BLUEFIELD, W.Va. -- Once a popular roadside attraction along old U.S. 52 at the summit of East River Mountain, the Ridge Runner excursion train plied a mile-long narrow-gauge track, giving riders a bird's-eye view into the valleys and ridges of both Virginias.
The train, powered by a quarter-scale version of a classic 1863 C.P. Huntington locomotive, crisscrossed the state line while making the circuit, allowing its operators to claim the shortest interstate railroad in the world.
For 10 years after the train's 1964 debut, families, youth clubs and church groups from across the region flocked to the Skyland gift shop and cafe, which operated the bright red train, to ride the 24-inch-wide rails.
But ridership fell off dramatically after the nearby East River Mountain Tunnel was completed in the mid-1970s, and Interstate 77 began to draw traffic away from the hilltop highway fronting the Ridge Runner.
In 1984, owners of Skyland sold their stock in the tourist train to the City of Bluefield at a nominal $1 a share to keep the Ridge Runner running. The track was taken up and relocated, along with the train, to Bluefield's Lotito Park. There, the train ran until four years ago, when the need for repairs and maintenance far exceeded the city's budget.
The train was mothballed in the tunnel it used to pass through while making its run through Lotito Park, and the rail ties were left to rot away on the idle track.
Last summer, Bluefield City Manager Andy Merriman came up with a plan to put the locomotive on permanent display in downtown Bluefield. But the idea of permanently idling the train soon proved to be unpopular among residents of the area.
"The entire population of both Bluefields [including the one in Virginia] has ridden on that train," said Art Riley, a member of the Foundation of the Virginias' Save the Ridge Runner Committee. "No one wants to see it go."
Bluefield officials decided that if the committee could raise enough money to refurbish the train and tracks, and maybe help cover the cost of insurance, they would be more than willing to get on board.
A fundraising campaign began last July, and since then, "the phone's been ringing off the hook with people wanting to help," said Lecia Smith, who co-chairs the Save the Ridge Runner Committee.
"We thought we would need about $150,000 to repair the track and fix up the train," said Smith. "So far, we've raised $164,000 in cash in 27 weeks. If you add in donations of materials and labor, it's more like $200,000."
Smith she is not surprised that the Ridge Runner is on the road to salvation, with a grand re-opening scheduled for July 4.
"I knew we would get it done," she said. "I just didn't know how overwhelming the outpouring of support would be."
Last October, Ray Woody and Raymond Greene of Woody Construction Co., began digging out and replacing all 360 railroad ties and re-pinning rails along the nearly mile-long oval track at Lotito Park
"We put in new ballast and replaced all of the bolts and some of the spikes, and repaired two bridges," Woody said on Tuesday, before pounding a gold-painted ceremonial spike into the final tie and last section of rail.