"When people ask, I tell them we're clear in Virginia as far as Belcher Bridge in Bluefield," James N. Carter Jr., PE, chief engineer/bridges and structures with NS said. "When they ask me when it will be done, I tell them August."
Carter, 57, is an old-school railroader who was born in Piedmont, near Mullens, when his father, a Virginian Railway locomotive engineer, was serving in the Korean War with the U.S. Army. After the Virginian merged with the Norfolk & Western Railway in 1959, the family moved from Mullens to Bluefield, where the senior Mr. Carter worked with the N&W. The family picked out a home on the Virginia side so young Jim could pursue his lifelong dream of attending Virginia Tech. "As an in-state student," Carter said.
Each structure - tunnel, low bridge or narrow cut - along the 1,200 mile-plus long Heartland Corridor has its own set of challenges. Before crews with LRL Construction of Tillamook, Ore., started work, Carter had to hammer out the details of the project with his brother NS railroaders. Both main line tracks needed to be shut down for a while, but with as many as 18 trains moving through Bluefield over a 12-hour period, Gary Shepard, superintendent of NS's Pocahontas Division headquartered in Bluefield would have his hands full.
"The hardest thing about doing a job like this is having to run trains every day on one of the busiest sections in the NS system," Carter said. "I worked at the coal load-out in Lambert's Point for 15 years, so I know how important it is. I wanted as much uninterrupted time as possible to work on the structures, so the transportation planning people worked with people on the coal traffic side and we figured it out.
"Gary asked me: ‘Does it make any difference if you work in the day or night?' I told him it's always dark in the tunnel, so it didn't matter," Carter said. "They close the track down from 2 a.m., until noon every day. We get a section done, clean everything up and get back to it when we go in the next day." Since coal traffic is traditionally heavier late in the week, the Cooper Tunnel crew works Saturday through Wednesday."
Initial construction of the Cooper Tunnel was a significant moment in the history of the N&W Railway's development of the McDowell County coalfields. Keystones at both ends of the tunnel bear a 1902 date, but the start of the tunnel triggered the development of the vast metallurgical coalfields in McDowell County. Pioneer coal baron Jenkin Jones was in the first wave of McDowell County coal developers, but Samuel A. Crozer, John J. Lincoln, L.E. Tierney and others soon ignited the McDowell County coal boom of the early 20th Century.
The crews who built the Cooper Tunnel in the late 19th and early 20th centuries built it to last. The 680-foot long tunnel has a huge void above the roof that appears on maps to extend more than two-thirds the length of the structure. The void is listed at as much as 18 feet on some of the maps, but Bill Hawk, an inspector with Jacobs Associates laughed and hinted that the charts may not be entirely accurate.
The roof of the old tunnel was lined courses of bricks set in mortar, topped with another 4-foot layer of concrete. "Some huge rocks fell on the top in that void over the years, but didn't come through," Carter said.
"They originally had wood stacked up in there," Jared Beeler, superintendent on the tunnel job for LRL said.
"One place up in there, we found lead buckets that they used to carry grout up there," Mike Downs of LRL said. "They built this back when men were men." The LRL crews donated the lead grout buckets and some other artifacts to Bramwell Mayor Louise Stoker to display at the Bramwell Depot.
Carter said crews are replacing the arched brick roof with curved steel I-beams, topping them with 48-inches of concrete and moving the top up from its former 19'6" to a new height of 20'3". After everything is in place, workers will top the steel interior of the roof with shot-crete.
In addition to the Cooper Tunnel, crews are also working on the Big Sandy 1, 2, and 3 tunnels. When the project is completed, crews will have completed expansion of five miles in total length of 28 tunnels. Crews lowered the track in five of the tunnels, but all the rest involved raising the roof.
Safety is a priority on the job site. So far, one contractor died as a result of injuries received on the project. Larry Dale Hunt, 28, of McDowell County died Oct. 22, 2009, while excavating broken concrete at Tunnel #3 near Gray Eagle. NS Spokesman Robin Chapman said that approximately 160 ton of materials fell on the excavator Hunt was operating. Hunt was working for Johnson Western Gunite.
When the project is finished, it will cut the mileage double-stacked trains travel from Hampton Roads to Chicago by about 1,000 miles.