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Irish Creek Railway

James R. Elliott Jr. is a former NASA engineer and inventor, current outdoor enthusiast and Blue Ridge Parkway volunteer. Besides maintaining the Yankee Horse Trail and Overlook at Milepost 34, Elliott has developed and pushed ahead a fascinating Blue Ridge Parkway project with the generous financial help of the Mary Ann Elliott Foundation.

The mission of the Mary Ann Elliott Foundation is twofold:

  • to nurture, serve, and minister in the areas of health research, education, children’s initiatives and animal welfare.
  • to promote and protect the environment and conserve natural resources.
The Mary Ann Elliott Foundation pursues its mission by making grants that enable organizations or fund specific projects in the State of North Carolina and Commonwealth of Virginia on a case-by-case basis to pursue endeavors that fall within its focus.

Elliott has been heavily involved in the research of the Irish Creek Railway and its legacy in the Blue Ridge.

His project focused on reconstructing the railway exhibit located at the Yankee Horse Ridge Overlook Visitor Center and involved the organization, planning, and construction of a historically accurate display of the rail bed. The current display at the visitor center was fabricated with modern train specifications and is not historically accurate.



It is critical to the historical reference to include the correct narrow gauge size, narrow gauge rails, beams,and support beds representative of the original Irish Creek Railway. A complete refurbishment of the 1905 Koppel Ore Car previously on display at this location is also planned.

For additional information on this project, please download the Irish Creek Railway Project presentation.

Elliott’s research into the Irish Creek Railway garnered a tremendous amount of historical information and the story below is based on his work.

Irish Creek Railway History

Pre-Railroad Era
What we now call Lexington was once inhabited by Cherokee Indians around the late 1700’s. They lived in what explorers named wigwams. History does not report exactly how long they were in the area, but it is assumed it was a relatively short stay, because European soldiers soon entered the land. The local militia pushed the Cherokees into the mountains and what we now call Irish Creek. The soldiers gave the Cherokees strict orders to not leave the area, or they would be murdered on site. Many Cherokees began to suffer from illnesses the Europeans carried over such as smallpox, and a significant number of them died. Despite the many deaths in the Cherokees for various reasons, a number of them did survive; this is evident even today with the people native to that region having distinct Cherokee features such as high cheekbones and almond-shaped dark colored eyes and long dark hair. [Lord 1981]

Around 1916, the mountains began being used for hewing and sawing. Logging railways with wooden train tracks were soon built so trains could aid in the process. The tracks were very unsafe and caused some train accidents. The most common type of train that rode through the Irish Creek Railway was a locomotive named “Climax”. The first Climax Locomotives built were very crude in appearance and bore little resemblance to conventional locomotives. A vertical boiler and two-cylinder marine-type engine was mounted on top of a platform frame, supported by a four-wheel truck at each end. A round water tank was placed on one end and a fuel bin on the other. Power was transmitted to the axles by gears with a differential arrangement similar to the modern automobile and driven by a line shaft connected to the engine through a two-speed gear box. The frame, canopy type cab, and even the truck frames were made of wood.

From research and gathering information from various sources, we believe that the locomotive most commonly used on the tracks of the Irish Railway Creek was a Class C Climax locomotive. The defining reason for this conclusion is the fact that the Class C can hold over 60 tons, which is more than the Class A and Class B. It is also the best at navigating through narrow gauge tracks, and since the Irish Creek area had such underwhelming train tracks, this train would have been idyllic. It was the best at traveling uphill, or up-mountain in this case.

These pictures all display Climax Locomotives Class C. The one on the far right is in Cass, West Virginia, showing what is believed to be the type of locomotive in use along the Irish Creek Railway.


Logging in Irish Creek/Rockbridge Area
Once the forests were observed and accounted for, the inhabitants of the area saw an opportunity to profit from the natural resources of the area. Logging in West Virginia had already begun, so linking it to Virginia was definitely a great opportunity for Virginians. The railroads were put together by men evidently in a hurry because of how narrow and unsafe the railroads were. The locomotives would flow from West Virginia to the eastern coast. The Class C Climax locomotive could hold very large amounts of timber and other items, so it was very economically beneficial to have this railroad and locomotive in this relatively undeveloped area.

Minerals in Irish Creek
Near Irish Creek, a remarkable deposit of Dufrenite was found, a relatively rare dark green mineral that when introduced with oxygen turns to a reddish brown or yellow color. It is a collectors’ favorite, and usually forms in iron ore deposits.

These are pictures of Dufrenite deposits actually found in the Irish Creek area.


Cassiterite is a tin-oxide mineral that is the main economic mineral in the making of tin, which can be used for bronze, brass, and the making of pesticides. It is a very rare mineral and found in very little quantity in the US. It was found along the Irish Creek area, 7 miles east of Vesuvius, which was a train station on the Norfolk & Western Railway. The cassiterite was confirmed by Professor Armstrong of Washington College in 1846. Cassiterite unfortunately is a conflict mineral and many civilians in Congo and many underdeveloped countries are enslaved and killed for the valuable mineral. [LANEY 1917]

The picture on the left is Cassiterite found in the Irish Creek area by miners and the picture on the right is the mineral glowing under fluorescent light.


Mining in Irish Creek
Mining at Irish Creek began in 1846, after Professor Armstrong identified the cassiterite. Reportedly, the cassiterite ore had been forgotten and mining seized. The ore was rediscovered in 1882 by Mrs. Martha D. Cash; prospecting began in 1883, and the Virginia Tin Mining and Manufacturing Company was organized in 1884. By this time a tunnel 80 feet long had been driven on the vein. The Lexington Tin Company appears to have operated in the district in 1885. Mining continued until 1886, when litigation caused the closing of the mines.

Interesting Facts
The White House in Washington, DC is 137 miles to the East Northeast. If you could drive a straight line from Irish Creek to White House, with an average speed of 63 miles per hour, it would take less than three hours to make the trip. A comfortable walk of 2.2 miles per hour would take 8 days. A horse and buggy averaging 3.2 miles per hour would take 6 days.

The highest points in the immediate vicinity of the district reach altitudes exceeding 3,500 feet above sea level, and the bed of the Irish Creek, near Irish Creek post-office, is slightly below 2,000 feet.

Works Cited
Laney, Francis Baker
The Geology and Ore Deposits of the Virgilina District of Virginia and North Carolina
Charlottesville, Virginia
University of Virginia, 1917

Lord, William George
Blue Ridge Parkway Guide: Rockfish Gap to Grandfather Mountain 0.0 – 291.9 Miles, Volume 1
Birmingham, Alabama
Menasha Ridge Press, 1981

Images courtesy of John Betts, owner of the Online Mineral Museum.

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