A Brief History
Today’s popular New River Trail State Park is located within the beautiful valleys and mountains of southwestern Virginia and follows the banks of the New River much of the way. The corridor was originally built by the Norfolk & Western Railway as a long branch and was planned to stretch into North Carolina but ultimately reached only as far as Galax, not far from the state line. The route’s intentions were to feed freight, particularly iron ore, to the N&W’s main line at Pulaski. For roughly 100 years it remained in use and survived into the early Norfolk Southern era (formed through the merger of the N&W and Southern Railway in 1982). But little remaining traffic by the 1980s witnessed its abandonment, and the right-of-way was donated to the state, forming today’s trail.
The Norfolk & Western grew into one of the most profitable, respected, and well-managed railroads across the country before it disappeared into Norfolk Southern. Its earliest corporate history can be traced back to the industry’s infancy. During January 1836, the Virginia General Assembly chartered the City Point Railroad, which opened between its namesake city along the James River and nearby Petersburg, 9 miles away, in 1838. In 1854, the Southside Railroad completed its main line between Petersburg and Lynchburg and subsequently acquired the City Point that same year. In 1870, the Atlantic, Mississippi & Ohio Railroad was formed by consolidating the Southside, the Virginia & Tennessee (opened between Lynchburg and Bristol in 1856), and the Norfolk & Petersburg (opened between Norfolk and Petersburg in 1858). The new system fell into bankruptcy during 1876 following the financial Panic of 1873. In 1881, the assets were renamed as the Norfolk & Western Railroad.
Another bankruptcy in September 1896 reorganized the property as the Norfolk & Western Railway. Following this final corporate stumbling block, the N&W was primed for a highly profitable 20th century. The railroad had already expanded into the rich coal fields of southern West Virginia and western Virginia, the source of revenue that fueled its success throughout the century. It continued to expand, acquiring the Cincinnati, Portsmouth & Virginia in 1901 and giving it access to Cincinnati. Before the N&W began growing again during the latter 20th century, beginning with the Virginian Railway in 1959, its system spanned just over 2,000 miles, running from Norfolk to Cincinnati and Columbus, Ohio, while long secondary routes provided access to Norton, Virginia; Bristol, Tennessee; Winston-Salem and Durham in North Carolina; and Hagerstown, Maryland. By purchasing major Midwestern systems such as the Wabash and Nickel Plate Road in the 1960s, the N&W reached Chicago, St. Louis, Indianapolis, Detroit, Cleveland, Omaha, Kansas City, and Buffalo.
What today forms the New River Trail State Park was constructed by the then Norfolk & Western Railroad, which began survey work in 1882 from the Bristol main line at Martin’s Station (now Pulaski). It ran roughly southwest toward the North Carolina border, predominantly following the New River. The intent of the so-called Cripple Creek Extension was to open tracts of iron ore for shipment by rail while also providing a through-connection with the Cape Fear & Yadkin Valley Railroad (later acquired by the Southern Railway and renamed the Atlantic & Yadkin Railway) at Mt. Airy, North Carolina. By 1887, 28.8 miles had been completed to Austinville, and the section to Galax was opened during 1904, running about 50 miles in total via Pulaski. Three notable branches extended from what later was called the North Carolina Branch: Betty Baker via Reed Island Junction, Speedwell Furnace via Ivanhoe (this was the original routing of the Cripple Creek Extension), and Fries via Fries Junction (this short spur is now also part of today’s trail).
While iron ore was the primary source of freight, there was also other outbound traffic, including agricultural products, milk, forest products, less-than-carload movements (which could include anything an individual wished to ship but not did fill an entire freight car), and cotton mills in the Fries area. Notable inbound shipments included coal, animal feed, fertilizer, agricultural products, and oil. After the N&W fell into receivership during 1896, it seemed new management lost interest in completing the extension to Mt. Airy, perhaps because the railroad now already had two notable lines into the Tarheel State at Durham and Winston-Salem. Over the next several years, the North Carolina Branch continued shipping iron, but these mines slowly closed, unable to compete with the superior quality of ore coming out of the upper Midwest.
Before traffic slid away, there were normally two trains running the line daily. The N&W continued providing passenger service until after World War II, making its final run on September 5, 1951. Perhaps somewhat surprising, giving the rural nature of the route and western Virginia in general, there were still a handful of customers being served by the 1980s, during the early Norfolk Southern (NS) years. However, many began closing at that time, notably New Jersey Zinc, a primary customer. Feeling the line was no longer worth operating, NS elected to abandon all remaining operations south of Pulaski, and trains made their last runs on October 5, 1985.
Railroad attractions near the trail 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 New River Trail State Park?
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