Book Review: ‘Chasing the Powhatan Arrow’

Posted by Dave Tabler | March 24, 2017

If you’re at all familiar with the work of Studs Terkel, you’ll recognize a kindred spirit in the work of author Michael Abraham. Terkel was world renowned for his ability to draw out compelling oral histories, from both the mighty and the not so mighty, over his 45 year tenure as a radio talk show host on Chicago’s WFMT.

Likewise Michael Abraham, in his recently published travelogue ‘Chasing the Powhatan Arrow,’ reveals an endless curiosity and enthusiasm in his interviews with railroad CEOs, railfan hobbyists, museum curators, city councilmen, and just about everyone else he encounters on this journey.

chasing book cover

Abraham’s goal in this book is to retrace the 676 mile route of the Norfolk & Western Railway’s famed steam powered crown jewel, from Norfolk to Cincinnati, and to investigate the historical, and modern, effect the train has had on the communities it touched.

Why a book length treatment for that specific railway line?

“Throughout its history, the Norfolk & Western had a dramatic impact on the communities through which it passed,” explains Abraham. “It had its hand in almost every aspect of commerce, and it made many communities and broke others.

“The corridor of the Powhatan Arrow is one of immense geological, economic, and cultural diversity,” he continues. “The time of the Powhatan Arrow was the time of our nation’s greatest economic prosperity.

“Norfolk & Western chose to make the Powhatan Arrow one of its showcase passenger excursions. It spared no expense. The Powhatan Arrow was pulled by a Class J locomotive, widely considered the finest steam locomotive ever built, had the finest cars, and the finest accommodations of any railroad in the country.”

Abraham also has a personal connection to the Powhatan Arrow. “My maternal grandparents lived in Richmond,” he says, “and sometimes I’d get to take the Pocahontas or the Powhatan Arrow to Petersburg, where a family member would pick us up.”

‘Chasing the Powhatan Arrow’ is not a tour guide, though Michael Abraham is in fact a very entertaining spokesman on behalf of the cities and towns he encounters. He paints vivid portraits of the oystermen of Norfolk. The desperate Civil War battles fought around Petersburg and Appomattox, VA. The childhood home of movie star Roy Rogers along the Ohio River.

His subtitle—‘A Travelogue in Economic Geography’—points to the methodology he’ll use for the book’s narrative. Economic geography is a very specific branch in the study of geography. It deals with “the relation of physical and economic conditions to the production and utilization of raw materials and their manufacture into finished products.”


By looking at this particular railroad line through the lens of economic geography, Abraham shows readers how the region’s two major industries, tobacco farming (on the eastern end of the line) and coal mining (on its western side), influenced the development and the growth of the railroads, and vice versa.

“Economies are Darwinian, survival of the fittest,” he concludes.

“There is efficiency and productivity in uniformity, but there is resiliency and sustainability in diversity, which ultimately is more vital. Everybody I’ve ever met in economic development says they’d rather have ten companies emerge or come to town with 20 jobs each than one with 200. The reason is that the former better adapts to changing environments.”

Abraham has a mechanical engineering degree from Virginia Tech, so it’s easy to see how he’d be fascinated by how the steam engine works. Luckily for his readers he’s able to translate its complexities into English for those of us who don’t have a technical bent. His prose is clear and concise, and his historical commentaries backed up with numerous well-researched examples.

‘Chasing the Powhatan Arrow’ is written for a general, not scholarly, audience, and because of that Abraham has opted not to use footnotes, endnotes, or an index. Usually that decision helps reinforce the breezy conversational style he writes in. But every now and again I would have liked to have known his sources. For example, as he’s crossing the state line from Virginia into West Virginia, he takes a few pages to explore an “unauthorized people’s history of West Virginia,” saying that many history books present a more sanitized version. How unauthorized is his people’s history? Say what other sources?

Michael Abraham continues to stake his claim as one of Central Appalachia’s top regional writers (six of his seven previous books are set in Southwest Virginia and Southern West Virginia). The Christianburg, VA native’s obvious love of railroading shines through on every page in this, the latest addition to his oeuvre.


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She was a great Herb Doc, the main Doc of the county

Posted by Dave Tabler | March 23, 2017

Following is a family history written in 1985 by Ethel (Barrows) Shilling, of Washington County, OH. Grand Ma & Grand Pa Seevers were: Mary A. Severs (1821-1909) & Samuel Severs (1809-1877)

Some History of Grand Ma / Grand Pa Seevers.

Reports are and have been they have Indian blood, and perhaps they have; who hasn’t? But, I too perhaps think Grand Father might of been of the Indian Tribe. I’m that age. Seems the public wants to class them of the Indians. I never heard of any comment from my mother as such. They surely could of been associated with them in those days.

Grand Mother knew a lot about wild life, nature, etc. You name it. She was a great Herb Doc. She was the main Doc of the county, and saved a lot of lives and brought many lives into the community. Emma Limpert says Grand Ma brought her into the world. Also she saved one of her sisters from diphtheria, from her herb doctoring.

Grandma lived in a log house as I remembered, one side sloped down to ground like a shed, an outside dug cellar with sod banked at the side, herbs of all kind were hanging inside drying. She had curly hair (of which I don’t think Indians have), wore black, and a black hood or a fascinator, she chewed tobacco, pieced comforters and quilts (by hand sewing) in the winter. She also knew how to rob the squirrels of their winter nuts; by finding them in rotten logs and stumps she would always come up with all she could pack.

Mary A. Severs of Washington County OHI used to sometimes sleep with her. Before going to sleep she would make noises of different animals, especially like a bear. I used to curl her hair when a little girl.

When she got older, so I understand she pieced each grandchild a quilt. These pieces were very small; she never had no waste to throw away. Her fingers were very much drawn crooked by her age.

She stayed with us when she got old. My father built her a bedroom all her own. We lived down on Fountain St. Uncle Jim Seevers her son was her guardian. This log house was joining Uncle Sam Seever’s farm, back a lane, perhaps a mile. She went fishing in what you call Little Lake close to her home. She was a great fisherman.

She was quite a person in her age. She passed away at the age of 87. Her funeral was at the Logan Church. I was about ten years old and well remember it all. She passed away at Aunt Tan Cole’s home. She and Grandfather and two babies lay at Six Corners Cemetery about in middle of the big section with a large brown marker. The only brown I think in that side. You cannot miss it.

I cannot give you any dates. I don’t have any records of such. Only as I remembered down through time. My mother never said much about the life or I was too young to get it.


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The stretch-out and the strike

Posted by Dave Tabler | March 22, 2017

By the mid 1920s Appalachia, land of farms and farmers, had been crisscrossed by railroad tracks and dotted with mill villages, and the Piedmont had eclipsed New England as the world’s leading producer of yarn and cloth. But along with the promise of new jobs came intense competition in the decentralized textile industry, depressing wages, and faster mill machines, which with each new technological advance threatened to further exhaust their operators.

Fashions in rayon for the 1930-31 season - Sears Catalog, 1930

Fashions in rayon for the 1930-31 season – Sears Catalog, 1930

These developments inevitably put labor and management on a collision course. Charlie Chaplin’s film Modern Times (1936) captured perfectly the panic of the average millhand caught in the cross-fire of the “stretch-out”: sped up machinery and ever expanding work quotas.

In October 1926 American Bemberg began the manufacture of “artificial silk,” or rayon, at its new plant in Elizabethton, TN. The parent company, J. P. Bemberg, was the German affiliate of Vereinigte Glanzstoff Fabriken (VGF), one of the international giants in the production of rayon. Two years later, in August 1928, VGF opened another rayon plant in the small East Tennessee town. Visions of economic growth encouraged government officials in Elizabethton to make concessions to VGF concerning property taxes and charges for the huge volumes of water needed to make rayon. They also promised the German industrialists that they would have an abundant supply of docile and cheap–that is, nonunion– labor.

John Fred Holly, who grew up in Elizabethton and worked at the plant during the 1930s, reported that local banker E. Crawford (E.C.) Alexander showed him a copy of an agreement between the company and the Elizabethton Chamber of Commerce assuring the rayon concerns that they would never have to pay weekly wages in excess of ten dollars and that no labor unions would be allowed to operate in the town.

A 1947 aerial view of the North American Rayon Mills, Elizabethton, TN.

A 1947 aerial view of the North American Rayon Mills, Elizabethton, TN.


The stage was set for one of the first, if not THE first, strikes in the Southern textile field. On March 12, 1929, 800 employees of American Bemberg walked out in a fumbling strike, poorly organized and not under union leadership. They demanded wage increases; the company ordered the plant closed the following day. On March 19 the adjoining plant, under the same management, was also closed and its 3,000 employees joined the ranks of the strikers, all native Americans. The courts quickly granted injunctions against the strikers and two companies of National Guardsmen were rushed to Elizabethton by Governor Henry Horton.

“The employers utilize various devices to put the militia under obligations to them. During the Elizabethton, Tennessee, rayon strike, the Glanzstoff-Bemberg Corporation not only provided barracks but served free refreshments, provided music and furnished dancing partners to the men on duty,” noted the New International magazine.

On March 22, after the strikers had joined the A. F. of L., a settlement was reached and the mills reopened.


Sources: New International, New York City, Vol.IV No.6, June 1938, pp. 189-190

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There is no more sacred spot in upper South Carolina

Posted by Dave Tabler | March 21, 2017

There is no more sacred spot in upper South Carolina than the Old Stone Church and its adjoining cemetery, where many of South Carolina’s most distinguished dead lie sleeping. The old church stands as a silent tribute to the piety and heroism of our first settlers, many of whom came over the mountains from Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina to make their homes in this beautiful but savage wilderness.

Old Stone Church, Pendleton, SCAs was the custom with the Scotch-Irish, as soon as they were settled in their new homes, they banded themselves together for public worship and immediately set about the establishment of a church. Following the church, there was a school; for with them religion and learning must go hand in hand.

The old church has stood for more than a century and a quarter, and its gray walls have recorded the hardships of the sturdy pioneers and the march of progress. Some of her worshipers followed Pickens into the battles of Ninety-Six, King’s Mountain, Cowpens and Eutaw Springs. The accurate fire of these men with their flint and steel rifles drove fear into the hearts of the British. The sight of the coonskin caps which these men wore made them quake.

It has witnessed the early days of the new republic, the tramp of the feet of an invading foe, and still continues, although without regular services for almost a century to witness for God and the right.

On October 13, 1789, the people of Seneca appealed to the Presbytery of South Carolina to be taken under its care. In compliance with this request the Rev. John Simpson of New Jersey was sent to preach one Sabbath in the month. In 1790 he was installed as pastor of the log church, which stood about 80 rods from the dwelling of the late Ezekiel Pickens on the north side of the road. A tablet now marks the spot, though doubtless overgrown with brambles.

The growth of the congregation soon made a larger and more commodious church necessary. The foundations of the present church were laid in 1797 on 16.94 acres of land given by John Miller, the printer.

The church was completed in 1802 and stands as an enduring monument to the workmanship of John Rusk, father of the late United States Senator Rusk of Texas. The church was built by public subscription and the session book records that the principal contributors were Gen. Pickens, Gen. Anderson, George Reese, William Steele, Capt. McGriffin, Hardy Owens, Messrs. Whitner, Calhoun and Earle. The seats and pulpit were of walnut and were contributed by Gen. Pickens individually. Unfortunately the interior of the church was destroyed by a forest fire many years ago.

The church was named Hopewell-Keowee for the home of Gen. Pickens, only a short distance away.

Old Stone Church, Pendleton, SCThe Rev. Thomas Reese, a distinguished scholar and patriot, was installed as pastor in 1792. He died in 1796 and was said to have been the first buried in the adjoining cemetery. The cemetery is enclosed by a substantial granite wall, and passing through the iron gate we pause at his grave. Ramsay, the historian, said of him in part: “That his admired essay on the Influence of Religion in Civil Society is an honorable testimony of the literature of South Carolina in 1788.” His arduous pursuit of his studies shortened his life. He was the first South Carolinian to receive a degree from Princeton.

John Miller, the publisher of the famous Junius Letters, and many of his descendants, lie buried in the east corner. A native of London, England, he knew well the writer of the famous letters, but carried the secret to his grave. Settling first in Charleston, he published the South Carolina Gazette and Advertiser, which he sold, and moved to Pendleton, where he began the publishing of the Pendleton Weekly Messenger, using the old printing press of Gen. Nathaniel Green. His sons, John and Crosby Miller, were faithful members of the old church. His descendants continue to uphold the honor of the family. The family of one John Miller has furnished two foreign missionaries, one outstanding home missionary and two splendid physicians.

Excerpt from ‘Historic Oconee County, South Carolina,’ by Mary Cherry Doyle, written 1935, published by Old Pendleton District Historical Commission, 1967
online at

3 Responses

  • Eliza says:

    Fascinating! I have ancestors as well as living family in Pendleton, I'll definitely check this out next time I'm there!

  • Eliza says:

    Oops… I'm not sure where I thought I saw "Pendleton, SC." But as I have family and ancestors from Oconee County & Pickens I suppose I won't retract my statement. :)

  • Amanda M Adams says:

    Searching for McGriffins from Oconee county area mid-1800’s. Female McGriffin married John Adams (from Anderson, born c. 1858, a Blacksmith) Children: Walter Adams, George W. Adams, more?

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Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Posted by Dave Tabler | March 17, 2017

May the rains sweep gentle across your fields,
May the sun warm the land,
May every good seed you have planted bear fruit,
And late summer find you standing in fields of plenty.

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