I grew up in Loyall, Kentucky, a small town about which I’ve written before. Loyall, so the story goes, was named after an executive for the Louisville & Nashville Railroad which built its switching and maintenance yard in Loyall. I suppose that’s true, although I’ve never met anyone named Loyall nor did he leave any descendants in my hometown. Then again, it might just be a misspelling of the word “loyal.”
Loyall is in Harlan County, tucked in the southeast corner of Kentucky on the Virginia border. Bell County, to our south, is all that protects from Tennessee. As I grew older, I met many people from other small towns and visited quite a few such places, too. Loyall wasn’t much different than these other places. People knew their neighbors, went to school, gossiped about each other and did all the other things people do.
For most of my childhood, the posted population of Loyall was 1100. I have no idea if that was even close to accurate. Honestly, it didn’t seem like that many people lived there. We had one main street, one red light, a few small grocery stores, a school, a full-service gas station, barber shop, post office and an honest-to-goodness corner drugstore with a soda fountain. We even had a movie theater and drive-in restaurant. The L&N yard, though, is what dominated the town.
The Loyall Yard was built in the early 20th century to accommodate the burgeoning coal industry. It was a switching yard with multiple tracks, a turntable and mechanic’s shop. By the time I came around, the maintenance folks had all moved over to the L&N yard in Corbin, Kentucky. The Loyall Yard was still a big deal. Trains ran in and out of it day and night.
Until I was about 12 years old, I lived about 200 yards from the railroad track and a crossing. If you lived in Loyall, you got used to two sounds: 1) trains slowly moving in and out of the yard; and 2) the ringing of the crossing bell. To this day, I think I could fall asleep with a bell ringing beside my head.
In my memory, everyone in Loyall worked at the yard, although that’s not really the case. My parents didn’t work for the L&N, but my Dad’s brother Jack did. Uncle Jack told me that I could identify the old men who used work as couplers in the Yard by their missing fingers. My Dad told me to ignore that “foolishness.” Frankly, I don’t remember a bunch of finger-less old men in Loyall. I was terrified of people who had missing limbs, fingers, etc. I would remember these dudes if they had been hanging around.
We were accustomed to trains but only coal trains. When my family went on vacation, I was intrigued by trains pulling tank cars, flat cars and even the occasional passenger train. Our trains consisted of a couple engines, coal hopper cars and a caboose.
This is all a long way of saying that we knew about trains. We knew people that worked on them, engineered them and road the cabooses. Of course, we also knew the people that mined and loaded the coal that went on those trains. It would have taken a lot for a train to get our attention. The United States Army took care of that in 1970.
I was eight years old when the Nerve Gas Train came to town. That’s not a typo—it was a train loaded with freakin’ nerve gas! I remember my eighth birthday. I was at Yellowstone National Park with my family. My Aunt Norma surprised me with a cake. She also surprised me by buying every piece of junk I had begged for in every store and gift shop we visited. She gave me a bag of marbles, jacks and sundry other items. My parents gave me a baseball glove and Pete Rose bat—that was the summer I became a baseball fan. I still have that bat, but I digress.
I need to digress again. I was a worrier–yes, even at eight years old. What does an eight year old have to worry about? Lots of stuff. I hated school, so I worried about that. I was scared of storms, so I worried about those, too. I worried about being so small and skinny, even though most of my friends were, too. Oh, don’t forget people with missing fingers. I was scared of my great-grandmother because she had a glass eye. Really, it was a sort of generalized brooding which occasionally focused on specifics worries, both real and imagined. Needless to say, the thought of nerve gas train was worrisome.
How did we get a Nerve Gas Train? That’s a fine question. I’m not real sure, but I have done some cursory research, which I’m sure some Harlan County historian will quickly correct. It seems that the United States Army had a large cache of chemical weapons, including nerve gas. As we’ve learned over the years, disposing of such weaponry is not nearly as easy as making it. We know that well here in the Commonwealth of Kentucky where we maintain an enormous stockpile of such weapons in Madison County, some 120 or so miles away from Loyall.
The Bluegrass Army Depot stores such delights as sarin gas, VX and mustard gas. “VX” is shorthand for “venomous agent X,” a nerve agent. It sounds like Dr. Evil named it. I suppose it’s so deadly that no one could come up with a more appealing name. I guess the Nerve Gas Train had goodies like that on board.
In 1970, the Army came up with a plan to dispose of some of these weapons by dumping them in the Atlantic Ocean. I know–that sounds like a plan that Wile E. Coyote or a dull-witted high school sophomore would come up with, but it was a plan. Soooo….they loaded a bunch of them on a train.
That’s how Loyall got on the path of the Nerve Gas Train. Boy, were people excited. It was in the newspaper. We talked about it at school. People said that even a small leak would likely wipe us all out. If the train wrecked? Cataclysm. We occasionally had train derailed. We even had a disastrous head-on collision near Loyall once. There was even loose talk that the Soviets would love to sabotage the train. We were quite ready in Harlan County to take the Red Scourge. There was some real potential here. People were excited.
I’m serious. We were excited. Okay. They were excited. I was more terrified. I envisioned a train pulling flatcars loaded with Saturn rockets chock full of venomous nerve agents. For some reason, my mind’s eye saw them steaming with toxic vapors. I hadn’t been this worked up since a rumor that a busload of hippies were coming to town. (By the way, they didn’t, much to my disappointment. I always liked hippies.)
We were like the citizens of Mayberry on The Andy Griffith Show awaiting the arrival of the gold truck! Unlike Mayberry, though, our shipment wasn’t supposed to be secret. I don’t remember anyone holding up signs, but they should have.
So, what happened? The train came through town. People gathered at the railroad tracks and watched. My father mocked them, of course, pointing out to me that it was just a train and no big deal. I saw it go by. No Saturn rockets. No steaming canisters of deadly gas. Not even the smallest leak. No one collapsed and died. No derailments or collisions. No Russian attacks. As far as I know, no one in the county was harmed in any way. It was just a train pulling some nondescript cars.
Here’s a link to podcast discussing the Nerve Gas Train. According to these guys, it carried sarin gas which is neutralized when it comes in contact with salt. That explains the dumping in the ocean. Apparently, there were troops on the train, ambulances and decontamination equipment. I don’t remember any of that. Sound pretty cool, though.
So what? We liked it. It was something to do. Not everyone sees a Nerve Gas Train, and I did. Or at least I think I did. Like I said, I was pretty terrified. Maybe I stayed in my room, and through the fog of time now believe I saw it. I like to think I did.
I came across your blog over a year ago, searching for Loyall on the internet. I just love it. Honest. I find real solace just reading the words of a man from Loyall. Though I’ve never heard your voice, I hear the accent in my mind when I read your writings. My dad grew up in Loyall. He was born in 1913 and left in the 1940s so it’s very doubtful you would know him, but you might know his family. His dad worked for the L&N as a yard foreman and then a conductor. He was a lay preacher and a founding member of the First Baptist Church in Loyall. His name was John Sanford White. My father had one brother who lived in Loyall his whole life, up until he retired and, emotionally and physically drained from one too many times having his house flooded (he lived in Rio Vista, too), they moved to London (Kentucky, not England). My father was Paul White. His brother that lived in Loyall all those years was Claude White and his wife was Mabel. They raised two boys in Loyall – Don and Carl White. My Uncle Claude had a 5&10 cent store on Wilkerson Street and they lived above the store for many years before moving to the house on Rio Vista. At one time the store was called Davis & White, then just White’s General Store. I have photos of the store and one in particular that I treasure of Cody Long standing in front of it, a big smile across his face. He was a legend, larger than life, in my dad’s eyes. I was the child of my father’s old age. My mother (from Clay County) was in her late 30s when I was born, and my father was 13 years her senior. My other siblings were grown and moved away by the time I was five, so I was raised like an only child. My sisters remember our father as a young man, but my memories of him are of him being old, weakened by failing health, and usually ill tempered. He died when I was 13. He was hard to know. He didn’t communicate much. I didn’t have a lot of happy, bonding moments with him. As an adult, many years after his death, I found a trunk containing things my father had kept through the years – photographs, newspaper clippings, school report cards, legal documents, letters and postcards, momentos from trips. I found out that my mother was not his first wife. Or his second. I found out he had other children from his previous marriages. I found out that he had two younger siblings that died in infancy, and that his mother took to her bed, overcome with grief and that he and his brother were sent to the Pine Mountain Settlement School for a while because she was unable to care for them. I found out that he once was a professional boxer, written up in the newspaper as “The Pride of Loyall”. I realized, with real regret, I didn’t know my dad. He wasn’t always the old man I knew – he had a life, interesting, adventurous, tragic at times, long before I was born. Now, I long to go back to Loyall, trying to find him in the people and places he loved. Even though my dad left Harlan County many years ago, it was always home. He is buried there now, and my mom with him, in the Resthaven Cemetery. My sister and I are going there next month to lay flowers, and look for the places that were dear to him, still trying to find him. I’m sorry for the length of my post. …If you’ve read this far, I can send you a copy of the photo of Cody Long, if you’re interested.
Thanks so much for the kind comments. I remember Claude White well. He was a neighbor. His house was on the left just as you go into Rio Vista. I believe Curt Davis was his business partner. He had a store outside Rio Vista at one time. I attended the First Baptist Church. I’m sure my father knew all your family. If you want, you can email that photo to me at email@example.com. Thanks again! John
Thought that woman on the left in the plaid dress was Gomer in ugly, stupid, Gomer-ish plaid overalls, at first. Those hillbillies combine to make me hate stupid, evil white hillbillies even more. All pity and sympathy for and kindness to hillbillies will always be returned only with more evil, cowardice, hatred, cowardice, viciousness, cowardice, stupidity and cowardice, by all male, female, young, old, straight, and gay and in the closet, evil, cowardly, hillbilly-gang hillbillies than you ever, previously, imagined possible. That photo, though, doesn’t give you a hint at the kind of broken-down, filthy, junk and trash-filled S-hole homes, with trash, junk and old, rotting car and truck carcass-strewn yards which hillbillies actually inhabit. Gay hillbillies in the closet are actually kind of hilarious, until you learn the hard way that they’re all actually just as hateful, vicious, evil and cowardly as are all other hillbillies.
The store that Claude White operated in Loyall was not a five-and-dime store but a general store that featured groceries and offered home delivery. It was “White and Durham” for many years, not “White and Davis.” In his later years before retirement, Mr. White, a kind and generous man, was in charge of the county’s home for the aged, which I believe was on Catron’s Creek.
Just came across your blog and the “Nerve Gas Train”. My father grew up in Loyall, laying claim to being the biggest baby ever born at the Loyall hospital in 1926. I was born in Harlan but we quickly moved to Corbin in 1964 as part of Dad’s assignments with the railroad. My grandfather started his RR career with the C&M railroad in Manchester and wound up with the L&N when they took it over. He was a mine run engineer operating out of Loyall from the 1930’s and my grandmother ran the Vaughn Hotel right across from the yard which was later used as the RC Cola Bottling Plant. She always called it a “rooming house”. I think that building is still standing today but it’s been several years since I’ve wondered back into town.
When the gas trains ran, Dad was terminal trainmaster at Corbin and we had a front row seat to watch the overall uneventful appearances of these trains. In my memory, there were two, one ran down the main in Corbin, paused for a crew change and continued on down the KD toward Knoxville. The second came in on the yard lead, paused at the office for the crew change and then took the wye passing under the highline on it’s way out toward Loyall. These ran on different days but no way I can remember when or how long apart they operated. I do remember the great fanfare and the massive turnout of people standing along Master Street, which the police had blocked off, just waiting to catch a view of our military might. What stands out for me was the total lack of any protesters in the crowds. Everyone cheered when it showed up, half expecting to watch Marines hop out with rifles but being left feeling a little anticlimactic when not much seemed any different from the other two dozen or so trains a day we were used to watching.
You’re comment about being able to sleep through crossing bells rings very true. Our house in Corbin was not trackside but I do fondly remember summer nights falling to sleep with the windows open listening to Alco engines idling away and bubbling up and down the yard tracks. About every 10-15 minutes this would be interrupted by lonesome whistles/horns blowing for the many crossings coming into or leaving town. No better sleep than that!
Thanks for the comments. Your dad no doubt knew my Uncle Jack Williams who worked at Corbin and was also trainmaster at Loyall for many years.