The Richest Little Railroad in the World
By Michael Abraham
Have you seen the sign on the Huckleberry Trail in the middle of the big bridge over the railroad tracks that says “Virginian Railway Heritage” and wondered about it? The tracks underneath you belong to Norfolk Southern Railroad, formerly Norfolk & Western. So what’s this “Virginian Railway”?
From its inception in 1909 until they merged in 1959, the Virginian Railway was an N&W competitor. The Virginian has its own history and avid following.
William N. Page, an entrepreneur and civil engineer, built a small logging and coal-hauling railroad in Fayette County, West Virginia, in 1896. He called it the Deepwater Railway. This landlocked railway needed concessions from either the Norfolk & Western or the Chesapeake & Ohio to transport its cargo to the sea. Those two railroads, which he later learned were colluding against him, refused to provide Page with acceptable rates to the coastal ports. So Page formed a partnership with Standard Oil’s Henry Huddleston Rogers, the Warren Buffett of his day, and one of the world’s richest industrialists. Rogers had extensive resource holdings in the West Virginia coalfields. The two men did what all good entrepreneurs did: they built their own! Together, they acquired, in some cases secretly, a right-of-way to Norfolk. Construction of a new railroad they named the Virginian Railway began around 1906.
The Norfolk & Western was comprised of several earlier railroads, some pre-dating the Civil War and the development of any of the coalfields. Those railroads moved commodities and people from town to town. Once the coalfields were opened up, N&W principally shifted to moving mostly coal and to a lesser extent other commodities, and of course for a while passengers. The Virginian was designed specifically to move coal from the mines to the markets.
With their singular focus on moving coal, Page and Rogers purposefully avoided cities and towns, staying in more rural areas, principally to the south but parallel to the N&W. Roanoke was also a major Virginian Railway city, but primarily because it was a pinch-point channeling from the Piedmont into the mountains. The Virginian was able to use a more convenient entry point into the Roanoke Valley, the river course of the Roanoke River, avoiding the N&W’s climb over Eastern Continental Divide near Christiansburg. Instead, the Virginian engineers built a mile-long tunnel under that divide, crossing current US-460 and US-460 bypass near the current Corning plant. You can see the western portal of that tunnel from the Huckleberry Trail bridge.
From Roanoke to the West Virginia line at Glen Lyn, the Virginian and N&W tracks were never more than five miles apart.
The N&W tracks cross from the eastern to western side of the north-flowing New River just downstream of Radford, remaining on the west side to the West Virginia border. The Virginian tracks were on the east side of the river through the same gorge, crossing further north near the border. This is how there came to be tracks on both sides of the New River in the McCoy and Eggleston areas.
Eventually the Virginian stretched 438 miles.
The N&W always enjoyed an outstanding reputation for quality, dependability, and profitability, but for much of the Virginian’s existence, it was even better. Because it was more modern in design and construction, it had a straighter, more level track, and newer and more efficient locomotives. For a time it was called, “The Richest Little Railroad in the World.”
Almost exactly a half-century after its birth, the N&W in 1959 acquired its fierce competitor in a hostile corporate take-over, incorporating its tracks and rolling stock. At that point N&W owned both sets of rails.
With its straighter, more level track, the Virginian corridor has gentler grades than the older N&W. Here in Montgomery County, that means the Virginian’s crossing of the Eastern Divide at the tunnel is lower – by about 50 vertical feet – than the old N&W’s crossing just east of the Cambria neighborhood of Christiansburg, and thus requires less energy to move unfathomably heavy coal trains. And this is why, to this day, when you see a loaded train headed eastbound to the coast, it is typically on the old Virginian corridor and when you see one westbound pulling empties, it is going through Cambria on the N&W corridor.
Michael Abraham is a native of Montgomery County and a resident of Blacksburg. He is a businessman and author with 8 books in print and hundreds of articles, focused on Southwest Virginia and Southern West Virginia.
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