John Howard, a 1978 graduate of Clifton Forge High School and retired railroad engineer, has purchased the J.C. Carpenter Building in Clifton Forge that he plans to renovate to create The Railroader Hotel.
During the last week of Sept., Nathan Kivi, Howard’s business partner, and representatives of Blacksheep, a world renowned design firm from London, England, evaluated the building that served as an optometrist’s office before the Masonic Theatre Preservation Foundation gained ownership and sold it to Howard.
The J.C. Carpenter Building was built by the Lynchburg firm of Frye and Chesterman in 1905, the same year the firm built The Historic Masonic Theatre adjacent to it, and Howard is planning to repurpose the building into a small boutique hotel consisting of both single guest rooms and suites.
Howard remarked, “There will be 10-12 beds on two floors, and plans are also being evaluated to hopefully be able to construct a rooftop terrace with great views of Clifton Forge.”
He plans to make the terrace at 314 Commercial Ave. available to the public and for private events.
Howard said, “The Railroader Hotel was chosen because Clifton Forge is a railroad town and I’m a 3rd generation career railroader, so the name was an obvious choice.”
He continued, “This small boutique hotel will be themed for the famous C&O passenger trains which passed through Clifton Forge in the golden era of rail travel in America, and each room and suite will have the feel of an elegant travel experience.”
Howard noted that he has more than 2,500 followers on “Facebook” from across the U.S. and Canada, as well as Europe, and he revealed that many have indicated that they would like to visit Clifton Forge and stay at The Railroader Hotel once it is open for business.
Howard, the son of Rupert Howard, Jr. and Clara Howard of Clifton Forge, planned to enlist in the U.S. Air Force following his graduation from high school, but C&O was hiring the summer of 1978.
John’s grandfather, Rupert Howard, Sr., had been a C&O employee who worked in the car department, and John’s father was employed by the company as a brakeman and conductor.
John remembered, “My original plan was to go to the Air Force and then to college, but the railroad started hiring, and I got a job as a brakeman that summer and soon became a conductor.”
After being trained by Walter Davis, Jr., Bob Chenault, French Fisher and other experienced locomotive engineers, John joined their ranks by being promoted to locomotive engineer in 1980.
He recalled, “I later ended up in Savanah, Georgia, after the Chessie System and Seaboard System merger that formed CSX Transportation. I was mostly running high priority freight trains there and export coal, grain and mixed freight trains here in Clifton Forge.”
His main runs were from Clifton Forge to Gladstone, Charlottesville and Richmond.
While working in Savannah, his runs were to Waycross, Ga. and Jacksonville, Fla.
John said, “During my Savannah years, I became a single parent with three small children to raise, and I was no longer able to work the long hours away from home required by the railroad.”
John stepped away from being an engineer for a while and secured a job in sales and marketing where he soon rose to a managerial position.
Success in business enabled John to return to his preferred occupation of being an engineer.
He reminisced, “In a few years, I was able to piece back together my railroad career.”
“I became an Amtrak engineer for a few years, working out of Raleigh, North Carolina,” John added.
He continued, “I chose to finish the final 12 years of my career in South Florida, working as a locomotive engineer for South Central Florida Express, a short line railroad owned by U.S. Sugar Corporation, running mostly sugar cane and mixed freight trains.”
U.S. Sugar Corporation is the largest company of its kind in the U.S., and Howard retired from his 43-year-railroad-career in May.
John noted, “When I was working with South Central Florida Express, I would come home to visit my mother, and I’d do a lot of walking (in the Town of Clifton Forge).”
He recalled that one day as he was walking, he noticed the unique architectural features of the J.C. Carpenter Building where Dr. Thomas W. Stewart, an optometrist, had owned the building which served as his office.
“I became interested in the building,” John remarked.
The building was on sale at the time and listed by Racey & Dean, and John and his two sons, John, 40; and Jamie, 36; who were both visiting at the time, toured the building.
John recalled, “John and Jamie, my two sons who are both graphic designers and business developers, and I all fell in love with the place.”
John admitted, “At that point, I had no idea what I wanted to do with the building, but I just knew that I liked it a lot.”
After the visit, John and his sons along with Suzy, John’s daughter who is 42, discussed the building, and their interest continued.
John eventually purchased the building from The Historic Masonic Theatre by negotiating a price with Jeff Stern, the executive director of The Historic Masonic Theatre, in 2019.
After COVID-19 interrupted John’s plans for the transformation of the building in 2020, he has gotten the project back on track, and Ross Hammond, an engineer who owns and operates Commonwealth Contracting Services, Inc., is working with John on the project.
John admitted, “I wanted to do this on my own, but I met Nathan Kivi, who is a hospitality financial expert whose company is based in Florida. He and I agreed to become partners on this project.”
He and Kivi contacted Blacksheep, an international multidisciplinary design team, and representatives from Blacksheep flew from London to Roanoke to join John and Kivi for a site visit in Clifton Forge.
The team spent several days gathering data about the building and the Town of Clifton Forge, information that is enabling John’s team to formulate the plan to renovate the building and open it as The Railroader Hotel.
The senior interior designer and the branding executive from Blacksheep recently communicated their initial plan for design and branding to John.
“We literally just received our very first glimpse of the direction we are heading in on the design, and there will be four more stages in the process before the final design and branding for this project are complete,” John revealed.
Based on the initial report from Blacksheep, John observed, “I’m very excited about this project. I’m a hometown boy and 3rd generation railroader and am fortunate to be bringing this small but vital project to my hometown of Clifton Forge and the Alleghany Highlands.”
John’s father, a versatile athlete at CFHS who was born in Clifton Forge in 1928, was an outstanding baseball player who played minor league baseball as an infielder for the Yankees after playing football for Mississippi State University where he was a running back and where he met his wife-to-be, Clara.
He was well known in the Alleghany Highlands for his music as the leader of a country music band.
John’s mother, who was born in Mississippi in 1930, gave birth to nine children, and she was a well-known artist in the Alleghany Highlands whose paintings and creations were exhibited locally and in the Atlanta area as well as throughout the southeast U.S.
As for The Railroader Hotel, John concluded, “The design and feel of this project hopes to reflect on the rail heritage of Clifton Forge and to also offer a unique glimpse into the elegance of travel from a different era with a blend of vintage meeting modern state of the art accommodations.”
John is confident that the project will begin to take shape in early 2023 and be open for business later in the year.