Central Virginia, which for our purposes refers to the region surrounding Charlottesville and Albemarle County, Virginia, is home to two major rail lines which cross at grade in downtown Charlottesville: Norfolk Southern and CSX Transportation. Both have long pedigrees and storied histories, intermingled with the glorious history of the Commonwealth of Virginia. Both are now huge conglomerates and members of the exclusive group of Class I railroads remaining in the United States. They are survivors of the "merger mania" among American railroads since the mid-20th Century. This transformation of the American railroad landscape continues today, as CSX has recently leased its line through Charlottesville to the Buckingham Branch Railroad of Dillwyn, Virginia.
Nostalgia can be a good thing and is a major part of railroad history. We often yearn for the roadnames of our youth, when there were many more Class I railroads operating in the United States and one could stand by the tracks and easily identify boxcars, hoppers, gondolas and reefers from a multitude of railroads spread across the country. Watching a train pass in those days was often equivalent to a geography lesson.
But let us not forget that our favorite historical "fallen flag" railroads, which we bemoan as victims of corporate merger schemes, were often the products of even earlier mergers and corporate acquisitions. The rail lines through Charlottesville are no exception. While we may often like to think of the current Norfolk Southern line through Charlottesville as the former Southern Railway, and while even with Buckingham Branch's leasing of the CSX line we sentimentally continue to think of it as the old Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O), the Southern and C&O were themselves the products of even earlier railroads.
Let's take a brief look at the background of the railroads in Charlottesville:
On February 18, 1836, the Louisa Railroad was chartered by the Commonwealth of Virginia. The goal was to provide transportation for a region with no navigable waterways or canals. From the beginning, though, the Louisa Railroad was intended to extend west to the Alleghany Mountains. Originally the line terminated in Gordonsville where there was a connection with the stagecoach road that ran from Charlottesville to Fredericksburg.
In 1837 the Louisa Railroad opened from Hanover Junction (now Doswell) to Frederick Hall. The first train ran on December 20, 1837. One engine and three cars left Richmond on the tracks of the Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac at nine in the morning. The train arrived in Frederick Hall at one in the afternoon. At first, the line was operated by the RF&P. By December of 1838 the tracks had been extended to Louisa Courthouse and twice daily passengers and freight were picked up by stage coach and wagon to continue westward.
The railroad reached Gordonsville on January 1, 1840. The operating agreement with the RF&P was terminated in 1847. The first cars constructed for the Louisa Railroad were received between 1847-1849 when the Louisa RR took over operations from the RF&P. Construction continued, with the line reaching Rogers Mills in 1848 and Shadwell in 1849.
The Louisa Railroad carried a variety of Virginia produced goods in addition to mail and passengers. Oats, tobacco, wheat, corn, corn meal, bacon, butter, apples, yarn, lard, pig iron, beef, pork, and lumber were all hauled on Louisa RR trains.
Virginia Central Railroad
Because the railroad no longer lay primarily within the confines of Louisa County, the Louisa Railroad was renamed the Virginia Central in 1850. In 1851, following a legal battle with the RF&P over access to Richmond, the Virginia Central expanded eastward from Hanover Junction to Richmond. In 1852, the road was extended through Charlottesville to foot of the Blue Ridge at Meechum’s River. Also in 1852, the Virginia Central joined tracks with the Orange and Alexandria Railroad in Gordonsville. The O&A was granted trackage rights over the Virginia Central to Charlottesville. This link gave the Virginia Central additional traffic from northern Virginia.
The Virginia Central played an important role during the Civil War moving troops and supplies for the Confederates. As a result, it suffered much damage at the hands of Federal troops intent on disrupting its operations. Even a partial list of the damage is enough to indicate the difficulty the Virginia Central had in maintaining operations:
In 1862 McClellan destroyed the South Anna bridge. Stoneman ripped up tracks between Hanover and Atlee.
In July of that year, Federal raiders destroyed the Beaver Dam station and a great deal of other equipment and then continued west through Frederick Hall.
In May of 1863, Louisa Courthouse was raided and Hanover depot burned.
The year of 1864 saw countless raids on the Virginia Central. Beaver Dam was burned again and the bridge over the Chickahominy was destroyed. Tracks between Anderson and Hewlett were ripped up by Grant.
By the end, in order to keep the eastern part of the line operational, rails from the western end were torn up and used to replace those damaged in Federal raids. In addition to the raids listed above two major engagements occurred along the Virginia Central’s tracks. The first, the North Anna Campaign, occurred in May of 1864 and is covered in the West Point Atlas. The battle, intended by the Union troops to destroy Lee’s army at Hanover Junction (now Doswell), ended in a stalemate. The second occurred at Trevilian Station in June of 1864. Despite the damage done during the war trains were running over the whole line by July of 1865, just 3 months after the Confederate surrender.
In 1868 the Virginia Central merged with the Covington and Ohio to form the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad. In 1878 the company reorganized to become the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway. After the James River line opened in the 1890’s, traffic through Charlottesville was primarily passengers and agricultural products. The line remained important to the C&O, however. In about 1909 automatic train controls were installed between Gordonsville and Clifton Forge as an experiment in improving traffic. In 1920, an automatic train stop device was installed near Cobham, but it proved too expensive to continue. By 1926, an automatic train control signal system was in operation from Orange to Clifton Forge. In the 1940’s CTC was added to this system. The CTC equipment was housed in G cabin in Gordonsville and allowed the line to handle up to 50 trains a day.
Despite these improvements, competition from automobiles, trucks, and planes cut into the C&O’s business. As early as the 1930’s stations like Hewlett and Atlee lost their telegraph offices or agency stations. Branchlines, like those in Mineral or the Virginia Air Line were closed. By 1970, only Richmond, Gordonsville, and Charlottesville remained on the public passenger time tables. Today, the Piedmont Sub and North Mountain Sub continue to serve CSX and the Buckingham Branch Railroad, though most of its stations and sidings are long gone.
Virginia Air Line
The Virginia Air Line connected the C&O’s Piedmont Sub to the Rivanna Sub of the James River Line. The connection with the Piedmont Sub was at Lindsay and the connection with the James River Line was at Strathmore. The VAL was the brain child of George Stevens, president of the C&O from 1900 to 1920 and was built in 1907-1909. The line was purchased by the C&O in 1912. The C&O used the VAL to move loads that were too high or too wide to pass through the tunnels of the Mountain Subdivision west of Charlottesville. In addition, coal for Washington and northern Virginia came down the James River Line, then up the VAL and on through Gordonsville. In the 1950's, a young girl named Ethel Mae Robinson lived along the VAL tracks. She waved at the trains passing so consistently that the trainmen began to look for her as they passed. She so brightened their days that they began buying her presents, a gesture that continued into her teenage years. The VAL was abandoned and the rails taken up in the 1970s.
1836 The Louisa Railroad Company, Chesapeake and Ohio Railway's (C&O) oldest predecessor, was chartered on Feb. 18. In 1850, its name was changed to the Virginia Central Railroad.
1849 The Blue Ridge Railroad was chartered as a state enterprise to construct a railroad over and through the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. The Virginia Central was given rights to the use of this railroad, and the first train entered the Valley of Virginia on April 1, 1854. At the outbreak of the Civil War, the Virginia Central Railroad Company had 192 miles of main line between Richmond and Covington, Va.
1868 Special acts of Virginia's and West Virginia's legislatures provided for completion of rail lines from Chesapeake Bay to the Ohio River. Under these acts, the Virginia Central Railroad was renamed the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad. This company succeeded to the rights, interests and privileges of both the Virginia Central and the Covington and Ohio Railroads. 1878 The Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad was reorganized between 1873 and 1878 during receivership and was renamed the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway (C&O) of July 1, 1878. 1880 The properties of the James River and Kanawha Company, a canal enterprise, were acquired by the Richmond and Alleghany Railroad, and the canal towpath was used to build a railroad from Richmond to Clifton Forge, Va. The James River Company, an earlier canal enterprise, was organized in August 1785. George Washington was president of the company and surveyed the towpaths that became the C&O right of way. The James River Company was succeeded by the James River and Kanawha Company in 1835. 1973 Chessie System Inc. was formed Feb. 26, and Chessie System Railroads was adopted as the new corporate identity for the C&O, B&O and WM railroads. 1980 CSX Corporation came into being Nov. 1, resulting from the merger of Chessie System Inc. and Seaboard Coast Line Industries Inc. 1987 The C&O was merged into CSX Transportation Sept. 2. 2004 Buckingham Branch Railroad leases the CSX line from Richmond through Charlottesville to Clifton Forge.
The Southern Railway Company (SR) was chartered by the Virginia Legislature as a new company in February 1894. Operations began the following July with over two thousand miles of lines including the former Richmond & Danville (R&D) lines in Virginia and several other southeastern railroads that had failed due to a depression in 1893 when over 27,000 miles of railroad lines went into receivership. By the end of 1894 the Southern had grown to over 4300 miles in length as other lines emerged from receivership and joined the Southern. Eventually almost 150 predecessor lines were combined, reorganized, and recombined to complete the Southern Railway before its merger into Norfolk Southern. Both the Pennsylvania (PRR) and the Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) railroads were to play a major part in the development of the SR in Northern Virginia.
Orange and Alexandria Railroad
Chartered in 1848, the O&A made Alexandria its headquarters including a yard and shop area. Construction of the railroad started southward in 1850 at a point along the Potomac River waterfront. Tudor Hall, later renamed Manassas Junction (located in the area of today's Fairview Avenue road crossing east of the Manassas Amtrak passenger station), was reached in October 1851. The rails reached Gordonsville in 1854 where a link with the Virginia Central RR (later to become the Chesapeake & Ohio RR) provided a through route to Richmond and Charlottesville. Using trackage rights on the Virginia Central to reach from Gordonsville to Charlottesville, the O&A built southward from Charlottesville to reach Lynchburg by 1860.
The O&A RR was the first railroad constructed on the south side of the Potomac River near Washington, DC. At that time a wagon road bridge across the Potomac existed at the site of today's Long Bridge, but was not able to carry the weight of rail traffic. All freight and passenger traffic across the river had to be carried by horse drawn wagon to reach the B&O in Washington. In 1854 an affiliate of the O&A RR called the Alexandria & Washington RR (A&W RR) was chartered which completed a line in 1858 from Alexandria the six miles to the foot of the bridge. To meet the need to ship supplies south during the Civil War, a new bridge was constructed in 1863 capable of carrying rail traffic. During the war the A&W RR was taken over by the US Government and the line was extended over the new bridge to a connection with the B&O RR in Washington. The US Military Railroad operated the A&W along with its connections, the Alexandria, Loudon & Hampshire, and the north end of the O&A RR as part of the Military Railroad of Northern Virginia. After the war the A&W RR, along with its extension to the B&O RR in Washington, was operated by the Washington, Alexandria and Georgetown RR.
In 1866, after the end of the Civil War, the B&O began to buy control of the O&A RR. Then, in 1870 under the control of the B&O RR, the Manassas Gap RR was merged into the O&A RR and the combined line was named the Orange, Alexandria & Manassas RR. Meanwhile the B&O suffered a serious setback in 1870 when the Baltimore & Potomac RR (B&P RR), a subsidiary of the PRR, built a line from Baltimore to Pope's Creek with a branch line from Bowie via Benning, Md to Washington and the Long Bridge. Then, through legal tactics, the B&P RR gained control of the Long Bridge. In the process the PRR severed the B&O's connection to the O&A and the south as the PRR also gained control of the line on the Virginia side of the river from the bridge to Alexandria in 1872. The B&O's response was to build a new branch line from their main line at Hyattsville, Md. to a point on the Potomac River across from Alexandria, Va. A car float operation was established to ferry freight cars across the river to connect with the tracks of the Orange, Alexandria & Manassas RR. This arrangement would remain in place until the turn of the century when the Potomac Yards were constructed.
In 1872 the OA&M RR was merged with the Lynchburg & Danville RR to form the Virginia & North Carolina RR which was renamed the following year as the Washington City, Virginia Midland & Great Southern RR which entered receivership in 1876. Also in 1876, the Charlottesville & Rapidan RR was incorporated to construct a direct line between Orange and Charlottesville. This line was eventually merged into the Southern railway and today serves as Norfolk Southern's mainline between the two cities. The original line between Orange and Gordonsville was leased to the Chesapeake & Ohio RR.
In 1881 the WC,VM&GS RR was reorganized by the B&O RR and the name was shortened to Virginia Midland RR (VM RR). The VM RR was leased to the Richmond & Danville RR in 1886. The R&D RR along with the VM RR became part of the Southern Railway in 1894.
Southern Railway is the product of nearly 150 predecessor lines that were combined, reorganized and recombined since the 1830s. The nine-mile South Carolina Canal & Rail Road Co., Southern's earliest predecessor line, was chartered in December 1827 and ran the nation's first regularly scheduled passenger train - the wood-burning "Best Friend of Charleston" - out of Charleston, S.C., on Christmas Day 1830. By 1833, its 136-mile line to Hamburg, S.C., was the longest in the world. As railroad fever struck other Southern states, networks gradually spread across the South and even across the Allegheny Mountains. Charleston and Memphis, Tenn., were linked by 1857, although rail expansion halted with the start of the Civil War. Known as the "first railroad war," the Civil War left the South's railroads and economy devastated. Most of the railroads, however, were repaired, reorganized and operated again. In the area along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, construction of new railroads continued throughout Reconstruction.
Southern Railway, as it came into existence in 1894, was combination of the Richmond & Danville system and the East Tennessee, Virginia & Georgia Railroad. The company owned two-thirds of the 4,400 miles of line it operated, and the rest was held through leases, operating agreements and stock ownership. Southern also controlled the Alabama Great Southern and the Georgia Southern and Florida, which operated separately, and it had an interest in the Central of Georgia. Southern's first president, Samuel Spencer, drew more lines into Southern's core system. During his 12-year term, the railway built new shops at Knoxville, Tenn., and Atlanta, and purchased more equipment. He moved the company's service away from an agricultural dependence on tobacco and cotton and centered its efforts on diversifying traffic and industrial development. By the time the line from Meridian, Miss., to New Orleans was acquired in 1916 under Southern's president Fairfax Harrison, the railroad had attained the 8,000-mile, 13-state system that marked its territorial limits for almost half a century. The Central of Georgia became part of the system in 1963, and the former Norfolk Southern Railway Co. was acquired in 1974.
Southern and its predecessors were responsible for many firsts in the industry. Its predecessor, the South Carolina Canal & Rail Road Co., was the first to carry passengers, U.S. troops and mail on steam-powered trains, and it was the first to operate at night. In 1953, Southern Railway became the first major railroad in the United States to convert totally to diesel-powered locomotives, ending its rich history in the golden age of steam.
From dieselization and shop and yard modernization, to computers and the development of special cars and the unit coal train, Southern often was on the cutting edge of change, earning the company its catch phrase, "The Railway System that Gives a Green Light to Innovations." In 1982 the Southern Railway merged with the Norfolk & Western Railway to form Norfolk Southern.