Organized by the Harlan County Extension Office's fine arts council in an effort to provide a cultural night spotlighting the county's railroad history, Vowell was one of hundreds of train enthusiasts, railroad workers and families who filled The Depot. They swapped old tales over tables of railroad memorabilia and admired the photos of big steam engines and long lines of trains cutting through beautiful mountain scenery.
Vowell soaked it all in.
"This is great," said Vowell, a resident of Loyall, which was established because of the railroad industry. "A crowd like this just goes to show you that people find railroading history fascinating."
Besides railroading's historical importance, it also has cultural intrigue. A roundtable discussion, which was emceed by Pam Holcomb, was held to talk about that intrigue. The panel consisted of local railroad historians Paul Hudson and Bud Huddleston. They were joined by renowned railroad historian and photographer Ron Flanary, who came from Big Stone Gap, Va., to take part in the event.
Why the intrigue?
"You go," Huddleston simply said. He worked 50 years in the railroading industry, including L & N, and he's best known in the county as Loyall's yard master.
"It's an industry people fantasize about because a train takes you places. You get on there and you go. You go and see, and watch the world pass by."
Charles W. White Sr., a member of Virginia's Buckingham Lining Bar Gang, which ended Friday night's railroad history evening, said people are intrigued by the industry because "it's the thing that built America."
"It was the center of everything at one time," White said. "I'm from four generations of railroad workers, but I never worked on the railroad. I grew up in it, though, and I know how hard these men work and the sacrifices they've made who ride the rails for a living."
White later joined members of his gang outside The Depot for their performance, where they reenacted hammering away on the rails while chanting. It was the highlight of the evening for many who came, saying that it made history come back to life for them.
Also located outside was a large flatbed loaded with actual train whistles. With one pull of a string, the centuries-old sound echoed throughout the streets of downtown Harlan. With one pull of the string, memories also came flooding back to Loyall native Peggy Metcalf, whose grandfather, Enoch T. Creech, owned the land where the Loyall coal yard is now. She was raised on railroading, and the sound of the old whistle blowing stirred emotions from the past.
"I got all choked up when I heard that whistle," she said. "It made me remember my childhood. Trains may take you far away, but they can bring you home, too."