A Brief History
The American Tobacco Trail is located on roughly half of the right-of-way of what was a branch once owned by the original Norfolk Southern Railway (NS). But the property predates even the NS, having been developed by a small railroad that hoped to establish a vital transportation artery for the region’s rich tracts of timber. Under NS control, the line reached its full potential when a tobacco plant opened in Durham, bringing untold profits to the railroad. Over the years, freight traffic slowly dried up, and passenger trains stopped using the line during the Great Depression. The formation of Jordan Lake during the 1980s required relocating part of the route, although by that time little freight remained. Just before the 1982 merger that created the new Norfolk Southern Railway, the Durham Branch was abandoned; however, a small section to the south was saved and now operates as a heritage railroad.
The history of this corridor begins in 1904 with the incorporation of the New Hope Valley Railroad by W. Roscoe Bonsal, Samuel Bauersfeld (both civil engineers), and Henry London, already a successful businessman, particularly in the timber industry. The new railroad’s charter stipulated that the route connect with the Raleigh & Augusta Air Line Railroad (which later became part of the much larger Seaboard Air Line system) at New Hill, North Carolina (later renamed Bonsal), and snake northward to present-day Chapel Hill. Much right-of-way was acquired for the construction of the New Hope Valley, but no tracks were ever laid. Instead, owners chartered a new company on January 20, 1905, known as the Durham & South Carolina Railroad (D&SC). Later that spring, the D&SC acquired the assets of the New Hope Valley.
The new name was intended to reflect the greater ambitions for their railroad, which they hoped would reach into South Carolina—but it never did. After a year of construction, the D&SC opened a 30.3-mile route between Bonsal and Durham in October 1906. The new system moved vast amounts of timber, much of which was used for new railroad ties, as well as a wide variety of other freight, mostly agricultural, such as beans, corn, cotton, and some tobacco. Some trains were “mixed consists,” meaning both passengers and freight comprised one train, serving the small communities along the line such as Seaforth, Farrington, and Burt. During 1911, an additional 10.2 miles was opened between Bonsal and Duncan, where a connection was made with the then Norfolk Southern Railroad, giving the D&SC another interchange partner. This setup lasted for less than a decade when the NS outright leased the D&SC and later incorporated it as a branch line, officially extending it 40.5 miles.
The original Norfolk Southern was an interesting regional railroad that served the state of North Carolina and reached places such as Charlotte, Raleigh, Fayetteville, and Elizabeth City. It was also able to reach the port of Norfolk, Virginia. The NS traces its roots to 1870 as the Elizabeth City & Norfolk Railroad, where it opened its first line between Berkley, Virginia, and Edenton, North Carolina, about a decade later. Following a number of name changes, mergers, and additions, the system reached its final length during the early 20th century. It was reorganized one final time as the Norfolk Southern Railway in 1942.
The railroad’s Durham Branch hummed along as a secondary route serving its Charlotte-Norfolk main line until the American Tobacco Company constructed a new plant in Durham during the early 1920s. At this time a short spur extended from here to reach the facility in 1924. Allegedly, profits the Norfolk Southern reaped from serving this complex were so high, they paid for the railroad’s entire annual operating expenses. This turned out to be the line’s pinnacle in terms of revenue and traffic.
After 1931, passenger services ended, although the tobacco plant continued to be an important source of freight revenue for a number of years. Severe flooding in the region from the 1945 Homestead hurricane led the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build the New Hope Dam at the junction of the New Hope and Haw rivers. This was part of the larger Jordan Lake Flood Control Project, which inundated part of the railroad. The Corps rebuilt the line in 1974 and officially flooded the original grade at this location during the winter of 1982. By this time there was little rail service remaining on the branch. The Southern Railway, which acquired the Norfolk Southern in 1974, stopped using the line after 1981 and the tobacco plant closed later that decade.
While most of the corridor was subsequently abandoned and the tracks removed, a 6-mile segment between Bonsal and New Hill was acquired from the Southern by the East Carolina Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society in 1982. It is now home to the New Hope Valley Railway, which runs excursion train rides for visitors throughout much of the year. Aside from this, other railroad attractions near the American Tobacco Trail include the popular North Carolina Transportation Museum in Spencer (home to a large collection of preserved and restored equipment); the National Railroad Museum and Hall of Fame in Hamlet (near the beautifully restored Seaboard Air Line depot); the popular Tweetsie Railroad in Blowing Rock and Great Smoky Mountains Railroad in Bryson City (both based in the mountains of western North Carolina); and the Wilmington Railroad Museum located farther south along the coast.
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