Still owned by the founding Blue family and headquartered in the same building since 1904, A&R claims consistent profitability through changing times, economics and traffic that has shifted from timber to agricultural crops to chemicals.
Operating just 50 miles of track in the interior south-central part of the state, the short line also was a vital link to Fort Bragg, transporting more than 500,000 soldiers during World War II and prompting the base commander to defend its zigzag route by saying, “Hitler’s bombers couldn’t hit it twice on a bet.”
“Without the long-term dedication and pride of the Blue family, A&R would have been sold or its track abandoned and this part of North Carolina would have lost rail service,” said Garland Horton, only the railroad’s eighth president in 125 years.
Penny Benoist, who retired after 35 years in the accounting department, recalled that Forrest Lockey, the first president not from the Blue family (1960-1975), maintained a family focus that was generous, caring and fun-loving. For Christmas, Lockey gave cashmere sweaters to women employees and new suits to the men. An A&R mechanic devised a water-powered elevator to help an ailing Lockey get to his second-floor office, where the president occasionally tossed firecrackers out the window to liven up the town.
Founder John Blue set the course for A&R amid a national recession in 1892, serving the family turpentine and timber business. Running from Aberdeen, then known as Blue’s Crossing, through forests of towering long-leaf pines, the line was originally planned to terminate along Rockfish Creek. But management changed its early routes several times, pulling up and reusing abandoned track, before Blue set his sights on Fayetteville, the largest nearby trading center. The story goes that the upstart railroad overcame resistance from giant Atlantic Coast Line by dispatching a midnight rail gang to build a connection to cross ACL’s tracks.
The A&R reached Fayetteville in 1912, connecting with the ACL and what later became CSX and Norfolk Southern, and to terminals on the Cape Fear River. Passenger service operated between Aberdeen and Fayetteville until 1950 – at the end with a unique gas-powered railbus – and troop trains specials to Fort Bragg through the 1960s. Due to an exemption in North Carolina’s then “Separate Car Act,” A&R’s passenger service was always racially integrated. The line as one of the first to completely dieselize, in 1947.
Along the way, the A&R expanded by taking over two other short lines, the Pee Dee River Railway in South Carolina operating 15 miles of county-owned track on long-term lease in Marlboro County, N.C. The other, the Dunn-Erwin Railway in eastern North Carolina, at first flourished hauling cotton to the nation’s largest denim plant but floundered when the plant closed in the early ‘90s due to overseas competition. A&R pulled up Dunn-Erwin’s five miles of track and donated the route to local government as a nature trail.
Living up to John Blue’s motto, “The Road of Personal Service,” helped cement relationships with its customers.
“Aberdeen & Rockfish doesn’t rest in maintaining their track, engines and staff,” said A.K. “Dooie” Leach, president of FCI, a Raeford, N.C., agricultural service company that has been an A&R customer for 55 years. Even when A&R didn’t own the track, the railroad went “above and beyond the call in lending a hand and sharing the cost of maintaining a siding serving our fertilizer plant. As a second-generation customer, our partnership with the A&R has allowed FCI to grow and enjoy a mutually beneficial relationship.”
A&R will host a picnic for customers, employees and guests celebrating its 125th anniversary at its office in Aberdeen, on April 22.
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