Thu, May 24, 2018 02:54 AM
Wednesday, March 8, 2017 issue
2003-06-04 communities
'Knock and it shall open'

FORMER FLOYD JUDGE Watt Hale watched as the old Prestonsburg train depot was demolished in July 1963. The building was called The Nickel House because Bill Marshall, who built it, charged a nickel for people to go inside and get warm. Photo by the late Norman Allen, long-time editor and publisher of The Floyd County Times. (click for larger version)
Editor's Note: The following article and picture were published July 18, 1963, in The Floyd County Times and were submitted to The Big Sandy News by Charles Hale, son of Watt Hale.

PRESTONSBURG Fifty-eight years ago Floyd County Judge Robert E. Stanley headed a large delegation of Prestonsburg citizens who were taking the first passenger train ride to Pikeville. The date was July 4, 1905.

July 7, this year, County Judge Henry Stumbo and three small boys boarded Train 36 at Allen for the last ride. The large number of people who took that first trip and the one adult and three youngsters who took the last were symbolic of the rise and decline of passenger train service on the Big Sandy Division of the C. & O.

Many elderly men now, but mere lads or in their teens in the 1905, recall that first train ride.

Joining the passengers at Allen were Wesley L. Martin, his son Wesley N., then only six years old, Bob Slone, Shade Combs and others. Dr. E.K. May, Mrs. Kate Finlayson and others had got on the train at Dwale.

The Prestonsburg group comprised most of the town's leading citizens. Among them, besides Judge Stanley, were Joe Harris, Frank Hopkins, W.S. Harkins and family and Sheriff Bartee Weddington.

A derailment at Tram fixed the occasion in the minds of every passenger. The first train came slowly around the curve there on the still-new roadbed. Opposite the mouth of Mare Creek, a rail snapped loose from an end bolt. There was a series of sudden jerks as the coaches bounced over the rails. A woman screamed, and a few men checked the possibilities of going through the windows. However, in an hour the train crew had it back on the track and they proceeded to Pikeville and returned without mishap.

Prestonsburg Police Judge Watt Hale, who moved to this county in 1914, recalls with a bit of nostalgia the old passenger trains.

Judge Hale says that the four daily passenger trains were always crowded and if many returning raftsmen were on the up-valley trains, there were always a few who had bought a supply of intoxicants at Catlettsburg and were deep in their cups.

"We had little recreation around here 50 years ago," Hale said, "and meeting the passenger trains was quite an event. Many people met them all. There was always a great curiosity to see who got off or on."

Some of the early C. & O. telegraph operators at Prestonsburg were Bill Runnells, Sut Blankenship, a Mr. McCowan and others.

Robert Harris, onetime Floyd County sheriff, and proprietor of the Harris Hotel, always met the train to guide drummers to his hostelry and to assist them with their trunks.

Following the completion of the bridge, now dismantled, across the river at the end of Court Street, a new passenger stop known as East Prestonsburg was set up opposite the town. To make the bridge accessible to the main depot, a narrow road was built between the railroad and the river. There were few, if any cars in those days; and if a drunk passed out at West Prestonsburg, he was thrown in a wheelbarrow and pushed along the dusty road and over the new bridge to temporary lodgment in the city jail. Many of them were tied in the wheelbarrow so they wouldn't flop around while getting the free ride.

A few years after the completion of the bridge a controversy arose between the C. & O. and the bridge company. The latter, backed by most of the townsmen, wanted the road built between the tracks and the river. The railway firm feared the construction of the road would impair its road bed.

There was a lot of legal maneuvering. The town council got interested in the wrangle and passed a few ordinances. One required the railway company to build a three-foot-wide concrete walk from the end of the bridges to West Prestonsburg. Another ordinance attempted to cut the train speed between the two stops to six miles per hour.

After months of wrangling the railway company capitulated. The town got its road.

Although Prestonsburg had a bridge and road between the two rail stops, it cost a nickel to cross the bridge, for it was built by private enterprise headed by the late A.J. May and others. Andy Stephens was the toll collector for years.

The wind-swept platform at East Prestonsburg afforded no protection whatever in the winter and if the train was late, which happened rather frequently, a passenger would be numbed with cold.

Bill Marshall, who had the contract to carry mail between the post office and the passenger trains, found the parcel post packages getting heavier and greater in number. Looking about for motive power to a small wagon, he yoked up a young bull which in a later Presidential campaign became known as Jimmy Cox. Bill, his rickety wagon and phlegmatic bull were a part of the scene for years.

Bill's enterprise was reflected into another matter. He got as cold as anybody else in waiting on the trains and built a small hut of clapboards, tar paper, tin and any other materials at hand. He put a potbellied stove inside it and hauled coal with the bull. If you were freezing outside you could go in Bill's place and almost burn for a nickel.

Bill's sign on the door read: "Knock and it shall open unto you for 5c." He took a lot of good-natured ribbing about his sign. One man said facetiously that he misquoted the Bible. "I ain't, either," said Bill. "The Bible speaks of salvation, which is free. I'm offering to let you warm for a nickel. There's a lot of difference."

Bill's warming hut, like many other things connected with the trains up Big Sandy, succumbed to time and change. Another entrepreneur built a restaurant at East Prestonsburg and you could warm without paying anything. Bill tore down what passengers called The Nickel House.

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