Blackwater Canyon Trail History

West Virginia

At a Glance

Name: Blackwater Canyon Trail
Length: 10.7 Miles
Trail activities: Mountain Biking, Walking, Cross Country Skiing
Counties: Tucker
Surfaces: Dirt, Gravel
State: West Virginia

A Brief History

The Blackwater Canyon Trail follows one of the most picturesque former railroad grades ever constructed across the beautiful Appalachian Mountains. Located in north-central West Virginia, the trail winds its way along the Blackwater River Canyon between Thomas and Hendricks. This corridor was originally constructed by the West Virginia Central & Pittsburg Railway during the 1880s to tap the region’s rich deposits of coal and timber. Following more than 20 years of construction, the WVC&P reached Cumberland, Maryland, and Elkins, West Virginia, with numerous branches built to serve mines and timber tracts. At the turn of the 20th century, the entire property was sold to the Western Maryland Railway, where it became an important artery for many years following. Eventually, traffic on the line played out, and much of the route was later abandoned in the 1980s by a WM successor.

A railroad running through the canyon was laid primarily out of necessity, since there was no other practical means of pushing rails through the rugged Appalachians between the North Branch of the Potomac River and what would become Elkins, West Virginia. It was originally chartered as the Potomac & Piedmont Coal & Railroad Company in 1866 by businessman Henry Gassaway Davis (later joined by his son-in-law, Stephen Benton Elkins) with hopes of opening up Randolph County’s rich natural resources of coal and timber. Davis, who also served in West Virginia’s House of Delegates (and later became a state senator), already owned vast tracts of land in the region and felt that the new railroad was the best means of moving these valuable products to market. However, it took nearly 15 years for the railroad to finally begin construction, which occurred in April 1880. In early November 1881, the first 12 miles were opened from Elk Garden, West Virginia, where one of Davis’s coal mines was located, to Bloomington Junction, Maryland, and a connection with the Baltimore & Ohio along the banks of the North Branch. That same year, the company’s name had been changed to the West Virginia Central & Pittsburg Railway, and construction continued south of Elk Garden.

In August 1884, rails reached the area that would later become the towns of Thomas and Davis. At Thomas the railroad reached the North Fork of the Blackwater River and then entered the Blackwater Canyon. Unfortunately, despite engineers’ best efforts, the grades through this area were incredibly stiff. Nearby Fairfax (not far from Thomas) would become the summit of a torturous route, reaching grades as high as 3.049%, or rising 161 feet every mile. It worked its way southwestward, where the line reached Hendricks and Hambleton along the junction of the Black Fork and Dry Fork rivers. The line then turned west, reaching Parsons, and continued roughly southwesterly into what is now Elkins (established in 1890) in 1889.

During 1886, through a subsidiary known as Piedmont & Cumberland Railway, the WVC&P began construction eastward from Bloomington Junction toward Westernport, Maryland/Piedmont, West Virginia, and another connection with the B&O. Its ultimate goal was the terminal of Cumberland, Maryland, where the B&O had important facilities and several of its lines converged (east to Baltimore and west to St. Louis and Chicago). By July 1887, a line into the city was opened. The WVC&P’s Cumberland-Elkins main line constituted its farthest reach. While Davis considered extending his railroad northwesterly to Clarksburg and another connection with the B&O, he ultimately canceled such an endeavor. However, additional branch lines and spurs were added to tap other sources of coal and timber.

The railroad reached as far as Belington, about 13 miles northwest of Elkins in 1891. Through another subsidiary, known as the Coal & Iron Railroad, it opened an extension to Durbin (southeasterly of Elkins) in 1903. Here an interchange was established with the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway. The C&O’s line, known as the Greenbrier Branch, had only recently been opened a year earlier and became an important interchange of lumber and related freight traffic for the WVC&P, especially in later years when timber production really took off along the Greenbrier River. In 1902, Davis decided to sell his railroad to the Fuller Syndicate, headed by George Gould, which became a fully owned extension of the Western Maryland Rail Road by 1905. In 1908, Gould’s dream of creating a true transcontinental railroad failed, and the WM fell into receivership, emerging as the Western Maryland Railway in 1910.

The WM was a small but important eastern railroad, stretching from Baltimore to Cumberland and as far west as Connellsville, Pennsylvania. Its reach into West Virginia was due entirely to its ownership of the WVC&P (which became known on the WM as the Elkins Division). In time, the railroad not only reached Elkins, Durbin, and Belington, but also Webster Springs and Daily (southwest of Elkins), providing additional sources of coal revenue. For its part, Elkins became an important WM terminal, where hopper cars were repaired and its large marshaling yard blocked together unit trains of coal from nearby mines to be shipped east (geographically north) toward Baltimore and other points. As these trains headed out of Elkins, they were predominantly powered by Class H-9 2-8-0 “Consolidations,” even during the late steam era. Unfortunately, nothing larger could be used since the line to Cumberland, including that which ran through the Blackwater Canyon, featured curves too sharp to warrant them.

Through the 1950s, you could witness an impressive display of no less than seven 2-8-0s spread throughout a 70+ car eastbound coal train, working hard to negotiate the 3.05% grade (one of the steepest main lines anywhere in the eastern United States) through the canyon toward Thomas. The Blackwater Grade, as it was also known, began near Hendricks/Hambleton and peaked at 3,057 feet above sea level to the summit in Fairfax, roughly 10 miles to the northeast. Interestingly, the grade was so steep that even westbound trains running mostly, or entirely, empty had to be careful. The WM required the brake pressure to be increased by at least 10 pounds above normal to make this descent.

Not far away was Thomas, which also became a somewhat important location on the Western Maryland. It was once the terminus of several short coal branches, and nearby Davis to the east was an important source of timber traffic that was also home to leather tanneries. Additionally, there were coke ovens at nearby, and appropriately named, Coketon. These ovens burned out the impurities in bituminous coal, leaving a highly valuable carbon fuel, which is normally used in metallurgical processes. As a result, by the 1920s, Thomas was home to a two-stall engine house, a small marshaling yard, and a number of industries. To the south of town was the local depot, a quaint and striking, two-story brick structure. Its beauty lies not only in its design but also its location built partly over the North Fork of the Blackwater River, situating it halfway across the small, two-track bridge that crossed the river. The station’s charm has been the centerpiece of several paintings over the years. For the Western Maryland, the depot was important not only as a passenger stop but also for freights picking up their handwritten, paper train orders, since no signals protected this part of the railroad.

As the 1950s wore on, coal, timber, and other freight traffic began to sharply decline along the Elkins Division. During 1964, the Western Maryland was acquired by the Baltimore & Ohio but remained mostly independent until the 1972 formation of the Chessie System. The latter was a holding company for the B&O, WM, and Chesapeake & Ohio (which itself owned the B&O) that in time began to integrate the operations of all three railroads. Sadly, the WM did not fare well as part of this new conglomerate, and its extension to Connellsville was abandoned in 1975. Declining traffic to Elkins, along with its steep main line through the Blackwater Canyon, caused most of the route to be mothballed between Elkins and Henry, West Virginia, during the early 1980s. Severe flooding in November 1985 doomed it, washing away sections of the right-of-way north of Elkins and resulting in its abandonment soon after.

Eventually, the tracks were removed and the road bed was later converted into the Blackwater Canyon Trail. Today, there is little evidence of the Western Maryland through this region, and the town of Thomas is a mere shadow of itself from years ago. The depot is long gone but the bridge it sat next to still stands.

Nearby railroad attractions include the popular Cass Scenic Railroad in Cass; the Durbin & Greenbrier Valley Railroad in Durbin; the Potomac Eagle Scenic Railroad in Romney; and the West Virginia Central Railroad based in Elkins, which runs excursion trains over remaining sections of the WM.

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