By Logan Roddy, contributor
Walter P. “Tinky” Bryan’s life was nourished by his work and his dedication to the railroad. In some ways, he delayed death by delaying retirement from an industry that has always had an age limit of 65.
But Bryan, the very epitome of the lunchpail-toting everyman, was, in the end, mortal.
Officially, it was a heart attack. Perhaps it was a broken heart. Either way, Bryan died the way he lived: at the train station along the tracks in Harrisonburg — and in a spot that Bryan’s descendants and Harrisonburg residents plan to recognize him with a ceremony dedicating a bench in his honor at 3 p.m. July 2 at the Chesapeake Western Depot on Bruce Street.
While no paper records officially confirm it, Bryan’s family members and at least one historian believe Bryan was the oldest active railway worker at the time of his death on July 3, 1973.
Bryan’s grandson, Charles Tim Byers, will be conducting the commencement, and he said his grandfather’s one wish was to “go out with his boots on.”
“And on July 3, on the day of his retirement, he got his wish,” Byers said.
Keeping the railroad in the game
Bryan worked in the rail industry for more than six decades, beginning at the age of fourteen when he moved to Harrisonburg to live with his grandfather. Starting as a pass agent selling tickets for Wells Fargo, he occupied a variety of railroad roles, including conducting a train that ran from Washington, D.C., to Philadelphia for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad.
“One of the ladies that rode his train quite frequently was Kate Smith, who was the leading singer and notoriety of ‘God Bless America,’” Byers said. “He got to know her, apparently, quite well.”
He became superintendent for track maintenance at the Chesapeake & Western Rail in Harrisonburg in 1932, when the rise of the trucking industry threatened the strength of the rail as a viable mode of freight transportation. The then-owner Donald William Thomas (known as D.W.) was losing business on shipping poultry and dairy products up to New York and Philadelphia through the Norfolk & Western and Pennsylvania railroads. Truckers insisted they could handle the freight faster and cheaper.
Charles Grattan Price, Jr., wrote “a very informal, illustrated history of Virginia’s most uncommon carrier: Chesapeake Western Railway,” called The Crooked & Weedy.
“There was nothing that Thomas could do other than stand helplessly by to witness this highly lucrative traffic move—forever—to truck transportation,” Price wrote.
To give the railway a fighting chance in the new world of transportation, it was Bryan who came up with the idea to implement a truckline from Harrisonburg to Richmond that could carry freight from the railroads along the way to companies and corporations in the Shenandoah Valley that weren’t located as close to the tracks.
“So to beat the trucking companies at their own game, my grandfather developed what was known as the nation’s first free pickup and delivery service for less-carload freight shipments,” Byers said.
As Price wrote in his book, that helped Chesapeake Western counter the truckers’ flexibility as a delivery method.
“It is worth noting that the (then) mighty Pennsylvania Railroad sent observers to Harrisonburg to see and eventually copy this unique extension of service originated by the aggressive little short line,” Price wrote.
The Harrisonburg-Richmond truckline ran for another 20 years after its inception and even outperformed the railroad’s revenues during that time.
“And the problem with that was it also meant it needed more manpower, more accounting problems and other time consuming efforts,” Byers said.
Thomas eventually sold the truckline for a substantial profit in the early 1950s, allowing him to focus his full attention to the railroad.
And all the while, Bryan was a constant along the tracks.
“Bryan remained as a much valued vice-president of the Chesapeake Western Railway,” Price wrote.
A ‘self-sustaining’ man
Bryan’s entire life was consumed by his dedication to the railway. He worked from 6 a.m. until 7 p.m. six days a week, and he didn’t leave the station until the last train had left for the day.
When he wasn’t watching the tracks, he maintained a 7-acre farm at the top of Port Republic Road, where he raised black angus beef and prized hogs for sale.
“And of course the farm provided his own beef and food because he also raised free-range chickens,” Byers said. “So he was a very self-sustaining and self-contained man and the railroad provided him with a very long and lucrative employment. It became his way of life and he never ignored us, always made sure we had the things we needed, always sent money during difficult times for my parents and made sure things were taken care of in that way.”
Though he stood at a height of about 5’3” or 5’4”, Bryan could “outwork two or three men half his age his entire life,” Byers recalled.
“He was a great study of mechanics, so if there needed something to be moved, he either had a pipe or a lever or some mechanism to move it without straining himself,” Byers said.
Bryan also displayed attention to detail and cleanliness regarding all things relating to the rail.
Byers recalled a story passed around often during Bryan’s time conducting the train from D.C. to Philadelphia for the B&O. At that time, Bryan worked with an engineer who routinely spat tobacco out of the engine car’s window.
“And the engineer didn’t really care if the window was open or not, and my grandfather cleaned the window so well it looked like it was open, and one time the engineer spit the tobacco out and he had cleaned it so well and locked it that it splashed right back in his face,” Byers said.
His insistence on perfection benefitted Bryan’s boss when Thomas decided it was time to exit the rail industry in the 1950s.
“His dedication to the railroad and attention to detail is what made the railroad sort of attractive to the Norfolk & Western, and in the ‘30s and ‘40s, the only way Mr. Thomas could keep it afloat was by putting a lot of his own cash into it to keep it going so it wouldn’t go bankrupt,” Byers said.
Norfolk & Western eventually bought the railroad “totalling $825,000 in exchange for the 6,000 shares of Chesapeake Western Railway stock and the $666,000 of its bonds due in 2001,” Price wrote.
The station continued to operate under the same name and as a separate corporation by Norfolk & Western, which recouped its investment on the station within nine years. Operation continued until a fatal fire in 1982 which rendered the building inoperable.
In 2015, Charles Hendricks of Gaines Group Architects was looking for a new office. He spent idle time and lunch breaks wandering downtown Harrisonburg and couldn’t keep his eyes off of the battered old Chesapeake Western Building. A year later, after negotiations with historic tax credits and R.S. Monger, Hendricks was upstairs in his office of the newly-renovated old railroad station.
“I love this building, which happens to be a train station,” Hendricks said. “So, now I know more about trains because I need to answer people’s questions when they come to see the building.”
The upstairs foyer is filled with artifacts and collectibles provided by people who have history with the building — or have family who did. Old passenger line tickets, newspaper articles about the C&W, photographs of old employees, and an antique oil can decorate the space and continue on its century-long impact on Harrisonburg.
Hendricks said largely because of the reception he’s gotten from train enthusiasts after the building’s renovation, he’s inadvertently become one himself.
“Anything that we can do to honor the history of this building, I’ve fallen in love with this building, this is my building,” Hendricks said. “I love the stories, I love putting those pieces of history together and finding out what the passions were and who was involved with it.”
And those stories are part of the community’s fabric.
“It’s really cool to be able to celebrate the history of this building and what it means for downtown,” Hendricks said. “Harrisonburg wouldn’t be as big as it is if it wasn’t for this rail line.”
The end cometh
On one family trip to Myrtle Beach for the Fourth of July in 1973, Byers recalled stopping in Harrisonburg at his grandfather Bryan’s farm for a night and two days before heading south. His grandfather was 81 at the time but still on the job despite the industry’s mandatory retirement age of 65 for railroad workers.
“We had a little discussion out on the front porch,” Byers said. “He said, ‘They’re gonna make me retire.’ And he’s like, ‘They tried to make me retire at 65, they tried to make me retire at 70, 75, and I’m not gonna retire this time.’ And I thought, well you’ve found a way to outsmart them for all those, you’ll find a way to outsmart them for the rest of the time.”
As Price wrote in The Crooked & Weedy, “Bryan had a horror of retirement, stating he wanted to keep working—to ‘go out with his boots on!’ N&W officials, acutely aware of Bryan’s value to both railroads as an ‘ambassador of good will’ continued to find ways to bend the strict retirement-at-65 rules.”
But the general manager at the time, Mike Franke, got the call from headquarters in Roanoke that Bryan’s career had to come to its inevitable end.
“And he broke the news to him as gently as he could, and I guess deep down Tinky didn’t take it as well as he should’ve, and he went and he sat down,” Byers said.
Bryan had a larger-than-life reputation in Harrisonburg, and his coworkers and others who knew him weren’t about to let him go without a proper celebration. They set out to gather supplies as Bryan remained seated on a bench in the freight warehouse.
“If you had anything to do with any business, the mail, the passenger service, the freight, because from ages 14-81 he spent them in Harrisonburg, so he was well known,” Byers said. “They went out and got some decorations and got a cake and tried to find him — and nobody could.”
They found him around 2 p.m. on that same bench. He had suffered a heart attack and died as he predicted, with his boots on.
Someone scrawled an ancient railway poem — one of those with no official author — and placed it in a primitive frame, hung with baling twine. His coworkers said it reflected the attitude Bryan took to work with him each day at the rail to which he dedicated his industrious life.
It hangs now in the same foyer of Gaines Group Architects, high above those cherished pieces of history.
“I’m not allowed to run the train, the whistle I can’t blow /
I’m not allowed to say how far the railroad cars can go /
I’m not allowed to shoot off steam nor even clang the bell /
But let it jump the doggone track and see who catches hell!”
Journalism is changing, and that’s why The Citizen is here. We’re independent. We’re local. We pay our contributors, and the money you give goes directly to the reporting. No overhead. No printing costs. Just facts, stories and context. We’re also a proud member of the Virginia Press Association. Thanks for your support.