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Alf Peoples: Railroading in the blood for Erwin man

Jennifer Sprouse • Oct 13, 2013 at 8:40 PM

While many people in the area have their own stories and memories associated with the Clinchfield Railroad No. 1, for A.J. “Alf” Peoples, the railroad’s history is in many ways his own.

Born and raised in Erwin, Peoples is a third-generation railroader, following in the footsteps of his father, Jack, and grandfather, Mack.

“My grandfather was the yard conductor there in Johnson City for years and then my father was a road engineer for Clinchfield,” he said. “Back then they usually hired people ... families of railroaders.”

Falling right in line, Peoples said he started work in 1969 on the excursion train pulled by the steam-powered No. 1 collecting and checking tickets, as well as helping passengers board the train.

He said during the week he was tasked with gathering supplies and first-aid items for the railroad, as well as cleaning the cars.

“When I worked on that passenger train, that was just a part-time job for young people whose parents worked on the railroad,” he said. “I played high school football and sometimes I could go on the train to Spartanburg (S.C.) or wherever we were going to. Sometimes I’d be playing football Friday night and have to drive down there after the game. That was a weekend job most of the time.”

Peoples was made a brakeman in June 1973 with the railroad, a job he said he was already familiar with.

“I was showing the brakemen (how to do their job), the new ones, before I got a job braking,” he said. “I knew (the jobs) from being on that train and my family.”

Some of Peoples’ mentors early on were his father and a family friend, George Hatcher.

“George and my dad were both hired the same day by Clinchfield Railroad and they were both promoted to engineers the same day and our families were friends,” he said. “George and Daddy sat beside each other and signed their retirement papers the same day. I’ve never heard of anybody doing anything like that.”

In 1976, Peoples said he was promoted to engineer and was able to work with his father on his first trip. He said the pair worked well together.

“He was my push engineer on my first trip as an engineer,” he said. “It was good. (His dad and George) were always fun and they never fussed about anything.”

Forty years later, Peoples is still an engineer for CSX Railroad and said he still enjoys riding the rails.

“I’m still going,” he said. “I grew up around it. It’s fun. It’s much easier than it used to be.”

Recently, Peoples helped co-author a pictorial history book about the Clinchfield No. 1 called “The One & Only” with Mark A. Stevens, publisher of the Elizabethton Star.

“Mark’s always wanted to do a book about the No. 1,” he said. “He knew I’d been around the train and knew stuff, so we have worked like crazy for several years. We were like team players. We both worked together really well.”

Peoples said the 148-page book is full of photographs from long ago that he has collected from the Archives of Appalachia, friends and family members and complete strangers.

“I got to go through everything,” he said. “I’ve found stuff from all over the eastern United States ... from Pennsylvania to Florida.”

The book was released Oct. 1 and can be found at various locations, including the Clinchfield Federal Credit Union, Unicoi County Heritage Museum and Clinchfield Railroad Museum, which are located on the Erwin National Fish Hatchery grounds, as well as at the Elizabethton Star.

A release about the book said “The One & Only” can be mail ordered for $37.87 from the Elizabethton Star. To purchase a copy of the book, send a check to the Elizabethton Star, P.O. Box 1960, Elizabethton, TN 37643 or call 542-4151 to pay by credit card.

Peoples said he enjoyed doing research about the Clinchfield No. 1.

“It was almost like reliving (his years on the No. 1). It’s unbelievable,” he said. “Most people can’t put their past experience together like that.”