By MATT COMBS
HINTON, W.Va. — A Pullman train car was once a symbol of luxury, and for four days this October that luxury was returned to Hinton.
On a cold, gray Sunday afternoon, as the Hinton Railroad Days neared completion for 2017 and passengers disembarked to explore the old C&O Railroad city, the owners of the VIP car offered a lunch to employees working on the train cars.
Although the entire operation of Railroad Days is run under the watch of the Collis P. Huntington Railroad Historical Society, under the name New River Train Excursions, the individual cars are privately owned and operated.
The VIP car for Sunday’s excursion was an antique Pullman train car owned and operated by Nelson McGahee and his wife Borden Black of Columbus, Ga.
“We always like to go to places that were created out of the railroad history,” McGahee said. “We’re tickled to death that we can be part of a train that’s been around for 51 years like this train has, that contributes to a place like Hinton and its rich history.”
McGahee’s grandfather was an agent for the Georgia Railroad, which led to a lifelong connection for McGahee.
After a cross-country trip on a privately owned car that was once part of his grandfather’s railroad, McGahee settled on the idea of purchasing a car himself.
The couple began looking for a train car to purchase in 2006 as a retirement plan.
“I’ve been basically a rail fan pretty much most of my life,” Deering said, adding that he began with models and collecting historical pieces from the railroad.
So after an extensive search, the couple purchased a used car from the State of North Carolina on eBay.
After another six years of repairs and improvements to be approved by Amtrak for rail travel, McGahee and Black made their first trip in 2006.
Although the couple runs a business, McGahee said they are happy just breaking even.
The couple’s car features three bedrooms, three bathrooms, an observation lounge, a rear platform, a kitchen and a dining room as well as a private chef for longer journeys.
For chartered excursions, McGahee said they often pair with “Berlin,” another privately owned car that features six bedrooms all with en-suite facilities allowing for a combined total of 14 overnight guests.
McGahee has taken his time reconstructing his own Pullman car up to Pullman standards.
The walls are solid hardwoods and feature period advertisements from Pullman. The seats in the observation lounge are plush and luxurious and the guests are served their meals on fine china.
“We want folks to talk,” McGahee said. “What we have found is that you can bring in 10 or 12 folks who have never met each other and they’ve been together for a week, 10 days or however long the trip is and they’ll meet up in a future trip.”
McGahee said the many repeat customers add a great satisfaction to what the couple does.
The couple has spent countless hours attempting to bring the car back up to the Pullman standards, including added period light fixtures and even candlesticks.
“Pullman had standards,” McGahee said. “Every plate was laid out the exact same way; they had books on this stuff.” The car owner added that the Pullman manuals even broke down the serving of a beer into 13 steps.
McGahee’s car was built by Pullman in 1925. It first saw service as part of the Oriental Limited on the Great Northern route between Chicago and Seattle.
According to McGahee, the Oriental Limited was replaced by the Empire Builder (Amtrak has continued the use of that name for the Chicago to Seattle route) before the Great Northern was purchased by the Chicago Great Western Railroad and his car was pressed into pool service.
In the early 1950s, McGahee’s car was transferred into an office car for the personal use of Chicago Great Western’s president before being pushed into Chicago North Western’s fleet after yet another merger.
In 1996, Chicago Great Western was purchased by another railroad company, and McGahee’s car was sold to the State of North Carolina, where the car gradually deteriorated before McGahee purchased it.
McGahee said the car is involved in between six and eight trips a year, some with passengers and some without, from Maine to Washington state and Los Angeles to Miami and many places in between.
“It’s been a lot of fun; we’ve enjoyed it,” the owner said.
McGahee said he has grown so accustomed to rail travel that he often doesn’t think about flying in an airplane.
“Flying, you’re just a seat going from point A to point B and then you’re done,” McGahee said. “(On a train) you see parts of the country that you wouldn’t see, can’t see from 35,000 feet.”
McGahee added that the New River Gorge route is a prime example of that.
With little road access to the gorge, Mcgahee said the only possible ways of taking the gorge in were on a train or floating down the river.
The car owner said the United States is full of those types of uniquely rail experiences.
“We did a trip a couple years ago from Denver, up through Cheyenne, to Casper, up into Montana and Idaho, and on into Spokane,” McGahee said. “We were in places that there are no roads anywhere.”
McGahee added that many metropolitan cities are also available through the nation’s rail lines.
One of McGahee’s favorite trips is to Washington, D.C., during the Fourth of July holiday
The car owner said he will go into Washington in his train car, park it in Union Station, pay less than the cost of a hotel in parking fees and take in the sights of the nation’s capital.
Even when the last load of Railroad Days passengers were dropped off in Huntington Sunday evening, the couple’s rail travel isn’t over.
Wednesday evening, the couple will attach their car to the Amtrak headed toward Chicago to attend a conference for the National Association of Rail Passengers.
McGahee is looking forward to the overnight trip.
“It’s kind of an interesting time at night when you’re sleeping on the move,” he said. “You get used to the movement. It’s the stop at the station, the silence that wakes you up.”
The couple has also recently purchased a rail car from the Ringling Brothers Circus, which recently went out of business.
The car that once housed trapeze artists will be completely refurbished for use on further excursions.
You can view the couple’s car and find booking details at www.dearingrailroad.com.
Email: [email protected]; follow on Twitter @mattcombsRH
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