The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Early Virginia Railroads

By William P. Swartz, Jr. © 1985

Issue: September, 1985

Wreck of No. 14 & 37. October 20, 1920, Rural Retreat, Virginia. Note open boxcar door on right of photo. There is a milk can there that wasn't even overturned during the wreck.Wreck of No. 14 & 37. October 20, 1920, Rural Retreat, Virginia. Note open boxcar door on right of photo. There is a milk can there that wasn't even overturned during the wreck. Click on photo to see larger image.

The invention of the steam engine marked the beginning of the railroad age and the day of rapid transportation and communication. 1852 is generally accepted as the date of the coming of the railroad to southwest Virginia. This railroad opened transportation into Tennessee and eventually connected the Atlantic seaboard with the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico at New Orleans.

Men began to dream of connecting by railroad the Atlantic and the Pacific coasts of the nation. This did begin to come about in 1862 with Congress passing legislation offering land rights and construction financial assistance to encourage the building of a trans-continental rail line. As a result, the Union Pacific and the Southern Pacific railroads came into being.

The Blue Ridge and the Allegheny Mountains played an important part in these plans. The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Co. envisioned using the James river to provide transportation from the Virginia seaboard to Richmond then to build a parallel canal along the James to the foot of the Allegheny Mountains. They planned to haul on huge dollies the barge boats across the mountains and then re-launch them on the Kanawha and Ohio rivers to complete a transportation pattern that would eventually connect with the Mississippi River. In truth, few people believed that the planners would be successful in crossing the mountains as proposed. But the C&O canal did successfully come about and for some years provided transportation from Hampton Roads to Richmond, Lynchburg and as far west as Buchanan, Virginia. Scottsville developed as a canal port for passengers and wagon trains to haul freight to Charlottesville, Staunton, Harrisonburg and western Virginia.

Buchanan became a similar canal port serving central-western Virginia as did also Lynchburg.

The Baltimore and Ohio Canal Co. served a similar purpose by providing canal boat service to western Maryland and what is now northern West Virginia. Both of these canal companies saw that the railroad was much more practical transportation means because it could cross mountains and was not limited to river location. Both of these companies became successor railroad companies between 1840 and 1870. By 1870 western Virginia had rail service only through Lynchburg northward and eastward and through Bristol southward and westward. A constant topic of discussion was the need for additional rail service northward throughout the Shenandoah Valley to connect with the C. and O. railroad which operated eastward and westward, and then the proposed new railroad would continue on northward through the Shenandoah Valley to connect with the B. and O. railroad at Winchester.

Two companies came into being in 1880 both proposing to meet this need. The first company was a New York capitalist, John J. Finney who envisioned connecting existing railroads from Canada to Mexico. He secured commitments from a number of railroads towards this end, one of which was a railroad from Winchester to Harrisonburg and which had been used to great advantage by Stonewall Jackson in his Civil War Valley campaigns. To utilize it Finney would have to build a connecting railroad from Harrisonburg by way of Staunton and Lexington to Salem, Va. where it would connect with the Atlantic and Mississippi railroad. He began construction at Harrisonburg in 1880 and by late 1881 Finney's crews had completed the line to Lexington. He had advance crews working on the road bed from Salem northward to Lexington. In fact, stone culverts still remain and can be seen today in the Cloverdale area.

In the meantime a second company, which was first named the Virginia Valley Railroad and was organized by Philadelphia capitalists, had laid out and had started construction on a railroad beginning at Hagerstown, MD where it connected with the Pennsylvania Railway Co., and was to also connect with the A. and M. at Salem, VA. These two railroads would compete with each other, serve the same areas and parallel each other with only 5 to 25 miles apart.

Two things happened in 1881. First, a group of citizens offered the Valley Railroad Co. a substantial sum of money to construct their headquarters and shops at Big Lick, Va. which is now Roanoke, instead of at Salem, which they accepted and did in 1882. In 1881, Finney's key commitment from a small railroad operating out of Baltimore and with a right-of-way through the city, was cancelled and re-sold to Finney's competitor. The new buyer paid a huge forfeit to Finney's company and which they were glad to do, but within three days all construction was stopped. The B. and O. purchased the completed section from Harrisonburg to Staunton and Lexington, and the right-of-way from Lexington to Salem. They operated the 71 mile railroad until they sold it to the Chesapeake and Western Railway Co. in 1942. Finney suffered a nervous breakdown and spent the rest of his life in a sanitarium, hopelessly insane.

In the years following 1882 the Norfolk and Western Railway Co. came into being by combining the Valley Railroad, the Lynchburg to Bristol-Norfolk division with the railroad from Roanoke to Winston-Salem which had been built in the meantime. The Hagerstown- Roanoke-Winston-Salem was operated as a division and enjoyed a good passenger business as well as freight traffic for many years.

A unique feature of one of the Roanoke-Winston-Salem passenger trains was the dinner service. This train did not carry a dining car. The southbound train from Hagerstown arrived at Roanoke about 10:00 am. After a crew and engine change it continued on arriving at Rocky Mount around 11 o'clock am. After leaving Rocky Mount the conductor went through the train taking orders for lunch to be put on board at Martinsville. Generally there was a choice between fried chicken, country ham and roast beef. Sometimes country style fried steak was offered instead of roast beef. At Ferrum the conductor wired the agent at Martinsville the number of each lunch to be put on board. The agent in turn telephoned the Broad Street Hotel who immediately got busy packing them. Each lunch was put in a separate basket. Meats, vegetables and desert were put in individual saucers and dishes along with hot rolls and covered over with a large napkin. The wagon from the hotel managed to arrive with the lunches about the same time that the train arrived. Then the lunches were distributed through the train. These meals had a great reputation and were long remembered for their goodness and quality. The baskets were later collected and transferred to a northbound train for return to Martinsville and the Broad Street Hotel. Up until World War I, I think the total price was only 50 cents or 75 cents at the most. With the coming of the auto the passenger traffic fell off and the meal service was discontinued in the 1920's.

All railroads recount instances of train wrecks and accidents. A head-on collision of two trains seldom occurred, but one did take place east of Rural Retreat, Virginia shortly after the close of World War I when wooden coaches were still in use.

The east bound train had made its regular stop at Rural Retreat and was proceeding to Wytheville. It reached a point where a "Passing Siding" was being extended by a track work crew who had installed a temporary switch to allow the west bound trains on the passing siding to enter the mainline track. Two mistakes occurred to cause the resultant head-on collision. First, the west bound engineer received his orders to take the passing siding and meet the east bound train there. This he did but he saw the work crew stop work and stand aside and he also thought the crew foreman waved him ahead. He allowed his engine to first cross the temporary switch and barely enter the mainline track. At that moment the east bound train came around the curve into view with the resultant head-on crash of the two trains.

The second mistake was that the work crew foreman had been ordered to have the temporary switch in place and the passing side closed until the east bound train passed. He had the switch in place as ordered but it remained open allowing the west bound train to pass through it. He later said that he did not give a wave signal. Significantly, two cans of cream picked up at the Rural Retreat stop and consigned to the Clover Creamery, Radford, Virginia were sitting in the baggage car door opening and were neither overset nor thrown out of the car.

Another spectacular accident occurred west of Bluefield in June 1936. A west bound freight train reached the top of the mountain and started down the other side. The engineer began to set the air brakes only to find that he had no air pressure and consequently, no brakes. It was later determined that an air valve had failed to close when the brakes were released on leaving the Bluefield yards. With no brakes, it quickly became a runaway train picking up speed all the way down the mountain at the foot of which was a 210 foot long steel bridge across a ravine. The engine came on to this steel bridge at a later estimated speed of 95 to 110 miles per hour. This force was so great that it knocked the bridge off of its bearing plates and out of alignment with the continuing track on the other side. The engine and tender jumped the track taking a number of cars with them and fell 86 feet to the bottom of the gorge killing the engineer and two others of the crew. This section of the railroad was out of use for 10 or 12 days.

The N&W management within a few hours assembled at the site a large group of officials, with work trains and track crews from both east and west division points. Mr. W. A. Turner was assistant chief Bridge Engineer and was brought from Roanoke to oversee the planning and restoration of the bridge to service. He and his assistants soon drew up a plan to build up a scaffold of log beams, ties and cross members from the bottom of the gorge and then place a temporary track and platform on top from which the work train and crew could work to bring the steel bridge back into alignment and reset it on the bearing plates.

A work crew foreman named Jim Shaw enjoyed the reputation of being one of the best cribing foremen on the system. At this time, he was approaching retirement age. He had much experience in building bridges and trestles. He was sent for and brought to the site. While Mr. Turner and his assistants were drawing up some hasty plans on how the work structure was to be built, Jim Shaw had looked over the situation. He counted the ties across the bridge, then descended to the bottom of the gorge and stepped off the distance from one side to the other. Then knowing the distance from the top to the bottom of the gorge he figured out how he would build up the cribing for the service structure. About that time Mr. Turner sent for him and presented him with an engineering sketch of how the structure was to be built, the dimensions of the base and details of how the remainder was to be assembled.

Jim studied the plan, asked some questions as he had only a limited education but a wealth of experience, and then said, "Mr. Turner, I mean no disrespect but you will have to get someone else to build this job because I can't build it this way so that it will work out as it will have to be."

Mr. R. H. Smith was executive vice-president of the N&W at that time, and told of the disagreement. He looked at Mr. Turner's plan and said, "Jim, this plan looks alright to me. Why won't it work out alright? How would you build it?" Jim said, "Mr. Smith, I can not tell you why but I know it will not work. I can't tell you how I would build it because I have worked it out in my head." Mr. Smith, after some thought decided to use Mr. Turner's plan and Jim asked and was granted permission to return to his regular work. Two days later the cribed structure was almost completed when it became obvious that it would not finish out as planned. It had to be disassembled and started over on different dimensions. When told about it Jim Shaw said, "I could see in my mind how it would finish out and why it would not work, but I could not tell anyone. I did not know how to explain it."

The situation was a touchy subject in official circles for some time. But later on one occasion Mr. Smith was reported to have said, "Nothing beats experience. Between theory and experience you better depend on experience."