Mon River Rail-Trail History

West Virginia

At a Glance

Name: Mon River Rail-Trail
Length: 23.7 Miles
Trail activities: Bike, Wheelchair Accessible, Walking, Cross Country Skiing
Counties: Marion, Monongalia
Surfaces: Asphalt, Crushed Stone
State: West Virginia

A Brief History

Both the north and South sections of today’s Mon River Trail, located near Morgantown, West Virginia, follow a former right-of-way once operated by the Baltimore & Ohio (B&O), formerly an important railroad to the state’s northern communities. The entire length of this corridor, constructed during the 19th century, stretched from Fairmont, West Virginia, to Connellsville, Pennsylvania, providing the B&O, among other advantages, a shortcut between its two primary east-west main lines reaching Chicago and St. Louis. During the route’s peak years of service, it moved a diversity of freight, particularly coal. As time passed, the line remained in use despite mergers and consolidations; the B&O, itself, disappeared in 1987. Under the new CSX Transportation conglomerate, most of corridor was abandoned in the early 1990s, following a rockslide that the railroad elected not to repair.

The Baltimore & Ohio was not only our country’s first common-carrier railroad, it was also the first to reach the Commonwealth of Virginia (the portion later becoming West Virginia) at Harpers Ferry in early 1837. The B&O would eventually complete its original main line between Baltimore and Wheeling (via Grafton and Fairmont), in 1852. As the 19th century progressed, the B&O began expanding its reach throughout the state’s northern fringes, laying down or purchasing rails to such locations as Weston, Parkersburg, Kenova–Huntington, Elkins, Buckhannon, and Charleston. Most of these lines served the region’s many coal mines of the bituminous variety, which became a vital source of traffic for the B&O. A later route constructed from Grafton to Parkersburg, completed in 1857, served as the railroad’s primary main line between Baltimore and St. Louis, reducing the Wheeling line to secondary status.

The right-of-way that is now part of the Mon River Trail traces its roots back to December 10, 1883, when the Fairmont, Morgantown & Pittsburgh Railroad Company (FM&P) was incorporated. This new system, backed financially by the B&O, was to construct a new line along the Monongahela River between Fairmont (at Palatine Junction) and Morgantown, with an extension to the Pennsylvania state line, where it would link with the aptly-named State Line Railroad. Through this connection, reaching Uniontown, Pennsylvania, and the Fayette County Railroad linking Uniontown with Green Junction, Pennsylvania (located slightly southeast of Connellsville), a cutoff was established between the B&O’s principal main lines (Chicago and St Louis). More importantly, however, the new line provided additional sources of coal traffic as well as an interchange with later subsidiary Monongahela Railway (a small but important coal road located in southwestern Pennsylvania and northern West Virginia).

The Fairmont, Morgantown & Pittsburgh, running 32.7 miles between Fairmont and the state line, was opened for service on April 12, 1894. The entire length of the route between Fairmont and Connellsville was 70.4 miles and soon witnessed a large increase in coal traffic when new mines opened and a few short branches opened to serve others. While the corridor handled significant coal, it also hosted through-trains and moved other types of freight, such as general merchandise, petroleum products, sand, glass, ice, and food products. Morgantown would hold some importance within the B&O system as the focal point of three lines: the through-route FM&P; the M&K Branch, running between Morgantown and Rowlesburg (built by the Morgantown & Kingwood Railroad in 1907); and the Monongahela Railway, which connected with the FM&P north of Morgantown at Randall. The latter line was originally built by the Scotts Run Railway, later known as the Scotts Run Branch.

Over the years, the line was known by several names, including the FM&P Branch and the FM&P Subdivision. Officially it was designated as part of B&O’s Pittsburgh Division. Interestingly, for many years, the railroad’s timetables continued referring to it as the “Fairmont, Morgantown & Pittsburgh Railroad,” while the former Fayette County Railroad was listed as the “Fayette County Branch.” Unofficially, it was long regarded as the “Sheepskin Line.” The origin of this name is somewhat hazy, although one version states that a local sheep farmer, growing frustrated by trains constantly scattering his herd, referred to it as “the sheep skinning railroad.” Over the years the FM&P corridor remained important for the B&O, although this diminished as mines closed and other business was lost, particularly after the late 1960s when Interstate 79 opened. The last scheduled passenger trains ran on September 25, 1953.

In 1972, the Baltimore & Ohio, then-parent Chesapeake & Ohio, and B&O-controlled Western Maryland were together included as part of the new holding company known as the Chessie System. In 1980, CSX Corporation was formed by the merger of the Chessie and several southern railroads. These consolidations further reduced the importance of the Sheepskin Line, along with the general decline in freight traffic. Throughout the 1980s, CSX began selling or abandoning several former B&O lines in West Virginia, while abandoning others it deemed unprofitable or redundant. These included the St. Louis main line between Parkersburg and Clarksburg (now part of the North Bend Rail Trail). During December 1990, a landslide along the Sheepskin Line closed the route, and CSX elected to abandon rather than repair it. Today, only a short section of the old FM&P Branch remains in place between Greene Junction and Smithfield, Pennsylvania (about 21.5 miles).

Railroad attractions across the state include the West Virginia Central/Durbin & Greenbrier Valley excursion trains in Elkins; Cass Scenic Railroad in Cass, featuring historic geared steam locomotives; Harpers Ferry Toy Train Museum & Joy Line Railroad in Harpers Ferry; Kruger Street Toy & Train Museum and Oglebay Good Zoo in Wheeling, featuring scale train rides; and the Potomac Eagle Scenic Railroad excursions in Romney.

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