A Brief History
One of the more scenic rail trails in the Eastern United States is surely the Virginia Creeper Trail in southwestern Virginia. Within the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the corridor was first conceived during the late 19th century to haul coal and iron from the region, although financial troubles ended these initial dreams. After several starts and stops because of money issues, the railroad was finally completed from Abingdon into northwestern North Carolina, thanks to the vision of a local entrepreneur, who named the route the Virginia–Carolina Railway (V–C). The Norfolk & Western Railway (N&W) eventually acquired full control of the property and operated it as a branch, predominantly moving timber until the 1970s when freight volume had dropped so low that the N&W was given permission to abandon the route. Soon after, much of the right-of-way in Virginia was retained to form the Virginia Creeper Trail.
Railroading in southwestern Virginia has always been a rather local affair, with branch lines dotting the landscape here and there to tap the region’s rich resources of timber, coal, iron, and general agriculture. The earliest history of trains operating over what is now the Virginia Creeper Trail can be traced back to 1887 when the Abingdon Coal & Iron Railroad (AC&I) was organized to move what was believed to be large amounts of coal and iron out the area. The company’s intent was to construct a route from Abingdon, where a connection was made with the Norfolk & Western, and extend the line southeastward to Damascus near the North Carolina border. Despite spending considerable amounts of money on the project, the AC&I had little to show for its efforts by the early 1890s except for roughly 2 miles of graded right-of-way near Abingdon.
In 1894, the assets of the AC&I were acquired by the Virginia Western Coal & Iron Railroad, which hoped to finish the line. Unfortunately it, too, ran into financial difficulties when attempting to build a railroad through such rough topography; The ongoing financial Panic of 1893 didn’t help either. In 1898m traveling N&W freight agent Wilton B. Mingea arrived on the scene and realized the traffic potential of the railroad as a lumber hauler. Mingea believed timber to be a far more reliable and profitable source of freight than coal or iron. The new entrepreneur convinced several local land companies to help finance the project, since they also hoped to use the new railroad as a conduit to transport their rich timber holdings to market. The company was renamed the Virginia–Carolina Railway, and within two years, Mingea had the line opened on February 7, 1900, between Abingdon and Damascus, a distance of 16.2 miles.
Thanks to Mingea’s N&W connections, the railroad loaned the new operation two locomotives and a handful of rolling stock to get things started (and begin sending it interchange traffic). Following the start-up of the V–C, several lumber companies began building either online mills or their own feeder railroads to tap nearby timber tracts. Most notable was Luther Hassinger’s operation, which built the 5.2-mile Virginia–Carolina & Southern Railway (V–C&S) that connected to the V–C at Taylors Valley and ran north to Grassy Ridge, Virginia. It opened in October 1907. From here, the V–C&S interchanged with Hassinger’s 1.7-mile White Top Railway that served his massive mill in Konnarock; they proved to be the Virginia–Carolina’s largest customer.
With the success of the V–C now firmly established, larger parties became interested in the operation, in this case the N&W itself. In 1911, the large Class I railroad acquired a 51% ownership stake in the line from Mingea (which became official on September 23, 1912). They had planned to finance the railroad farther east and southward into additional timber tracts. With an infusion of new capital, further railroad construction proceeded quickly, and on July 14, 1914, the entire line from Abingdon, Virginia, to Elkland, North Carolina (now known as Todd), was opened (76.5 miles). About halfway along the route was a small settlement known as Whitetop, Virginia, near the Carolina border; here the railroad crossed White Top Gap at 3,576 feet above sea level. This section of main line was the highest east of the Rocky Mountains to provide regularly scheduled passenger service. Naturally, this section, and others, were rather steep; grades regularly reached between 2% and 3% in many locations. Additionally, it was rife with 16- to 20-degree curves and had no fewer than 108 wooden trestles of various shapes and sizes. Because of the route’s rugged nature, trains were often forced to go at slow speeds and local residents began calling it the “Virginia Creeper,” a name derived from a local plant that grows here. What may have been challenging for the railroad, however, added nothing but stunning scenery for passengers of yore and now trail users!
Mingea’s management of the Virginia–Carolina came to an end on August 27, 1919, when the property was purchased in full by the N&W; the latter renamed it its Abingdon Branch. Traffic remained heavy through the 1920s, with abundant amounts of logs and lumber as well as other types of general freight (agriculture, livestock, petroleum, etc.). Then Hassinger’s mill closed in 1928, and the Great Depression hit the line hard. Soon, other mills began closing in the 1930s when the timber had mostly been cut. In 1933, the N&W cut the branch back to West Jefferson, North Carolina, reducing its size to 55.5 miles.
For years, the N&W had assigned a fleet of Class-M 4-8-0 “Twelve-Wheeler” steam locomotives as regular power. These plodded along, moving freight and passengers until they were replaced by Electro-Motive GP9 and American Locomotive Company (Alco) T-6 model diesels in December 1957. Interestingly, mixed trains (those moving both freight and passengers) carried on until all passenger service was discontinued between May 1962 and November 1963. By the late 1960s, freight service had slumped to just one or two days a week. During the early 1970s, the N&W entertained proposals to turn the scenic line into a popular tourist railroad, but with no offers made, it formally petitioned the Interstate Commerce Commission to abandon the Abingdon Branch on December 1, 1972. After a lengthy delay their request was granted on July 30, 1976; actual rail service stopped on April 1, 1977. Even with permission to close the line, the N&W still tried to sell it to potential buyers. With no one posing an interest, the rails were finally removed during summer 1977. The U.S. Forest Service, in conjunction with the cities of Abingdon and Damascus, secured the 34-mile right-of-way to the state line, which became known as today’s Virginia Creeper Trail.
Nearby railroad attractions include the Historic Cambria Depot & Scale Cabinetmaker Museum in Christiansburg and the O. Winston Link Museum in Roanoke. Additionally, in Tennessee there is the Little River Railroad Museum in Townsend and Three Rivers Rambler excursion train in Knoxville. In North Carolina, you’ll find the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad in Bryson City and the Tweetsie Railroad in nearby Blowing Rock.
(Lloyd Lewis’s article “An Abingdon Branch Accolade: A Line From Another Time” from the June, 1984, issue of Trains Magazine was a primary reference for this article.)Do you have Historical Photos of the Virginia Creeper National Recreation Trail?
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