714th Railroad Battalion
By Terry Hogan
I suppose about anyone who spent some time on active duty in the military has a tale or two to tell. If not, they probably just weren’t paying attention. My time was 1969-1971. I was in the Army. We were at war in Vietnam. But I stayed state-side. I was one of the lucky ones.
I found myself assigned to the S-4 (logistics) section of the Army 7th Transportation Brigade at Fort Eustis, Virginia. It sat on a peninsula or an island, with the James River on one side and the York River on the other. I think it was about 4 feet above high tide. It was hot. It was humid. It was loaded with mosquitoes. But nobody was trying to shoot you.
However one of the great benefits of living on post was the 714th Railroad Battalion. It was the only active duty army railroad unit. Its domestic mission was to keep a core group of military men that could operate and maintain steam locomotives in a foreign country, if the need were to arise. At that time, a number of countries still relied on steam power, and if the army was to make use of the existing infrastructure, it needed expertise to operate the system.
However for my wife and me, it was purely an opportunity to wake to the sound of a steam locomotive huffing and puffing, and the occasional blast of the whistle. The fort was relatively small and largely surrounded by water. Further, the army locomotives were restricted to operating on military tracks on the base. As such, it would somewhat resemble a toy train set with the circular paths the locomotives had to take.
Because of the small size of the fort, and its tendency to resemble a large wetland rather than an army base, the railroad tracks and available roads often tended to run side by side on the higher ground. As such, the old steam locomotives, pulling a few cars, were easily encountered.
One of the destinations that the locomotives had available to it was “Third Port”. Third Port was a training site along the James River where the Army’s only active stevedore company and only active tugboat companies were located. Yep, the Army had tug boats. It had a small collection of 65 foot, 80 foot, and 100 foot long tug boats if my memory hasn’t failed me. The two larger sizes had crews that lived on the boats. The 65 footers did not. Like the railroad battalion, these odd creatures of the army existed to provide limited in-house capability for the army to move ships about in harbor and to load and unload supplies from those ships. It had a mockup of a large ship, complete with necessary equipment for loading and unloading it. It was dubbed the “USS Neversail” as it resembled a ship’s deck, but was not a complete ship.
It occurred to me recently that there might be a few folks interested in the old 714th, as Galesburg is steeped in railroad history. I decided to get on the trusty internet and see if the 714th was still running the old steam locomotives in tight circles at Fort Eustis. To my dismay, I found that not only does the 714th no longer exist on active duty, but also that it didn’t last long after my departure in 1971. It left the scene in 1972. Much of the rolling stock is gone, but there apparently is a railroad museum of some type that may be open to the public. The internet site said it was open to the public, but given the more stringent security measures broadly taken, it may not be the case. I tried to contact the Ft. Eustis historian listed on the home page, but the email address “bounced”.
One of the Ft. Eustis engines took place in the ceremony of the marriage of the rails, where the first intercontinental railroad was completed. Ft. Eustis had initially hope to be able to run the steam locomotive to Utah, but federal regulations intervened. It appeared that the engine did not have all the tests and certifications required to run outside of the Ft. Eustis rail system. So, the large locomotive had to be loaded on a flat car and hauled to the commemorative event in May 1969 marking the 100th anniversary of the completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad. It was too bad. Many of adults and children missed the opportunity to see an army steam locomotive steaming down the tracks, out to complete a mission.
Alas, the old steam locomotives no longer hiss and whistle across the swamps of Ft. Eustis, Virginia, just a few miles down the road from Williamsburg. The site is rich in history, beyond railroads. Remnants of battles fought during the Revolutionary War and the Civil War are visible to the keen eye.
Perhaps on a hot, steamy evening, as the mosquitos’ sound like a DC-3 warming up its engines, a small ripple may appear on the surface of the James River, created by the haunting whistle of a ghostly steam locomotive. The sound might even be reflected back by the old “mothball fleet” that used to be anchored in the James – remnants of the WWII naval castaways. They survived the war, but not the peace.
To be sure, I did not enjoy my two years on active duty. I learned that I was neither officer material nor was I pre-disposed to fit the military mode. I left the army the day before I would have made captain. Promotion was fast back then; company grade officers were in great demand as “cannon fodder”.
But, there were some things to enjoy about Ft. Eustis. And the sounds and sights of the old 714th Railroad Battalion fell in that category. History is where you find it.