TAPLINES

Aberdeen & Rockfish Railroad Celebrates
125 Years of Bringing Industry
to North Carolina’s Sandhills

With Only 50 Miles of Track, A&R Keeps Rolling Thanks to Consistent Family Ownership, Adaptability

Aberdeen & Rockfish HQ building and engine (1904)
A&R Railroad Co. Collection

ABERDEEN, N.C. (April 7, 2017)  - A&R PRESS RELEASE

        Surviving wars, depressions and an off- the-beaten-track location, family-owned Aberdeen & Rockfish Railroad Co. has kept rail service rolling and attracted industry to North Carolina’s Sandhills region for 125 years.

        A&R’s survival can be traced to both consistency and adaptability. With unwavering support from the founding Blue family, the loyalty of employees who often span generations, and the same landmark headquarters building since 1904, A&R has been consistently profitable while hundreds of short line railroads throughout the state and nation have disappeared. It also has constantly adapted to a changing economy that has shifted its traffic from timber to agricultural crops to chemicals, forged partnerships with trucking companies and much larger connecting railroads, and taken over other short line railroads to diversify its revenue.

        All the while, A&R has been an engine of economic development, luring companies to a region distant from North Carolina’s major metro areas by extending tracks directly to their factories and keeping their goods moving even during hurricanes and holidays. Since the creation of Fort Bragg, the tiny railroad with less than 50 miles of track has played a key role delivering troops and armaments, transporting more than 500,000 soldiers during World War II and prompting the base commander to defend its zigzag route by saying, “Hitler’s bombers couldn’t hit it twice on a bet.”

        “Without the long-term dedication and pride of the Blue family, A&R would have been sold or its track abandoned and this part of North Carolina would have lost rail service,” says Garland Horton, only the rail- road’s eighth president in 125 years. “When people come to work at A&R, they’re here for the duration. You know you’ll be taken care of,” says safety training officer Ricky Jones, who started at A&R in 1976 and whose father and grandfather worked there for a total of 90 years. Penny Benoist, who retired after 35 years in the accounting department, recalls that Forrest Lockey, the first president not from the Blue family (serving from 1960-1975), maintained a family focus that was generous, caring and fun-loving. For Christmas, Lockey gave cashmere sweaters to women employees and new suits to the men. An A&R mechanic devised a water-powered elevator to help an ailing Lockey get to his second-floor office, where the president occasionally tossed firecrackers out the window to liven up the town. Train crews looked after each other, with everyone aboard watching for cows or cars crossing the tracks, for example.

Aberdeen & Rockfish mail car in front of HQ
A&R Railroad Co. Collection

        Founder John Blue set the course for A&R as a civic-minded company, with three of its presidents serving as Aberdeen’s mayor, according to Vance Crane, his great grandson who started working there at age 17, working in the Fayetteville office and in train service. Starting in the midst of a national re- cession in 1892, the railroad served the family turpentine and timber business, running from Aberdeen, then known as Blue’s Crossing, through forests of towering long-leaf pines. Originally planned to terminate along Rockfish Creek, hence its name, the A&R changed its early routes several times, pulling up and reusing abandoned track. But John Blue clearly had set his sights on Fayetteville, the largest nearby trading center. According to company lore, the upstart railroad overcame resistance from giant Atlantic Coast Line by dispatching a midnight rail gang to build a connection to cross ACL’s tracks.
Access to Fayetteville starting in 1912 connected A&R with two major railroads – now CSX Transportation (a successor to Atlantic Coast Line) and Norfolk Southern. In a 1920 advertisement, John Blue boasted of the “unexcelled opportunities for capitalists.”

        The link also later extended to terminals on the Cape Fear River and opened passenger service between Aberdeen and Fayetteville, a popular Saturday trip for rural residents wanting to shop at Fayetteville’s department stores. Although passenger service dwindled with the advent of automobiles, A&R maintained it until 1950 with gas-powered rail buses (among the first constructed and operated) known locally as “jitneys” and continued to operate special troop trains to Fort Bragg through the 1960s. Due to an exemption in North Carolina’s then “Separate Car Act,” A&R’s passenger service was always racially integrated. It also was one of the few short lines with a postal clerk aboard to exchange mail pouches along the route, and one of the first railroads to switch completely from steam to diesel locomotives in 1947 – a relief to soldiers who sometimes had to hop off to help push the steam engine up a hill.

        Short lines, generally railroads with less than 100 miles of track, have an up-and-down history. After getting their start like A&R to serve local industry, many deteriorated during World War I when the federal government took over and rebuilt the major railroads, letting the short lines languish. Short lines enjoyed a rebirth in the 1970s and ‘80s when consolidation prompted the big carriers to spin off unwanted routes to short lines, but slumped again in recent decades, partly due to competition from the deregulated trucking industry. In addition to its flexibility in catering to local needs – such as getting watermelons and peaches to market, newsprint to The Fayetteville Observer or beer to thirsty soldiers – A&R has expanded its reach by taking over two other short lines. The first, Pee Dee River Railway just across the state line in South Carolina, is a classic example of how a short line drives economic development. When CSX wanted to abandon the 15-mile railroad between Marlboro and McColl, Marlboro County officials bought it for $173,000 in 1987 and inked a long-term contract with A&R to operate the line. Within three years, the county landed a 1,200-employee paper mill, which still bolsters A&R’s bottom line though smaller and under new ownership today.

Aberdeen & Rockfish #20, a Baldwin 4-6-0
Don Hensley Collection

        The second expansion, another CSX spinoff in 1987, illustrates the capricious nature of short lines. The Dunn-Erwin Railway in eastern North Carolina at first flourished hauling cotton to the nation’s largest denim plant, but floundered when the plant closed in the early ‘90s due to overseas competition. A&R pulled up Dunn-Erwin’s five miles of track and donated the route to local government as a nature trail.

        Even in challenging times, A&R’s customers remained loyal because the railroad lived its 125-year-old motto coined by John Blue, “The Road of Personal Service.” In contrast to big unionized railroads with strict work rules, A&R customers call its agents at home, no matter the weather or time of day, to meet requests such as delivering suddenly needed supplies or moving rail cars to keep a plant running. “Aberdeen & Rockfish doesn’t rest in maintaining their track, engines and staff,” says A.K. “Dooie” Leach, president of FCI, a Raeford, N.C., agricultural service company that has been an A&R customer for 55 years. Even when A&R didn’t own the track, the railroad went “above and beyond the call in lending a hand and sharing the cost of maintaining a siding serving our fertilizer plant,” he recalls. “As a second-generation customer, our partnership with the A&R has allowed FCI to grow and enjoy a mutually beneficial relation- ship.”

        A&R, one of the first short lines to buy a truck for local deliveries in 1931, in more recent years has adapted to competition from the trucking industry by increasing its transloading business, where railroads transfer goods to trucks for the final miles to a plant, combining the price advantage of rail with the flexibility of trucks. A&R teams with CSX and Norfolk Southern in moving freight to transload facilities on each end of the railroad, for trucks to deliver to customers not served by rail.

        Often in the vanguard of innovation, the A&R was one among the first short lines to use radio communications for train operations (1966) and one of the first to fully-computerize accounting functions (1967). A&R’s future, as its past, depends largely on its success fostering the economic development of the region it serves. Steve Yost, president of North Carolina’s Southeast, an 18-county regional economic development organization, says A&R’s long-term investment in rail service has been crucial to attracting industry – a steadfast commitment even when faced with setbacks. In 2010, A&R and the region suffered a blow when a newly opened ethanol plant closed within six months as corn prices soared, just as A&R was gearing up for a lucrative opportunity hauling in trainloads of corn. Undaunted, A&R teamed with Yost’s group and the Raeford/ Hoke Economic Development Commission to successfully recruit Tyton BioFuels NC to take over the empty plant with long-term plans to produce ethanol from a new source modified tobacco.

        “Regardless of whether their railroad has a shot at a new plant, A&R always plays an instrumental role in helping us develop southeastern North Carolina,” says Yost. “They know the next plant may be interested in linking up with them. We’re very fortunate the Blue family has invested in A&R for 125 years because when a railroad goes away, it’s gone forever.”

About Our 125th Anniversary Celebration

A&R will host a picnic for customers, employees and guests celebrating its 125th anniversary at
its office in Aberdeen, on Saturday, April 22. Lunch, live music and games will be provided for
attendees.

About A&R Railroads

The A&R Railroads take great pride in providing customers with prompt and efficient service for the ship-
ment of virtually any type of commodity from raw materials to finished products. Comprising the Aberdeen &
Rockfish Railroad and the Pee Dee River Railway, our system has more than 125 years of experience in providing personal service to Carolina customers. Together with our transportation partners CSX Transportation,
Norfolk Southern, Tidewater Transit, Sterling Transport and Mid-Atlantic Transloading & Logistics, the A&R
Railroads have access to some of the most cost-effective routes and rates serving all of North America.
For more information, see www.aberdeen-rockfish.com
Media Contacts:
Garland Horton (910) 944-2341, GHorton@aberdeen-rockfish.com
Ken Gepfert (704) 807-7784, kengepfert@gmail.com

A&R RR Side Door Caboose # 308, used for LCL & US Mail Deliveries
Don Hensley Collection

A&R # 50 in Aberdeen, NC Don Hensley Collection

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