Historic railroad to live again as walking pathby Kelly Garrett
Few alumni graduating after the mid-1960s are familiar with the historic Huckleberry Line; however, if they had been students coming to Virginia Mechanical and Agricultural College in the fall of 1904, they almost certainly would have been on that train.
Now, thanks to the hard work of many students and community people, students may again be traveling the old Huckleberry Line, but this time by bicycle or foot. In fact, one student group, the Society of Civil Engineers, has dedicated more than $40,000 of professional surveying, planning, and design work to the project, often spending whole days tramping through swamps and briar patches along the abandoned line. Along the way, they've discovered a beaver dam, mining artifacts, and a good stand of blackberries.
Equally interesting is the history of the Huckleberry Line, which began in 1902 under the name of the Virginia Anthracite Coal and Rail Company to transport coal from the Merrimac Mine near what is now Montgomery Regional Hospital to the Christiansburg railway station at Cambria. In 1904 the rail line was extended from the mine to Blacksburg, and a contract was made between the coal company and Virginia Tech. Construction on the single track roadbed was rather slow because the work was done by hand labor and horse drawn equipment, but on Sept. 15, 1904, the first passenger train steamed into Blacksburg with free rides for all.
The regular schedule was for four daily runs, with three carrying mail. A person with one bag could ride from Cambria to Blacksburg for 50 cents, or without any baggage for 35 cents. Excursion tickets, which were good for a round trip on the day of purchase, were available for 60 cents, but no baggage could be checked.
The first train-load of cadets rolled in to the Blacksburg depot on Sept. 21. Soon after their arrival, upperclass cadets painted "Huckleberry Crossing"in large black letters on the depot. The name, which came about because the train often would stall and passengers would hop off and pass the time picking the abundant huckleberries, stuck as the permanent tag of the line and its train.
The cadets frequently used the train as transportation for themselves and for their trunks. The new rail service also became a source of campus jokes, particularly because of its slow speed. It was said that one could step off the moving train and pick a bucketful of huckleberries without fear of being left behind.
From 1912 to 1922 the Huckleberry was Blacksburg's main link to the outside world, making three runs a day, with 50 to 60 passengers each. The train also carried the VPI Corps of Cadets to Roanoke for the annual Thanksgiving football classic with Virginia Military Institute and transported the corps and the Highty-Tighties to other special events.
By the early 1930s, however, few Virginia Tech students, except for freshmen, rode the train regularly because of the long wait. Many students, however, bought round-trip tickets at the beginning of each term to transport their trunks back and forth from Christiansburg.
With the increased use of automobiles, the Huckleberry's passenger service was cut to twice a day in the 1940s, and then once a day in the 1950s. The Huckleberry made its last steam run on July 25, 1958, but continued to operate under another form of power until Aug. 9.
The Blacksburg station was closed the summer of 1966. Later that year, J.C. Garrett of the horticulture department and others expressed interest in transforming the train path into a nature trail and walking path. A trail was developed between the Blacksburg Library and Airport Road.
Now, 26 years later, the Montgomery County Planning Department is working on extending the existing trail, and People Advocating the Huckleberry (PATH) was formed in 1991 to coordinate the trail's development. The Huckleberry Trail Festival, held from April 2-5 this year, was a cooperative effort by Montgomery County organizations to enhance community spirit and highlight the trail. The festival included a historical bicycle tour and hikes along the Huckleberry Trail, which when completed, will extend all the way to the New River Valley Mall and eventually to the Christiansburg courthouse.
Kelly Garrett ('92) was a spring intern for the Virginia Tech magazine
Virginia Tech Magazine, Volume 14, Number 3, Spring 1992