Thursday, October 30, 2014

A Short Trip by Rail

A Short Trip by Rail

In the 19th century, traveling by road in the western part of Virginia meant walking, taking the stagecoach, or riding a horse. Harrisonburg and Rockingham County was primarily rural and agricultural, and the roads were, as described by C. G. Price, “bottomless mud when it rained, impassable when it snowed and in dry weather [were] obscured by billowing clouds of dust.” [1] Local merchants went to major cities as infrequently as possible—often only twice a year.

Politics and economics controlled the railroads prior to the Civil War. Winchester was connected to the B&O by the mid-1830s and Staunton was added as a stop on the Virginia Central (later Chesapeake & Ohio) in 1854. Port Republic and Shenandoah had major iron mines, furnaces and foundries, as well as mills. The railroad followed what is now Rt. 340 from Front Royal to Staunton as early as 1834. Crossing the Blue Ridge was also a major factor. As Ed King pointed out: “A modern locomotive that can pull 1,000 tons on a flat grade can pull only 200 tons on a 0.5% grade.” [2] Competition for a railroad between Charlottesville and Harrisonburg ended with the Blue Ridge, although by the late 1800s, the train followed Rt. 33 and stopped in Elkton.

While the Civil War caused massive damage to existing rails and caused a break in construction, Harrisonburg residents began clamoring for railroad connections as early as 1866. As the northern “carpetbaggers” had no side in the pre-war politics, they began the construction of a railroad from Baltimore to Harrisonburg. The first railroad to come to Harrisonburg opened in 1868 as part of the Manassas Gap Railroad and the inaugural train was pulled by an engine named Shenandoah.
Residents, however, were still unsatisfied—this line provided transportation to Manassas, Orange and Alexandria but did not traverse along the Valley. Robert E. Lee lent his voice to an effort to build such a railroad, the Valley Rail Road Company. While this line was never fully constructed, it paved the way for the Chesapeake & Western Railroad, incorporated in 1895. [3] To this day, there is still no direct link between Harrisonburg and Staunton.

For more information on trains in the valley, please attend our program on November 6th at 7pm at the Main Branch of the library in downtown Harrisonburg. Bob Cohen will present his new book, A Trip by Rail in the Shenandoah Valley on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and the Southern Railway (2013). Mr. Cohen will have copies of his book available purchase and signing. He invites the public to bring train memorabilia to share.

For more information, contact Cheryl Metz @

By Cheryl Metz and Katie Martin

[1] Price, Charles G. The Crooked & Weedy. Waynesville: Don Mills, 1992.

[2] King, Ed. “Getting Them Up the Grade the Norfolk and Western Way.”  Trains Magazine, April 2004, p. 67.

[3] Price , Chapter 2.

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