MOOREFIELD, W.VA. -- This is a tale of chicken feed and eagles, of slow trains and fast politics.
In this valley that is remote enough to have no interstate highway and whose largest "city" has slightly more than 2,000 people, chickens are the economy. This is the chicken-producing area of West Virginia, along the South Branch of the Potomac River, and without chickens, the local economy would slide into a depression.
To grow chickens, one needs chicken feed. And to produce enough feed for millions of chickens, one needs thousands of tons of corn, soy and other ingredients that these birds seem to find tasty.
The chickens' lifeline in the valley is the South Branch Valley Railroad, a state-owned short line that runs south into the area from a connection with the larger CSX Transportation Co. at Green Spring, W.Va. Truck rates for chicken-feed ingredients are higher than rail rates, and the valley's largest employer, Rockingham Poultry, has let it be known rather bluntly that, without the railroad, it would move operations elsewhere.
But what has happened to the rail line in the last few years should not happen to a dog, much less a chicken. The fact that the South Branch Valley Railroad exists at all is a monument to hardball politics, led by some of the best of the state's bare-knuckle fighters -- Sens. Robert C. Byrd (D) and John D. Rockefeller IV (D), former representative Harley O. Staggers (D) and former governor Arch A. Moore Jr. (R).
The first of increasingly serious threats came in 1976 when the Chessie System, which then owned the line, threatened to abandon it because of high costs. The Chessie, now part of CSX, discovered that it faced more than just a few local politicians.
"Our congressman happened to be Harley Staggers," said Donald J. Baker, executive director of the West Virginia Railroad Maintenance Authority, which runs the railroad. Staggers was chairman of the House Interstate and Foreign Commerce Committee and a student of the old school of politics that says don't mess with my state if you know what is good for you.
The railroad decided that, if it could not abandon the line, it could be given away. In an elaborate Washington ceremony hosted by Byrd, Chessie Chairman Hays T. Watkins handed over the line to then-Gov. Rockefeller -- rail, tie and spike.
"I was very impressed," said Woodruff M. Price, who is CSX's corporate vice president for federal affairs and then was a House staff member. "I thought it was the public relations coup of all times. How to abandon a railroad: Give it away."
The state soon discovered that the railroad was no bargain, even at that price. Track was so bad that the new line averaged one derailment a week, and inspectors judged that about 60 percent of ties needed immediate replacement.
With the help of a $5 million grant that Byrd "squeezed out of the Federal Railroad Administration," according to a Byrd aide, the South Branch completed a six-year rebuilding program in August 1985, just in time for the greatest disaster of all.
On the night of Nov. 1, 1985, rain began to fall in the valley. For four days and nights, a torrent was unleashed. People were warned to seek high ground as water rose in the streets of Petersburg and Moorefield. But few were prepared for the greatest flood in the valley's recorded history, and 47 people died.
To the north of Moorefield, the Potomac River runs through a deep, V-shaped canyon called "the trough," and the railroad runs along a narrow shelf just above the river. When the flood reached the trough, the river was a remarkable 60 feet above normal. The railroad was wiped out for many miles, along with much of the shelf on which it sat.
Within two days, then-Majority Leader Byrd had packed top officials of the Army Corps of Engineers and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) into a helicopter, and they toured the battered state for several days.
Returning to Washington, Byrd called together those officials and then-Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Hanford Dole and did not let them leave the meeting room until they agreed who was going to pay for what.
"It was an all-afternoon affair," said a Byrd aide who sat through that meeting and numerous others as Byrd and powerful West Virginians would not listen to "no." The aide said Byrd often told them, "Let's not talk about if we can't do something. Let's talk about how to do it."
FEMA, it was decided, would fund rebuilding of the line, apparently the first FEMA grant to a railroad. Byrd inserted language in a continuing resolution ascertaining that the agency had the authority. FEMA received $250 million in a supplemental appropriations bill the following spring to ensure adequate funding for West Virginia flood damage.
The railroad received more than $12 million, a lot of money for a railroad that had never turned a profit and could hardly support more than four trains a week. A huge rebuilding project began in fall 1986.
Then came the eagles.
Down in the trough were at least two nests of eagles that had become part of the railroad family, swooping alongside slow-moving freight trains or just surveying the occasional intrusion of civilization. "They're real used to us," Baker said. "They'll sit on a perch and watch us go by."
The problem was a Fish and Wildlife Service decree that no construction could occur within a mile of the nests during the nesting season, Dec. 15 to July 15. The biggest construction project of all, the Sycamore Bridge, was a few hundred feet within that limit, resulting in a seven-month delay in resumption of train service.
On Dec. 21, 1987, the first train in more than two years rolled out of Moorefield.
The happy ending to the story came this year when Rockingham Poultry announced that it would more than double valley operations, adding 800 jobs and capacity for 35.2 million more chickens.
In a meeting this year to discuss the expansion, Baker said, Rockingham authorities told state officials, "Make sure you take care of the railroad."