Greenbrier River Trail History

West Virginia

At a Glance

Name: Greenbrier River Trail
Length: 77 Miles
Trail activities: Bike, Fishing, Horseback Riding, Mountain Biking, Walking, Cross Country Skiing
Counties: Greenbrier, Pocahontas
Surfaces: Asphalt, Boardwalk, Crushed Stone
State: West Virginia

A Brief History

The Greenbrier River Trail is one of West Virginia’s premier recreation corridors, spanning nearly 80 miles along its namesake river in the eastern Appalachian Mountains. The pathway traces its history back to the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway, which constructed the railroad grade during the late 1890s to serve timber, tanneries, and other businesses then booming in the region, while interchanging with a handful of notable logging railroads (such as the property now operated as Cass Scenic Railroad). After World War II, freight traffic began declining considerably, particularly as lumber operations closed. As a result, the Greenbrier Branch was eventually considered superfluous, and the C&O/Chessie System elected to abandon most of the corridor, nearly 100 miles long, during the late 1970s.

The history of the Chesapeake & Ohio began as the small Louisa Railroad, chartered in 1836 and originally opened for service between Taylorsville and Frederick Hall, Virginia, in December 1837. It was later extended to Shadwell (near Charlottesville) and renamed the Virginia Central (VC) on February 2, 1850. By the Civil War, era the VC was opened to the Jackson River, 10 miles west of Clifton Forge, but further growth had to wait until after the war. During 1867, the system was renamed the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad Company (C&O), and within a few years had opened through-service to the Ohio River via Charleston and Huntington, West Virginia, on January 29, 1873. Its only notable bankruptcy occurred in 1876 when it was renamed as the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway in 1878. The road continued adding to its network, opening to Cincinnati by 1888, expanding into the coalfields of southern West Virginia, and reaching the port of Newport News/Hampton Roads. Eventually, the C&O boasted a system spanning more than 5,000 miles, which included its own route to Chicago. Additionally, the state of Michigan and city of Buffalo, New York, were both reached after acquiring the Pere Marquette in 1946.

Similar to the nearby Baltimore & Ohio, Norfolk & Western, and later Virginian Railway, the C&O derived a large portion of its freight revenue from the movement of Appalachian coal, predominantly located in the Mountain State. However, black diamonds were not the only resource West Virginia provided; logging, forest products, and other business lay in the Greenbrier Valley, which C&O officials hoped to exploit. To reach this area, a long branch would be required running northward along the Greenbrier River. On November 16, 1897, a charter was issued for the Greenbrier Railway Company, extending from a connection with the main line near Ronceverte at Whitcomb to a northward point along the river. In 1905, the line (a wholly-owned property of the C&O since 1903) reached the small hamlet of Winterburn, marking its longest length at 100.96 miles, according to William McNeel’s book “The Durbin Route.”

Winterburn was just northeast of Durbin, the primary northern interchange point with the Western Maryland Railway, itself having reached Winterburn via Elkins through a subsidiary known as the Coal & Iron Railway. The latter was chartered December 14, 1899, and completed on July 27, 1903, roughly 47 miles long. Once people realized rail service would open in the valley, new lumber operations, such as Greenbrier River Lumber Company (near Marlinton) and West Virginia Pulp & Paper Company (WVP&P), near what is present-day Cass, began acquiring several thousand acres of timber tracts in the area.

The WVP&P is noteworthy as having received an order from the Wright Cycle Company of Dayton, Ohio, owned by Wilbur and Orville Wright, who purchased 500 feet of spruce lumber to construct “flying machines.” The brothers, of course, went on to invent one of the world’s first-known airplanes. As early as September 1900, freight service had commenced and was soon far exceeding the railroad’s expectations. Within the first decade of the 20th century, the Greenbrier Division (also known as the Greenbrier Branch or Greenbrier Subdivision) was serving more than 40 sawmills of various size, from the Cass complex capable of producing 60,000 board-feet per day to independently owned operations producing only a few-thousand feet daily. Tanneries were another important source of traffic and were located at Frank and Marlinton, the former owned by the Pocahontas Tanning Company and latter owned by the U.S. Leathery Company; both were in operation by 1905.

Additionally, various other types of freight traveled the line, including agriculture and livestock, thanks to the many farms in the valley. In addition, aggregates and stone were shipped from the quarry at Renick (the Renick Stone Company). Finally, because of the rural nature of the region and lack of reliable highways, for many years virtually all necessities were shipped by rail: furniture and farming supplies to food and coal for home heating. During its busiest years in the 1920s, the Greenbrier Branch hosted four passenger trains and several local/manifest freights each day. The peak year for freight tonnage, outside of World War II, occurred in 1926, when 1.7 million tons were handled, much of this derived from the mill at Cass.

Following the Great Depression, improved highways, and depleted timber tracts, business slowly declined, although it did spike during World War II; in 1943, the railroad handled more than 2 million tons of freight. This level quickly subsided after the war and continued declining until the route was eventually abandoned. The final scheduled passenger trains (#142 and #143) made their runs on January 8, 1958, while the Western Maryland’s own connections at Durbin were dropped during April 1959. By then, however, (December 1955), regular steam-powered service had already left the valley, replaced by diesel locomotives. Occasionally they returned, usually to handle excursions and fan trips, behind notable locomotives such as Reading Class T-1 4-8-4 #2102 or geared designs. The locomotives hailed from nearby shuttered logging operations, including at Cass where the Cass Scenic Railroad was launched in 1963 after rail operations ceased there in summer 1960.

By the early 1970s, the once-busy Greenbrier Branch witnessed freight reduced to only a few hundred carloads annually because most lumber and tanning operations had closed. On March 18, 1975, the Chessie System/C&O filed an application with the Interstate Commerce Commission to abandon 92.04 miles of the Greenbrier Branch from near North Caldwell to Durbin, leaving the remaining few miles for the Western Maryland to continue service north of that point to then-Bartow, 2.84 miles. The last train made its run on December 27-28, 1978. The trackage was removed in July 1979, and the entire right-of-way donated to the state of West Virginia.

Railroad attractions in 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 and the Oglebay Good Zoo in Wheeling, featuring scale train rides; and the Potomac Eagle Scenic Railroad excursions in Romney.

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