A Brief History
The Virginia Blue Ridge Railway Trail is named after a bucolic short line established during the early 20th century to haul timber out of the region. It followed the Piney and Tye rivers and was located near the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains. While planned to haul forest products, an unfortunate series of events ended such hopes. It later became a rags-to-riches American success story when other sources of traffic materialized during the early 1930s. Despite its secluded status, the VBR later drew celebrity status by operating steam locomotives into the 1960s, a time in which this nostalgic form of motive power was fast disappearing all across the country. Alas, its freight business eventually dried up and the last customer closed its doors during the early 1980s, resulting in the wholesale abandonment of the short line soon afterward.
The history of the little Virginia Blue Ridge Railway begins in 1914 when John W. Powell, who had long worked in the timber business and promoted several logging railroads in West Virginia, partnered with R.G. Leftwich to purchase 55,000 rugged and rural acres of central Virginia backcountry near Three Ridges, north of Massies Mill. The region held a substantial quantity of chestnut timber, which the pair hoped to extract by rail and then interchange with the Southern Railway at nearby Tye River, about 15 miles south. According to William E. Warden’s article, “Steam Success Story,” from the October 1962 issue of Trains Magazine, there was an additional motive than merely profits behind the plan. The chestnut blight had first been discovered in the United States during 1904 and arrived in Virginia by 1908. Realizing the timber was doomed to rot anyway, the hope was to harvest it before it did.
The Virginia Blue Ridge Railway was incorporated on May 22, 1914, and had been projected to extend 12 miles from Tye River to Woodson along with a 6.5-mile branch from a point the railroad referred to as “Junction” and Massies Mill. Construction of the VBR began in 1915 and was completed in October 1916. Besides chestnut, the railroad hauled some agriculture (notably apples) and a few passengers; given its secluded nature, passenger service ended in 1936. Barely a year after operations began, the U.S. government seized control and nationalized the country’s railroads during World War I. The VBR held no strategic value to national defense and as such was ordered to suspend operations. By the time the short line returned to service, the chestnut acreage had largely been wiped out, leaving the railroad with a dim future. It somehow subsisted for more than a decade by hauling local agriculture, pulpwood, and anything else it could find. It also conceived other ways to extract cash, such as abandoning the unused Junction–Woodson line for the scrap value.
In 1931, during the height of the Great Depression, the railroad’s first substantial customer appeared when Southern Mineral Products Corporation set up operations along the Piney River to extract seams of recently discovered ilmenite. The company wanted to process it into titanium dioxide. At the time, extraction methods were too expensive to provide a profitable and stable source of traffic for the railroad. This changed in 1936 when Southern Mineral was acquired by Interchemical Corporation and operations were vastly expanded (it later became part of American Cyanamid). During the same decade, more online shippers appeared. This time, the largest vein of aplite in the United States, nearly 12 miles long and made of both quartz and feldspar, was also discovered along the Piney River. These minerals were used to manufacture glass and roofing material. Subsequently, the Riverton Lime & Stone Company built three plants along the river to extract them beginning in 1939. Another aplite facility, originally constructed by Carolina Minerals and later part of International Minerals & Chemical Company, also soon located near the river. Now with a lucrative source of traffic, the Virginia Blue Ridge worked to upgrade its property after World War II, spending upwards of a half-million dollars to add heavier rail and new crossties, while also purchasing two second-hand 0-6-0 steam locomotives from the War Assets Administration in 1947 (#4 and #5).
By 1950, the short line had gross revenues of $244,253, a substantial amount for such a little operation. Figures increased to more than $300,000 by the early 1960s. More steamers arrived during the 1950s; 2-8-0 #6 was acquired from the Southern to replace #4 in 1952, and three 0-6-0s (#7, #8, and #9) were purchased between 1956 and 1958. Eventually, #6 was retired. In all of its years, the company owned only one new locomotive: the 2-8-0 #1 was built by H. K. Porter, Inc. and delivered to the railroad on March 1, 1915. It was followed by 2-8-0 #2 in 1938, also of Southern heritage, while 4-6-0 #3 was a former Georgia & Florida Railway unit picked up in 1941.
Steam enjoyed a long life on the Virginia Blue Ridge, thanks to both redundancy and a workforce who were somewhat nostalgic about the motive power. Before the company retired its remaining fleet, four were still in service and all were 0-6-0s (nos. 5, 7, 8, and 9). Diesels finally replaced steam on June 18, 1963, when a pair of Electro-Motive SW1 switchers arrived. Numbers 10 and 11 were built as Delaware, Lackawanna & Western #430 and #427, respectively, in 1940. A few years later, a third unit (#12) arrived on June 7, 1965. Also of Lackawanna heritage, the engine was built in 1940 as #432.
Times remained good on the VBR until 1970 when American Cyanamid announced it was closing its facility and moving to Georgia, effective June 15, 1971. Around the same time, the Riverton Lime & Stone Company also shuttered its operations, which left the railroad with International Minerals & Chemical Company as its only remaining customer. Finally, in May 1980, they too announced their plant would close. On July 1, the Virginia Blue Ridge Railway was embargoed; in 1985 the rails were removed.
Today, five of the VBR’s nine steam locomotives survive: 0-6-0 #4 pulls excursions on the Wilmington & Western in Delaware as #58; 0-6-0 #5 is preserved by the Whippany Railway Museum of New Jersey as U.S. Army #4039, which is restoring the locomotive to operation; 2-8-0 #6 is also owned by the Whippany Railway Museum and preserved as Southern #385; 0-6-0 #8 is privately owned in Maryland as #2; and 0-6-0 #9 is currently owned by short line SMS Rail Lines of New Jersey, who is working to restore the locomotive to operation.
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 Virginia Blue Ridge Railway Trail?
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