Trainmaster

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Railroading seems to run in the Claytor blood. Besides a son in the business, Graham Claytor has a brother Robert, ten years younger, also a graduate of Harvard Law. Both of them eventually rose through railroad law departments to be presidents, of the Southern Railway in Graham’s case, of its neighbor the Norfolk & Western in Bob’s, and it was Bob who brought about the merger of the two huge companies as the Norfolk Southern. Both brothers not only ran their companies successfully but also won the hearts of railroad enthusiasts by operating frequent excursions for them behind steam engines, on occasion with the CEOs at the throttle.

All the Claytors have toy trains. “It goes way back with us,” Claytor explained. “We had a grandfather, on our mother’s side, James S. Boatwright, who was a great buff. He started out in the 1880s as dispatcher on the Savannah, Florida & Western Railroad at Savannah. It became part of the Seaboard Coast Line. His grandfather in turn was one of the incorporators of the earliest piece of what became the Southern system—the South Carolina Canal and Railroad Company. The famous locomotive Best Friend of Charleston ran over it when operations started in 1830.”

“Your father?” I asked.

“He was not a train buff. He was an electrical engineer, superintending the power company where we lived, in Roanoke, although that did include the electric streetcar system. Most of my friends’ fathers worked for the Norfolk & Western, which had its headquarters there, and I used to feel a little inferior because the other kids all had passes on the railroad and I just had one on the trolleys. Streetcars did play one interesting role, though, on the night I was born, in March 1912. A big snowstorm blew up in the evening, pretty well tying up the city, when my mother suddenly realized I was on the way. Our doctor used a horse and buggy—you were born at home in those days—and we were on the other side of town. And so my father ordered out a special car, with a snowplow running ahead of it, to bring the doctor to our house. As it happened, the stork beat the trolley. I guess this was my first connection with railroading.”

By now it had grown a little late. Claytor had miraculously produced pizzas, and we were at the kitchen table.

“About those grandchildren,” I began.

“Two boys,” he said, “One’s five and the other is three.”

“Have they shown any sign of the family weakness?”

“Oh yes,” he said, with the smile of a man who enjoys his life. “At three years old the first one could tell the difference between a Pacific steam engine, an Atlantic, and an American Standard. He could count the wheels and tell what they did, and point at the whistle and the safety valve and the cylinders, and everything else. Totally railroad-oriented!”