bengarrett

When Norfolk-Southern’s circa World War I steam engine chugged into town along the N-S line shortly after noon Saturday, it marked the fifth time in seven months that the railroad’s excursion trains traveled to Oneida.

Through its 21st Century Steam Program, Norfolk-Southern has made a decided commitment in Oneida by repeatedly choosing the town as the destination for its excursion train.

Saturday’s train was especially special. While the 21st Century Steam Program has visited a number of towns along the Norfolk-Southern line, Saturday’s trip was set up to commemorate the 50th anniversary of N-S’s very first steam excursion train, back in 1964. It was a one-time deal, and the railroad chose Oneida to host its ceremony commemorating the anniversary.

Over the past seven months, Norfolk-Southern has delivered more than 2,200 passengers to Oneida, many of them first-time visitors to the Big South Fork region; passengers who otherwise might not have been exposed to what this section of the northern Cumberland Plateau has to offer.

Each trip has brought new stories from those guests — stories of people who were amazed at the scenery and opportunities in a town that often only makes headlines outside the local area when the news is about economic sufferings or other negative happenings.

Scott County Chamber of Commerce vice president Christy Harness was a passenger on Saturday’s train, and saw first hand the interest that the passengers had in Oneida and Scott County.

“When the (Scott County tourism) brochures were handed out, there were multiple compliments on the brochure as well as excitement from various folks about what Scott County has to offer,” Harness said.

Norfolk-Southern partnered with Oneida and the Scott County Chamber of Commerce in the 1980s to bring its Autumn Leaf Special to town on a number of occasions. This renewed partnership is symbolic of the efforts Scott County is making to grow its tourism opportunities.

It is possible — perhaps even probable — that Oneida would have never been chosen as a destination for the 21st Century Steam Program if not for the work of Brandon Hughett, a member of the Chamber of Commerce’s tourism committee who initiated contact with N-S and has maintained a strong relationship with excursion train planners.

It’s also possible that the train would not have come back after that initial visit in November 2013 if not for the cooperation of the Town of Oneida, the volunteers from the Chamber of Commerce who staffed the BSF Vintage Train Fest at Oneida City Park, and the large number of Scott Countians who turned out to make the festival a success either by setting up vendor booths or simply supporting the festival with their presence.

Ultimately, though, Scott County owes Norfolk-Southern a debt of gratitude. If tourism is to grow large enough to become a viable economic engine, it takes a buy-in from outsiders. Norfolk-Southern represents one of the first major buy-ins.

I can’t be the first Scott Countian to say it, but allow me to be next: Thank you, Norfolk-Southern!

■ Ben Garrett is Independent Herald editor. Contact him at bgarrett@ihoneida.com.