A railroad coursing through a community in the Mountain State is no rarity, but the line that runs through the heart of downtown Saint Marys, West Virginia, is so remarkable that it's become a tourist attraction, says the town's mayor.
"It's certainly something to see tracks and a train running right through the middle of town—right down Second Avenue," Mayor Paul Ingram says of the CSX rail line.
"But it's been a part of our world since 1883, and it's the thing that visitors remark about most. Photography students travel from Ohio University just to set up their cameras and photograph the event."
Ingram, who grew up in Saint Marys and remembers when steam engines pulled the trains, says there's only been one accident that he can remember. Otherwise motorists know to pull off the street when the trains come through.
"There are plenty of warning lights and signals, and for a few minutes when the train comes through activity in the downtown stops and then resumes just as quickly," he says.
The line follows the valley of the Ohio River 86 miles from Parkersburg to Wheeling, passing through Saint Marys about 30 miles north of Parkersburg.
Some tourists will sit for hours, waiting for the train to pass, Ingram says, and the town of just more than 1,700 residents welcomes any who would come to watch the event, which happens multiple times daily.
"I'm not longer familiar with how often the train passes through," Ingram said, pausing briefly to allow an engine to incidentally rumble past, "but I've noticed that the number of cars is often longer. In one case, I counted 275 cars."
The seat of one of the state's smallest counties, 135-square-mile Pleasants County, Saint Marys is widely regarded for its small-town charm. established in 1849 by Alexander Creel, who is said to have had a vision of Mary while passing the townsite by boat on the Ohio River.
The community has become a center for boating and float-fishing on the Ohio River and flat-water kayaking on Middle Island Creek, which enters the Ohio above the town.
Saint Marys is one of the few remaining towns in the United States where freight trains share city streets with automotive traffic.