Book Review: ‘Chasing the Powhatan Arrow’

Posted by | 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.

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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.”

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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 Christiansburg, VA native’s obvious love of railroading shines through on every page in this, the latest addition to his oeuvre.

 

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