The West Fork Trail is a rural recreational corridor located in the eastern Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia. Its name comes from the body of water it follows, the West Fork of the Greenbrier River, while the right-of-way it follows was constructed by a predecessor of the Western Maryland Railway during the early 20th century. The primary purpose of the line, which branched southeasterly out of Elkins, was to connect and interchange with the Chesapeake & Ohio’s own branch running north along the Greenbrier River, tapping the region’s booming timber industry. By the 1970s, the C&O was deriving little freight on the line (now part of the Greenbrier River Trail) and subsequently abandoned it before the decade’s end, leaving WM’s route as a mere stub-end branch. It, too, was also abandoned a few years later during the 1980s.
At the end of the 19th century, there was a great stir among railroad builders, particularly the Chesapeake & Ohio and West Virginia Central & Pittsburg Railway (WVC&P), to open rail service in West Virginia’s Greenbrier River Valley to serve the region’s immense virgin forests. Several proposals and ideas had been floated for many years just after the Civil War; however, no construction took place until the C&O, with its deep financial pockets, finally built a long branch from its main line near Ronceverte to a point more than 100 miles north at the small hamlet of Winterburn. The charter for its Greenbrier Railway Company was issued in the fall of 1897; actual construction began in 1899. On May 26, 1902, service opened to Durbin and was finished to Winterburn in 1905.
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Owned by Henry G. Davis, the WVC&P had long sought to connect with the C&O at some location, and after the WVC&P made its intentions clear to extend up the valley, the time seemed right to do so. On December 14, 1899, a charter was issued for the Coal & Iron Railway (C&I), a wholly-owned subsidiary of the WVC&P. After initially disagreeing on the junction point, the C&O and WVC&P settled on Durbin as the new interchange. Building the branch, extending south from Elkins, was difficult and expensive because the geography was rugged; grades exceeded 2% in some locations. The line had to cross Cheat and Shavers mountains, which meant boring tunnels beneath each. Tunnel #1 was bored under Cheat Mountain south of Canfield, while Tunnel #2 was located near Glady under Shavers Mountain. Not surprisingly, the work was slow, although there was no rush to complete the work since the C&O was in the process of completing its own line. By late 1902, service was opened to Bemis and finally completed to Durbin on July 27, 1903, according to William McNeel’s book “The Durbin Route.” From the station in Elkins, the route’s entire length spanned 46.9 miles.
During January 1902, Davis sold his West Virginia Central & Pittsburg to George Gould and the Fuller Syndicate, later integrated into the Western Maryland Rail Road (which they also controlled) in 1905. The Gould interests lost control of the WM following its bankruptcy in 1908 from which it emerged as the Western Maryland Railway on January 1, 1910. At its peak size, the WM was not a particularly large railroad; its system roughly paralleled the much larger Baltimore & Ohio between Baltimore and Cumberland. From there its main lines split to Connellsville, Pennsylvania, and Elkins, West Virginia. The company also owned several secondary routes in both states.
Its reach into the Mountain State was thanks largely to the WVC&P. The road had been formed in 1881 by Davis, renaming his Potomac & Piedmont Coal & Railroad Company, in an effort to further extend lines into West Virginia to tap the region’s timber and coal reserves. It had reached Elkins in late 1889 and added branches south and north of the city during the 1890s, including the Coal & Iron Railway. Under the WM, the connection with the C&O became known as the Durbin Subdivision, which was part of its larger Elkins Division. Of note was a short WM branch that split at a location just south of Bemis (Elk River Junction/Cheat Junction). Here, the line to Durbin, running along the west bank of the Cheat River’s Shavers Fork, switched to the east bank and briefly turned northeast before reaching Glady. Another line branched south toward Spruce and eventually reached Bergoo and Webster Springs to the west. This branch was chartered in 1910 as the Greenbrier, Cheat & Elk Railroad and was completed between Cheat Junction and Bergoo in 1917. It was acquired by the WM in 1927, which also picked up the West Virginia Midland Railway in 1929, built by lumber interests and giving it access to Webster Springs.
Freight trains, of course, most often plied the rails between Elkins and Durbin. Both that line and the branch to Webster Springs handled traffic primarily related to forest products and coal. Until the 1950s, the railroad also dispatched passenger trains to Durbin. In the final years, these consists were virtually devoid of any paying customers and ran as mixed trains (carrying both freight and passenger cars) to help offset the costs. As the years passed, many of the region’s timber tracts had been exhausted, and the freight that once made the C&O’s Greenbrier Subdivision profitable had disappeared. In 1975, it filed to abandon the line, later granted by the Interstate Commerce Commission. The rails were removed in 1979. An interchange partner lost the Western Maryland, then part of the Chessie System (and corporately controlled by the Baltimore & Ohio) and had little need for its own route to Durbin. It was granted permission to abandon the line south of Greenbrier Junction in 1985. The property was later converted into today’s West Fork Trail.
Railroad attractions across West Virginia include the West Virginia Central/Durbin & Greenbrier Valley excursion trains, in Elkins; Cass Scenic Railroad in Cass; Harpers Ferry Toy Train Museum & Joy Line Railroad in Harpers Ferry; Kruger Street Toy & Train Museum in Wheeling; Oglebay Good Zoo in Wheeling, featuring scale train rides; and the Potomac Eagle Scenic Railroad excursions in Romney.