"Big Jim" Burgin and His Shay Locomotive

James Oliver Burgin was an Engineer on the Historical Mt. Mitchell Railroad


Big Jim Burgin & Vernon Elliott    

The story of the development of the Mount Mitchell Railroad is one of the most interesting in North Carolina's history. But just as interesting, if not moreso, were the stories of some of the colorful personalities associated with it.

Local businessmen saw the forest for its resources and the local residents wanted Mount Mitchell for sightseeing, fishing, hunting and picnicking, and for taking walks among the clouds.

The enormous challenge to build a logging railroad to Eastern America's highest peak was accepted by C.A. Dickey and J.C. Campbell. Construction began December 12, 1911 and the first logs were loaded on December 13, 1912

Passenger service for tourists began in 1914 and by 1915 up to 250 passengers could be carried up on each run. Arrangements were made to pick up and discharge passengers to and from Mount Mitchell at Montreat. At least 15,000 people visited Mt. Mitchell in 1915-16, by way of the railroad.

The trip up the mountain was proclaimed to be "the grandest mountain scenic country in America." It was said that hundreds who had visited Switzerland and the Rockies declared with enthusiasm that no scenic mountain trip in the world surpassed the trip to Mount Mitchell.

As mentioned earlier, the train crews and loggers were a colorful lot. One such character was a notorious Mount Mitchell Railroad engineer by the name of James Oliver Burgin, the son of (#156463) Allen B. Burgin. James went by the nickname "Big Jim" because he was said to have weighed around 300 pounds. Although his physical presence was difficult to ignore, there were those who said, "It was hard to say which of the two was the largest, his heart or his stomach. He always seemed to be around when needed, with one of his tall-tales, a verbal slap on the back, or a loan of fifty-cents til payday."

Big Jim's locomotive was a Shay. Now, for you folks who aren't railroad buffs -- the Shay locomotive was designed by Ephraim Shay. His concept was to use the existing components on the engines, but arrange them in a different way. The early Shay locomotives were crude and unsightly, but they got the job done. Their chief feature -- it was unmistakable -- was that their gear mechanism and cylinders were on one side only, giving them a lopsided appearance.

There was a demand for the clear spruce lumber that was used in building U.S. aircraft. And the timber on the slopes of Mount Mitchell was all virgin spruce. "Most of the trees were straight as an arrow and from 100 to 125 feet in height with only a few limbs on the lower part," some say.

The Mt. Mitchell logging operation really began to boom during World War I and several of Big Jim's relatives worked up there with him as loggers. Fonz Burgin and Sam Gilliam were among them. Sam lost his life in a logging accident -- The loggers' safety was very low on the list of priorities at the time.

The railroad workers never faired much better. Train accidents occurred frequently and there were fatalities. A crew was kept busy just putting cars and engines back on track. If a brakeman hadn't lost a couple of fingers he was considered inexperienced. Many accidents were attributed to the primitive link and pin couplers.

The sawmill, made by Clark Brothers, was located just east of Black Mountain. Logs were dumped into the mill pond and drawn into the mill on a track built on pylons. The finished lumber was shipped via Southern Railway (formerly the Western North Carolina Railroad) to a connection that eventually would carry it to the West Coast.

When the war ended, demands deminished and the logging industry followed the same trend. August 15th 1921, logging operations ceased. During the later part of the 1920's, Perley & Crockett, a partnership that bought-out Dickey, Campbell and Company in 1913, helped them reforest the area. They contributed more than 100,000 seedlings of fraser fir, red spruce, and introduced a new species - The Norway Spruce.

Big Jim married Gertrude Moffitt, daughter of James Moffitt and Nancy Burke. At least four children were born to this union. Jim died May 6, 1957 and is buried at Cherry Springs Cemetery, outside Old Fort, North Carolina.

Based on the book: MOUNT MITCHELL, Its Railroad & Toll Road  by Jeff Lovelace