More about the route along which runners will race. Reprinted from a 2005 edition of the Independent Herald newspaper in Oneida.
From the top of a dead pine, hundreds of feet above the O&W railbed near Oneida, a buzzard looks the part of a sentry as he watches all that ventures down the historic roadbed that was once a major railroad thoroughfare from Oneida to Jamestown.
Today, the face of the old O&W has changed. The powerful locomotives, pulling cars loaded with timber and coal, no longer thunder through this gorge. All signs of the rail line are gone, except for an occasional rail spike or wooden tie by the side of the trail, passed over by two-legged scavengers and remaining as a testament to the industrial importance this route once held to the local communities.
Construction on the Oneida & Western Railroad began in 1913. Operations had begun by 1915 and, by 1921, the line extended 37.84 miles, all the way through the rough and rugged terrain that is now the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area, eventually connecting Oneida to Jamestown.
The railroad provided a means of transportation for the mining and logging operations that were ongoing in the backcountry region at the time. It passed through such long-abandoned mining communities as Potter, Speck, Gernt and Zenith.
The O&W follows major tributaries of the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River for most of its 37 miles. From Oneida, the trail winds along Pine Creek to the waterway’s confluence with the Big South Fork, where it then runs parallel to the river for several miles before turning up North White Oak Creek into Fentress County.
The O&W railroad bed is considered the most-used trail in the Big South Fork, and for good reason. A trip through this gorge provides some of the most spectacular scenery the region has to offer. Huge sandstone rock walls tower over the roadbed’s north side along the portion of the trail that follows the Big South Fork River, and in some sports seem to stand literally overhead as travelers pass through. Occasionally, parts of those walls will give way, such as was the case in 2003 when a house-sized boulder broke free and bulldozed a path down the side of the gorge, blocking traffic for several months before Scott County and the National Park Service were able to use explosives to blast through the rock and remove it.
During its days of operation, the O&W carried mail, passengers and food supplies to the abandoned communities along its route, as well as carrying timber and coal from those communities. But after its peak in the 1920s, the timber and coal industry in the areas reached by the O&W began to slow. After operating at a net loss for several years, the O&W was abandoned in January 1954.