A Brief History
Once completed, the Tobacco Heritage Trail will offer a through-corridor across much of central Virginia following abandoned rail grades formerly owned by three of the state’s best remembered railroads. Beginning to the west, the trail will travel over the original Richmond & Danville, which became an integral component of the Southern Railway; to the east is the old Atlantic & Danville, later known as the Norfolk, Franklin & Danville; and finally farther to the north was the former main line of the Virginian Railway. The latter two railroads were eventually controlled by the Norfolk & Western and saw decreasing use as time passed. The rights-of-way were eventually abandoned by Norfolk Southern in the 1980s, while today efforts are underway to convert them into the Tobacco Heritage Trail.
The eastern leg of the trail was once the grade of the Richmond & Danville Railroad (R&D). The history of this company begins with its chartering in 1847 to connect its namesake cities, a task completed in 1856 at a distance of 140 miles. The opening of the R&D was a great economic boon within the region as well as to the city of Richmond. The railroad grew little during the next decade, hampered by the prolonged Civil War, although it was able to open a southern extension to Greensboro, North Carolina. Despite the war’s disruptions, the R&D was a vital transportation artery for the Confederacy during the conflict, particularly since it served the Rebel capital at Richmond. After the war, the railroad embarked upon a great era of expansion.
The rail grew primarily by acquiring or leasing smaller roads, such as the North Carolina Railroad; Atlanta & Charlotte Air-Line; and East Tennessee, Virginia & Georgia. By the early 1890s, these systems (and numerous others) gave the R&D a main line from Washington, D.C., to Atlanta. Routes radiated to other important cities such as Augusta, Wilmington, Raleigh, Columbia, and Asheville. It subsequently fell into receivership and emerged in 1894 as the Southern Railway Company, a name it retained until the 1982 merger with Norfolk & Western. By the 1950s, Southern operated a network spanning more than 6,000 miles and reaching many other important cities, including Memphis, New Orleans, St. Louis, and Cincinnati. It was one of the most respected and profitable railroads in the country throughout much of the 20th century, even during the industry’s darkest days of the 1960s and 1970s. Following the Norfolk Southern merger, the route to Richmond saw decreasing use, largely from loss of business. As a result, NS was granted permission to abandon the section between Ringgold and Keysville in January 1988.
The easterly section of the trail will travel over what was originally the Atlantic & Danville, incorporated in September 1883 as a three-foot, narrow-gauge railroad extending from what is today the port of Claremont (incorporated in 1886) to Emporia. Unfortunately, Claremont did not blossom into the important center of trade and commerce that railroad officials had envisioned. Instead, nearby Norfolk would acquire that title because it was closer to the Atlantic Ocean and to the entrance of the James River and Chesapeake Bay. Understanding this, the A&D’s owners changed course and opened a 78-mile, standard-gauge route to Norfolk via Emporia, which also offered connections with several other important railroads. During the 1890s, the A&D struck out westward, reaching the industrial center of Danville and boasting a system totaling 278 miles; 210.8 main line miles ran between Norfolk and Danville, along with the 50-mile original narrow-gauge route between Claremont and Emporia (later abandoned during the 1930s).
During September 1899, the A&D was leased to the growing Southern, remaining as part of its network for 50 years until being spun off once more on August 1, 1949. The new independent company worked hard to build up its traffic, attracting the attention of the Norfolk & Western, which purchased the property in 1962 and renamed it the Norfolk, Franklin & Danville. Following the NS merger, the NF&D name was dissolved in 1983 while the route saw decreasing use. Over the years, many sections of the main line have been abandoned, including from Blanche, North Carolina, to Lawrenceville, Virginia, pulled up between 1982 and 1989.
Finally, there is the northern segment, originally built by the Virginian Railway. This system was conceived during the late 19th century by civil engineer William Page and financier Henry Rogers, one of the richest men in the world at the time. Both had dreams of building a railroad similar to the N&W or Chesapeake & Ohio, one which moved coal from the rich seams located in western Virginia and southern West Virginia to tidewater in the Norfolk area. At first they formed two small intrastate operations known as the Deepwater Railway of West Virginia (chartered in 1898) and the Tidewater Railway of Virginia (chartered in 1904). These were later combined into the Virginian Railway in 1907. Constructed to high standards, the well-engineered route was completed in 1909 with a main line running between Deepwater, West Virginia, and Sewell’s Point, Virginia.
To further enhance the road’s efficiency, it was electrified 134 miles between Mullens, West Virginia, and Roanoke, Virginia, completed in 1925. The company even constructed its own power plant at Narrows, Virginia, to supply needed electricity. Throughout its corporate existence, the Virginian primarily focused on its coal business. In 1959, the N&W acquired its long-time competitor and subsequently shut down the electrified operations on June 30, 1962. Over the years, sections of its right-of-way have been abandoned, including the segment from Briery to Jarratt, Virginia, in August 1987.
Railroad attractions in Virginia 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 Tobacco Heritage Trail?
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