Clifton Forge, (Va.) – At the C&O Railway Heritage Center, the interpretive museum in the Alleghany Highlands of Virginia operated by the non-profit Chesapeake & Ohio Historical Society, a piece of railroad history has been preserved and brought back to life for public display. Alongside examples of C&O Railway locomotives, passenger cars, and replica railroad structures, an authentic railroad phone box has been painstakingly restored by C&OHS volunteers.
Once seen across the Chesapeake & Ohio system, phone boxes connected railroad employees to telegraph offices, yardmasters, and dispatchers. Connected by physical lines in the field that reached rural locations and back to rail yards and district offices, the railroad’s telephone system existed and was maintained separately from the nation’s civilian telephone grid. Especially in the days before radio communications, a phone box in the field allowed a railroad employee to communicate with coworkers across their operating division to receive orders, share news regarding train traffic, or report an emergency.
In the early 1970s, long-time C&O Historical Society member and former director David Powell of Waynesboro noticed a Chesapeake & Ohio Railway standard phone box being disposed of at railroad milepost 201 near Charlottesville, Virginia during the construction of Interstate 64. Mr. Powell was keen to preserve one of these ubiquitous railroad icons. He managed to load the box and its heavy concrete foundation, transporting them to his home where he stored them for many years. Fortunately, in 2008, David donated the phone box to the C&O Historical Society for display at the Heritage Center in Clifton Forge, Virginia.
On a recent visit to our museum, long-time C&O railroaders Eric Pack and Marvin Plumley recalled using line-side phones into the early 1980s, even after radios were well established. Mr. Plumley remembered receiving calls from these phones requesting motor car line-ups for signal maintainers along the New River Subdivision at least until 1983.
In late 2021, C&O Historical Society members Marvin Plumley, Scott Greathouse, and Doug Andre began restoration of the phone box. CSX engineer & C&OHS member Lee Baumgarten employed his Bobcat Skid-Steer Loader to carefully lift the box, post, and concrete foundation into a prepared hole.
The team made the box ready for paint by applying wood filler and four coats of oil-based primer, followed by two coats of white and black paint as specified by official Chesapeake & Ohio Railway drawings. The box still contains its 1950s-era phone and will eventually be connected to a similar phone in the Heritage Center’s replica signal tower, “JD Cabin,” as an interactive display.
The Chesapeake & Ohio Historical Society’s railway heritage museum is an interpretive and educational center that tells the story of the C&O Railway’s people, places, and technology. “One of the goals of our C&O Railway Heritage Center is to create an immersive experience for guests interested in the transportation history of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway, including what it took to make the railroad work on a day-to-day basis,” explains Mark Totten, president of the Chesapeake & Ohio Historical Society. “The phone box’s restoration has a big impact on how our museum re-creates the railroad’s atmosphere with artifacts both large and small. We are grateful to our volunteer team that was willing to not only complete this restoration that required many hours of labor, but also diligently research the railroad’s original equipment specifications found in our archive.” Before the phone box restoration, the same C&OHS volunteer team also rebuilt the C&O Railway crossing sign to original specifications, which now stands for visitors to admire near the entrance to the museum’s grounds.
The C&O Railway Heritage Center is open six days per week, Tuesday through Sunday, from 10 AM – 4 PM at 705 Main Street, Clifton Forge, VA and may be contacted by telephone at 540-862-8653 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Information about the Heritage Center is online at cohs.org/heritage/. Updates and additional information can be found on Facebook under @CandOHeritage.
Photos to reference (available by email if not transmitted; more available upon request):
∙ C&OHS member and volunteer Lee Baumgarten positions his Bobcat Skid-Steer Loader at the C&O Railway Heritage Center to carefully lift the vintage phone box, post, and concrete foundation into a prepared hole so it can be restored for display (IMG_E4446.JPG; Doug Andre photo, 2021, courtesy of the Chesapeake & Ohio Historical Society).
∙ C&OHS members and volunteers Scott Greathouse and Marvin Plumley pose with the museum’s C&O Railway phone box during its restoration process (IMG_E7245.JPG; Doug Andre photo, courtesy of the Chesapeake & Ohio Historical Society).
∙ Now completed at the C&O Railway Heritage Center in Clifton Forge, the restored Chesapeake & Ohio phone box enhances the interpretive experience for visitors seeking to understand railroad infrastructure and operations (IMG_E7478.JPG; Doug Andre photo, 2022, courtesy of the Chesapeake & Ohio Historical Society).
∙ With the C&O Railway Heritage Center’s replica station shelter shed in the background, the placement of the restored Chesapeake & Ohio Railway phone box is representative of where a railroad phone box might have been placed during their period of service on the C&O Railway (IMG_E7487.JPG; Doug Andre photo, 2022, courtesy of the Chesapeake & Ohio Historical Society).
∙ In this east-facing view with a railroad telephone box in foreground, the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway GP7 diesel locomotive No. 5830 removes yellow steel caboose No. 90088 from a westbound freight train at JD Cabin, Clifton Forge, Virginia (cohs-29586.JPG; Eugene L. Huddleston photo, December 1965, courtesy of the Chesapeake & Ohio Historical Society, archive # COHS- 29586).
∙ In the shadow of a black-painted cantilever signal bridge, a railroad trainman stands next to a line side telephone box as the C&O Railway F7 diesel locomotive No. 7068 is shown with a train ready to leave Clifton Forge yard heading westbound (cohs-57173.JPG; Allen Hickman photo, ca. 1958, courtesy of the Chesapeake & Ohio Historical Society, archive # COHS- 57173).
The Chesapeake & Ohio Historical Society is a non-profit corporation dedicated to interpreting the American Railway experience using C&O Railway’s history through drawings, documents, and artifacts which the Society collects, preserves, and makes available to as broad an audience as possible.
The Chesapeake & Ohio Historical Society was organized in January 1969 and in 1975 was incorporated as a non-profit eleemosynary organization within the meaning or subparagraph 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code.