A Brief History
Today’s breathtaking High Bridge Trail runs along 32 miles of the former Norfolk & Western Railway (N&W) in central Virginia. Its signature feature is the nearly half-mile-long bridge that spans the Appomattox River, more than 100 feet below. The history of this corridor dates back to the mid-19th century under a predecessor system and was later an integral transportation artery during the American Civil War. It later became part of the N&W, a profitable and well-managed company throughout much of its corporate existence. The High Bridge Trail was once a component of its main line, moving bituminous coal from mines in Virginia and West Virginia to Tidewater at Norfolk. The corridor remained in service through the Norfolk Southern merger but was eventually abandoned during the mid-2000s, at which point the right-of-way was donated to the Commonwealth of Virginia.
The origins of the Norfolk & Western begin in early 1836 in far eastern Virginia when the General Assembly chartered the City Point Railroad. It was opened on September 7, 1838, between City Point (now known as Hopewell) along the James River, and nearby Petersburg, a distance of 9 miles. During a period in which efficient transportation was limited primarily to waterways, the new railroad provided a valuable economic boost for businesses in the region. During 1847, the City Point was reorganized as the Appomattox Railroad and was acquired by the Southside Railroad (SRR) in 1854. The latter carrier had been chartered in 1846 initially for the purpose of building a line from Petersburg to what is now Blackstone. According to C. Nelson Harris’s book “Norfolk & Western Railway Stations And Depots,” the Southside was given its name because its right-of-way traveled south of the James River.
Construction began in 1849 and by 1852 had reached Burkeville, providing an interchange there with the Richmond & Danville Railroad (later an important component of the massive Southern Railway). As the Southside continued looking westward, intent on reaching Lynchburg, the road was faced with a choice of grading a southerly route, which offered easier grades, or following a more circuitous and rugged northerly extension, enticing only because the town of Farmville offered financial incentives to do so. Eventually, the company settled on the latter routing, which meant crossing the wide Appomattox River valley via bridge. The so-called High Bridge, part of today’s trail, was 2,440 feet long and roughly 125 feet above the river. It was completed in 1852, and the Southside would finish its line to Lynchburg two years later.
Two other noteworthy systems that formed the foundation of the Norfolk & Western included the Norfolk & Petersburg, completed between its namesake cities in 1858, and the Virginia & Tennessee, which opened between Lynchburg and Bristol (Virginia) in 1856. All three systems were important for both sides during the Civil War, but they suffered tremendous damage and had difficulty recovering from the conflict. In 1870, the N&P, V&T, and SRR merged, forming the 408-mile Atlantic, Mississippi & Ohio Railroad. However, in only a few years the company had failed, following the financial Panic of 1873. It was then reorganized as the Norfolk & Western Railroad in May 1881. One additional bankruptcy followed, and the name was changed to the Norfolk & Western Railway on September 24, 1896. This proved the end of its financial difficulties since the 20th century was one of prosperity and success, thanks to its westward expansion into the Pocahontas coalfields of western Virginia and southwestern West Virginia.
According to Jim Cox’s book “Rails Across Dixie: A History Of Passenger Trains in the American South,” the N&W took ownership of the unfinished New River Railroad and reached Pocahontas, Virginia, on March 12, 1883. On May 2, the road opened farther west to Bluefield, West Virginia, via New River, Virginia. Its first carloads of coal totaled 54,500 tons that year, but by 1887 had blossomed to roughly 1 million. That number steadily rose as expansion continued. Throughout the end of the 19th century, the N&W continued extending its reach into the region’s coalfields. During 1896, it acquired the Lynchburg & Durham, running between those two cities, while the Roanoke & Southern allowed it access to Winston-Salem via Roanoke; the latter city became the N&W’s headquarters and primary terminal. In 1901, it expanded to Cincinnati by purchasing the Cincinnati, Portsmouth & Virginia, while other important lines reached Hagerstown, Maryland, and Columbus, Ohio. By then, the historic N&W system was more or less complete, although it was rather small by Class I standards.
In 1950, its network was only slightly over 2,100 miles. By comparison, the nearby Southern owned more than 6,000 miles, the Baltimore & Ohio and Pennsylvania railroads roughly 10,000, and the New York Central more than 10,600. Its strategic position in Appalachian coal country, however, more than made up for its size. While the N&W did move a variety of freight, coal was its mainstay throughout its corporate existence. According to Mike Schafer’s book “Classic American Railroads – Volume III,” even during the early 1980s, just before the merger with Southern, coal still comprised over 60 percent of its annual tonnage.
Within the industry, and among historians and fans, the N&W is widely recognized for its use of steam power. The company was arguably better at designing and building them than even noted manufacturers such as Baldwin and the American Locomotive Company (Alco). The fabled Roanoke Shops rolled out hundreds of locomotives over the years with such classic designs as the 4-8-4 J Class, 2-6-6-4 Class A, and 2-8-8-2 Class Y6. Steam remained in regular service on the N&W until the mid-1950s. It reluctantly began purchasing diesels since components and spare parts proved increasingly difficult to locate, labor costs rose, and the company generally realized the operational efficiency the new form of motive power offered.
During 1959, the N&W once again expanded, acquiring the competing but small Virginian, a system that competed for the same coal and transported it to the same market: Norfolk. More takeovers occurred in the 1960s when it picked up the small Atlantic & Danville. Another acquisition included the larger Nickel Plate Road, a Midwestern carrier. It also leased the Wabash around the same time and purchased the small Illinois Terminal in 1981. During 1982, the N&W merged with Southern, forming today’s Norfolk Southern (NS). After years of service, NS elected to abandon a section of the old Southside Railroad in 2005 west of Burkeville, which included the High Bridge near Farmville because of maintenance costs and stiff grades. It subsequently transferred the right-of-way to the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation.
Railroad attractions include the C&O Railway Heritage Center in Clifton Forge; Eastern Shore Railway Museum in Parksley; Fairfax Station Railroad Museum in Fairfax Station; Historic Cambria Depot & Scale Cabinetmaker Museum in Christiansburg; Carson Depot Library in Carson (part of the Appomattox Regional Library); Lancaster Antique Train & Toy Collection in Portsmouth; O. Winston Link Museum and Virginia Museum of Transportation in Roanoke; Richmond Railroad Museum in Richmond; Suffolk Seaboard Station Railroad Museum in Suffolk; and the U.S. Army Transportation Museum at Fort Eustis.Do you have Historical Photos of the High Bridge Trail?
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