North Bend Rail Trail History

West Virginia

At a Glance

Name: North Bend Rail Trail
Length: 72 Miles
Trail activities: Horseback Riding, Mountain Biking, Walking, Cross Country Skiing
Counties: Doddridge, Harrison, Ritchie, Wood
Surfaces: Asphalt, Boardwalk, Concrete, Crushed Stone, Gravel
State: West Virginia

A Brief History

One of West Virginia’s premier recreational corridors, the North Bend Rail Trail is located in the state’s north-central region and spans some 72 miles from just outside Clarksburg (at Wolf Summit) to Parkersburg along the banks of the Ohio River. The trail was formerly the main line of the Baltimore & Ohio and was one of the oldest sections of the railroad built during the mid-19th century. It is most commonly remembered as the “Parkersburg Branch” and not only hosted hotshot freight trains between Baltimore and St. Louis, but also several famous passenger trains. During the economic downturn of the 1980s, the then Chessie System elected to abandon the corridor as a through-route, severing the line from Clarksburg through southern Ohio, a decision that remains a hot topic of debate even today.

Whether you have an interest in railroads, you have probably heard of the Baltimore & Ohio (B&O), our country’s first common-carrier system, chartered on February 28, 1827, and officially incorporated on April 24 of that year. The B&O was formed by a group of Baltimore businessmen who wanted to make sure their city remained one of the nation’s top ports by having a competitive and efficient means of transportation. New York City had the newly completed Erie Canal, opened in 1825, and Philadelphia began constructing its Main Line of Public Works in 1826. The latter was a type of waterway canal that also used horse-powered railway flatcars and incline planes. At the time, the newfangled railroad, using either steam or horse power, was completely new in the United States but had already been operating in England for a few years.

Actual construction of the B&O began with the laying of the first stone during a special ceremony on July 4, 1828. By January 1830, the railroad had about 1.5 miles of track in service; four months later, it released the first scheduled passenger timetable with the opening of 13 miles to Ellicott Mills (now known as Ellicott City). Slowly but surely the new company pushed westward, reaching Harpers Ferry, in what was then Virginia, by December 1834. It opened to Cumberland, Maryland, on November 5, 1842. Progress was slow for a few reasons: money was needed for new construction, and the B&O was developing engineering techniques and tactics as it went along, since railroad construction was completely in its infancy. Continuing on through the Allegheny Mountains past Cumberland proved to be an adventurous and even slower affair; the terrain was extremely rugged and new sources of capital took additional time to secure.

The westward expansion finally began in 1850 with a route that wound southwest through the Potomac River valley then reached Altamont, Maryland, before crossing into Virginia at Corinth. At Three Forks Creek, now present-day Grafton, the railroad turned northward, reaching Fairmont and finally arriving in Wheeling at the Ohio River in December 1852. The opening of this 379-mile main line completed the railroad’s original charter; however, even before this line was opened, the B&O was looking for a more southerly and direct western gateway to the Ohio River as a means of opening expansion into Ohio and across the Midwest. With significant financial backing from the B&O, on February 14, 1851, the Northwestern Virginia Railroad (NVRR) was chartered to build west from Three Forks Creek to the city of Parkersburg, which had been pushing for its own railroad.

The B&O contributed $1 million to the project and the city of Baltimore another $1.5 million, with construction of the NVRR beginning during late 1852. The project’s chief engineer was B&O’s Benjamin Latrobe, who oversaw and ultimately chose the railroad’s route. The 103-mile corridor took five years build, opening for service to Parkersburg on May 1, 1857, and requiring more than $5 million to complete. It was built to high standards and had a maximum grade of 1.5%, including 23 tunnels and 52 bridges. Most of the bores along the route were lined with brick or stone, while one—tunnel #10 located 2.2 miles west Ellenboro’s depot—was cut directly through the hillside and no lining.

The NVRR was leased to the B&O in December 1856 and was formally merged into the railroad as of January 1, 1865, upon which time it was referred to as the Parkersburg Branch (since it was then the western terminus of the B&O). In the coming years the railroad continued westward, opening a 7,100-foot bridge across the Ohio River from Parkersburg to Belpre on January 7, 1871. From here, it had direct access into Ohio, and the road continued its march toward St. Louis, mostly through acquiring other roads that had merged into a company known as the Baltimore & Ohio Southwestern (1889). By 1893, the B&O had a direct route to St. Louis (it had already established service to Chicago by 1875). Interestingly, while the former NVRR route was now no longer the western terminus of the B&O, it was always referred to as the Parkersburg Branch.

The corridor later became known as the B&O’s Monongah Division. As part of its St. Louis main line, the route was of strategic importance, although there was little traffic between Clarksburg and Parkersburg (81.2 miles) except for a few coal mines near Wolf Summit, some forest products during the early years via small logging railroads, and the region’s first oil and gas boom that started in 1859 and lasted through the early 20th century. After this time, the Branch almost exclusively hosted through-freight trains as well as noted streamliners like the “National Limited” and “Cincinnatian,” along with other named runs, including the “Diplomat” and “Metropolitan Special,” which plied the bucolic farmland and rolling hills through Harrison, Doddrige, Ritchie, and Wood Counties.

In 1962, the Chesapeake & Ohio acquired the B&O, and soon after, work began on upgrading the Parkersburg Branch by raising tunnel clearances and “daylighting” tunnels (removing them to form a large cut) or bypassing other tunnels to make the route more attractive for the growing trailer-on-flat-car service. While this was successful, and the B&O began running expedited freights like the “St. Louis Trailer Jet” and “Philadelphia Trailer Jet,” the economic downturn of the 1980s caused traffic to decline. Additionally, the upgrades during the 1960s unfortunately did not make tunnel clearances tall enough for container-on-flat-car service, which became all the rage during the 1980s still continues today. Containers need clearances of nearly 21 feet, and the tunnels had been upgraded to just over 17 feet.

The eventual merger of the Chessie System (formed after 1972 from the C&O, B&O, and Western Maryland) and several southern railroads (the Family Lines consortium of the Seaboard Coast Line, Louisville & Nashville, Clinchfield, and others) created today’s CSX Transportation, and the new company was looking to cut costs by removing what it deemed redundant trackage. The Parkersburg Branch became a prime candidate because it had no traffic, was plagued with high maintenance because of many tunnels and roadcuts. In addition, several tight curves slowed train movements. Despite still having a handful of timed freights using the corridor, railroad management elected to remove the route from Clarkersburg, West Virginia, to Chillicothe, Ohio, which was originally downgraded in 1985. This left a small section in place around Parkersburg to serve area customers. West Virginia tried to save the line, and many railroad employees were upset with the line’s closure. During September 1988, rails along the Parkersburg Branch were removed. The state eventually did acquire the property for rail-banked status and opened the first section of the North Bend Rail Trail in 1991. Since its abandonment, discussions have continued about whether that decision had been a good idea, given the line’s status as a direct route between Baltimore and St. Louis. Many believe the line could have been a viable rail corridor following the economic upturn in the early 1990s, with a few necessary upgrades to handle container service.

Railroad attractions in the Mountain State include the Cass Scenic Railroad in Cass; Durbin & Greenbrier Valley Railroad in Elkins; the Potomac Eagle Scenic Railroad in Romney; the Kruger Street Toy & Train Museum in Wheeling; and the Harpers Ferry Toy Train Museum & Joy Line Railroad in Harpers Ferry.

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