 20 fish this morning, and the crazy thing is that they’re all wild, with beautiful colors and blue spots on their cheeks.”
Several multi-pound brown trout were among fish landed and let go by Trunzo, along with numerous smaller rainbow. Elkhorn Creek, which has produced trout weighing more than 11 pounds, is the only place in the state where brown and rainbow trout, neither of which is native to West Virginia, spawn and reproduce in the same stream. The phenomenon can be traced to the mechanical breakdown of a trout hatchery tanker truck on U.S. 52, which parallels the creek and passes Elkhorn Inn, in the early 1970s.
Once polluted by outflow from coal processing sediment ponds to the point that it could not support aquatic life, Elkhorn Creek had begun to rebound by the time of the historic breakdown, with cold water steadily released from a non-acidic deep mine near its source keeping the stream cold enough to support trout. When no other hatchery truck could be found to offload fish from the disabled tanker, the driver released his cargo of trout into Elkhorn Creek, apparently figuring they had a better chance of surviving there than on the highway berm. He turned out to be prophetic.
“I’ll be back,” Trunzo told Clark, after loading fly gear into his car and beginning his journey home.
Goldstein-Clark served in the Israeli Army and later produced a series of paintings commissioned by the U.S. Coast Guard, while her husband had a career with the U.S. Army before they both joined the Federal Emergency Management Administration. In 2001, they were sent to McDowell County to help in the flood recovery effort. It was then that the two spotted the former coal company clubhouse — one of the few buildings in Landgraff still standing — and decided they would give the building and themselves new careers.
“If you would have told me before I came down here that I would be operating a bed and breakfast in West Virginia some day, I would have called you crazy,” Clark said. “But we’ve always been satisfied here. I’ve enjoyed learning to modify and improve recipes I’ve learned over the years and it’s been good to get to know our customers so well.”
“Where else can you photograph trains, take off on your dirt bike and ride trails, and then have Dan fix you dinners like African clay pot chicken or Vietnamese pork chops?” Saverino asked. “It’s combination of everything I like.”
Information from: The Charleston Gazette-Mail, http://wvgazettemail.com.