From Shop Talk, Bulletin of the N.C. Transportation Museum,
By John McRae
Trained, because they shared a love of railroading
with the fine breed of men known as railroaders.
Four particular chickens were ardent fans of North
Carolina's Cliffside Railroad, legend has it. In fact they were railfans
The story of the Cliffside Railroad chickens goes
back to the 1930s.
The story is true, though it sounds romanticized.
One day as one of the railroad's steam locomotives
approached Cliffside Junction on the 3.7 mile line, the fireman Van
McOpsom, saw a bantam hen with her three chicks on the right-of-way
beside their nest.
Some folks say the chicks had already hatched. Others
say they were still on the way. But in either case the train was stopped
and the chickens and their nest were put on board the locomotive's
The next day, McOpsum stopped the train again and
gathered up the chickens for a short ride.
repeatedly being put on the train at the sound of the whistle announcing
the train's movement, the story gores that the chickens began to place
themselves on the tender. And soon they learned a new trick: Whenever
the train stopped or pulled into the shop between runs, chickens flapped
to the ground to scratch and peck about the yards. When the whistle
called, they could be seen scurrying along to get on board.
The railroaders named the mother hen Bessie, after
the wife of Cliffside's Walter Haynes, and one of the community's
The chicks were named Charlie, for the president
of the railroad, Charles Haynes; for Maurice Hendrick, then secretary
of the railroad and general manager of the mill in Cliffside; and
Hollis, for Hollis Owens, the railroad's treasurer.
The railfanning family of chickens were a hit, and
everyone knew that the story would live on long after the railroad
might stop operations.
Later, an article in Trains magazine by H. Reid
drew visitors and mail from around the world to see the spectacle
of these trained chickens.
Alas, neither the chickens nor the Cliffside lasted.
The little line, formed in 1905 to serve the textile
mill there, shut down in 1992 and officially closed in the summer
But the story of the Cliffside, even without the
chickens, is fascinating.
A local business man, R.R. Haynes, started the mill
in 1899. Transportation of the mill's products was a great concern.
The closest railroad was the Seaboard Air Line, slightly less than
4 miles away. Haynes had discussed the matter with this good friend,
B.D. Heath, a prominent businessman in the Carolinas. And the two
launched the railroad.
Phillip White, principal of Cliffside Elementary
School and the town's historian, has built a wealth of history on
One of his favorites is about the train's engineer,
who played a prank on the local school children.
It was usual for the train to be returning to Cliffside
when the children were returning to school after eating lunch at home.
Customarily, the engineer stopped the train and boarded those who
lived along the right-of-way, bringing them back to the school grounds.
“All they had to do when the train stopped
was jump off, run across the ballfield and they were at the schoolhouse,”
The kids apparently took the free rides for granted.
To tease them, the engineer one day decided not to stop to let them
off, and instead took them all the way to the scheduled stop. With
a good laugh, White adds, “Of course they were late!”
The Cliffside started out with three second-hand
15-ton Forney Type locomotives in its earliest years and three second-hand
passenger cars. That service only lasted until 1926 when the automobile
became a dependable mode of transportation, especially for such short
The line was extended to Avondale in 1916 when Haynes
Mill began operations.
Raw materials as well as supplies for the community
were hauled into Cliffside and Avondale, and the finished products
were hauled the other direction to Cliffside Junction for shipment
on the Seaboard to market. In fact, numerous sources have indicated
that the railroad hauled over 50,000 tons of textiles from the factories
for many years.
In later years, Cliffside Railroad locomotives 40,
a beautiful 2-8-0 with a capped stack, and 110, a low-slung Prairie
type, became celebrities themselves by virtue of their longevity.
Years after most other railroads had switched to diesels, the Cliffside's
steamers kept goinguntil July 20, 1962. Two General Electric
diesels took over, and one served until the line's end.
Today, No. 40, built in 1925, hauls tourists for
the New Hope & Ivyland Railroad in Pennsylvania. No. 110 is on
display at the Stone Mountain Scenic Railroad near Atlanta. One of
the Cliffside's wooden cabooses is a permanent part of the N.C.
Transportation Museum collection, parked on track No. 1 in the
They're there today to remind us of the colorful
little railroad that once made it way through the countryside of Rutherford
County to the delight of all who had the good fortune to know the
line, chickens and humans alike.