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The Virginian Railway was a fairly small railroad (its main line was less than 500 miles), but it was built to extremely high standards and it “operated with precision-like efficiency” hauling coal as a competitor to the much larger Norfolk & Western Railway (N&W).
Henry Huddleston Rogers
The Virginian Railway was built solely to haul coal. Henry Huddleston Rogers, an oil tycoon, and William Page, an engineer, collaborated on the Virginian to haul coal from mines in West Virginia.
Rogers made his fortune in the oil refining business, establishing a refinery in western Pennsylvania and then partnering with Charles Pratt and Company in Brooklyn, New York.
While working with Pratt, Rogers invented a better method of separating naphtha, a mixture of hydrocarbon compounds produced during the distillation of crude oil, from the oil. He was granted a U.S. Patent for his method on October 31, 1871.
In 1874, John D. Rockefeller approached Pratt with a plan to cooperate and consolidate their businesses. Pratt and Rogers decided that such a combination would benefit them. Rogers formulated terms, which guaranteed financial security and jobs for Pratt and himself. Rockefeller had learned of Rogers’ talents and negotiating skills during an earlier skirmish. He quietly accepted the offer on Rogers’ exact terms. Charles Pratt and Company became one of the key independent refiners to join the Standard Oil Trust.
As a partner in Pratt and Company, Rogers, who was then about 35 years old, became a minority shareholder in Standard Oil. Rogers rose rapidly in Standard Oil; he developed the idea of pipelines to transport oil, rather than using railway cars.
In the 1880s, Rogers invested in copper, steel, banking, and railroads, as well as the Consolidated Gas Company, which provided coal gas to major cities. By the 1890s, as Rockefeller was withdrawing from the oil business, Rogers became a key executive at Standard Oil. In 1899, Rogers established the Amalgamated Copper trust, dominating the commodity that was in high demand because the nation needed copper wire to build its electric networks.
Rogers’ last major enterprise was building the Virginian Railway. He had become interested in railroads due to prominent tycoon Edward Henry Harriman. Rogers became interested in a number of West Virginia projects.
The Ohio River Rail Road, a small system that began operating between Wheeling and Huntington/Kenova in 1888, was the first Rogers foray into railroads. The railroad was funded primarily by Standard Oil. The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad leased the Ohio River Rail Road in 1901 and purchased it in 1912.
William Nelson Page
William N. Page was a civil engineer who was active in the Virginias following the Civil War. Page was well-known as a metallurgical expert by industry leaders, investors and state and federal authorities.
Page became a leading manager/developer of the bituminous coalfields in West Virginia during the late-19th and early-20th century. He was also deeply involved in building the railroads and other infrastructure needed to process and transport mined coal. In addition, Page often worked as a manager for absentee owners or as the “front man” in projects involving a silent partner.
Page was trying to build a short-line railroad to haul coal from a new mining area in a rugged section of southern West Virginia not yet served by other railroads. He founded the Deepwater Railway and it was incorporated in 1898. However, the Deepwater Railway was only four miles long and ran between Deepwater and Robson, West Virginia.
Building the Virginian
Rogers saw money in West Virginia’s coal fields. Page sought to acquire land and build the Deepwater Railway to run south from the Kanawha River to the new coal reserves and then eastward to the West Virginia-Virginia border, where it would connect to the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway (C&O) and the N&W.
However, the leaders of those railroads wanted to build their lines to the new coal-mining area. They colluded to stop Page’s railroad by agreeing to only offer Page unprofitable interchange rates.
In 1902 Page began working with Rogers, who became Page’s silent partner. Rogers provided $50 million in funding for the new railroad – the equivalent of $1.775 billion today. With Rogers’ financial assistance the railroad was built southward from Deepwater, winding along small tributaries like the Little Righthand Fork, Loop Creek, and Slab Fork before reaching the communities of Mullens and Elmore.
This length of track served virtually all of the rich coal seams in the area. Page also built branch lines to remote coalfields in Glen Rogers, Gilbert, Lochgelly and Willibet. A branch that ran northeastward from Mullens served Beckley, the largest city in West Virginia at the time.
Heading southeast, the railroad followed more small waterways before entering the Bluestone River valley and the town of Princeton (which later was the home of an important railyard for the Virginian).
To build the railroad in Virginia required a new company; the Tidewater Railway was founded in 1904 for that purpose.
The Tidewater Railway headed eastward from the West Virginia-Virginia border through Virginia’s western mountains, then crossed the rolling hills of Virginia’s Piedmont region, before terminating on the coastal plains. While construction was ongoing, the Tidewater and Deepwater systems were merged in March 1907 into the new Virginian Railway (reporting mark VGN).
Along the Virginian’s route, Roanoke became an important city for the railroad (as it was already for the N&W). The VGN established a major terminal on the north bank of the Roanoke River. Roanoke was also the terminus of the railroad’s Western Division (Roanoke to Deepwater) and Eastern Division (Roanoke to Norfolk). In later years it would be the easternmost point of the railroad’s electrification.
Thanks to the money that Rogers provided the railroad, instead of stopping at the border of the two states, Page and his associates were able to extend the short-line railroad hundreds of miles across West Virginia and Virginia to new coal piers at Hampton Roads. Thus, the VGN was created.
While construction eastward to Norfolk continued, the primary rail line was opened from Deepwater to Norfolk in April 1909. Along its entire length the rail line was engineered to extremely high standards.
The Virginian’s destination was the Hampton Roads ports at Norfolk/Newport News. Nine miles from Norfolk two coal piers were constructed at Sewalls Point (Sewell’s Point today) to handle export coal shipments. Each of the coal piers were more than 1,000 feet long; combined, they were capable of emptying 23 loaded trains daily, or about 232,000 tons of coal each day.
The new railroad was finished in 1909, and its sole purpose was to move coal. During the first half of the 20th century it was known as the “Richest Little Railroad in the World.” Unfortunately, Henry H. Rogers did not live to see the railroad’s success; he died on May 19, 1909. Nelson, however, lived until March 7, 1932.
An electrification project was launched by the VGN in 1923. The railroad contracted with Westinghouse to electrify 134 miles of its main line between Roanoke and Mullens, West Virginia. At that time high-voltage, single-phase alternating current (AC) transmission had become the preferred means of electrifying rail lines.
When it was completed it was the longest mountainous electrification in the eastern United States. The project took three years at a cost of $15 million.
At the time, Mullens was a small town deep in Wyoming County’s coal country. It sits along the confluence of the Slab Fork and the Guyandotte River. The railroad also constructed an engine facility and a small yard to maintain its fleet of electric locomotives.
The Virginian used an 11,000 volt system that was supplied by its power plant located at Narrows, Virginia. Its first locomotives were built by Alco and Westinghouse and were boxcabs that were delivered in April 1925.
These locomotives could provide tremendous power. Most often they were operated in sets of three and could produce 6,000 horsepower and 231,000 pounds of tractive effort. This was due in part to their large size. Each weighed over 1.2 million pounds and were more than 152 feet long. The railroad purchased 16 of these early boxcabs, which used the early side-rod design to transfer power to the driving wheels.
Following World War II, the Virginian Railway supplemented its aging boxcabs by ordering four units known as AC rectifiers from General Electric in 1948. This technology was exceptional for its time. Using AC’s inherent advantages, the current was converted to high-adhesion direct current, or DC. As noted in American-Rails.com, according to the book, “Electric Railways: 1880-1990” by Michael Duffy, rectifiers provided the following advantages:
- “Performance was independent of supply frequency. Weight was about 15% less than when supplied with 15 Hz…compared with a single phase locomotive supplied with 16.66 Hz and using commutator motors.
- The railway supply could be drawn from the grid at industrial frequency. Motor control was complete and loss-free.
- The single-phase AC/DC type of locomotive was simple in construction. The rectifier was fed by the transformer and the motors were in series with a smoothing choke and received DC voltage varying between zero and the maximum. Reduction in motor weight was an advantage.
- The single-phase commutator motor was restricted to low frequencies in railway service, and was large and heavy. The DC motor was smaller and lighter.
- The overhead equipment carrying the single-phase contact wire was lighter than the equipment needed to carry an equivalent DC supply. The rectifier locomotive combined the most advantageous form of fixed works with the favored traction motor.”
Successful throughout its tenure
Until 1931 the Virginian relied on a single connection at Deepwater with the Chesapeake & Ohio (which had tried to kill the railroad when it was founded). However, in 1931 the VGN finished a bridge across the Kanawha River that provided for an interchange with the New York Central Railroad.
The N&W and C&O no longer had exclusive interchange rights. The new interchange transformed the VGN from a coal-hauling railroad to a prominent player in the Midwestern gateway, which enabled the introduction of timed freights. The bridge also slightly improved the Virginian’s limited passenger services by allowing trains to reach Charleston. West Virginia’s Smith Street Union Station, which was also served by the Baltimore & Ohio and the New York Central.
Despite the changes described above, the Virginian Railway continued primarily as a coal-hauling railroad. Including all of its branches that reached various coal mines, the Virginian maintained a 623-route mile network. Its main line was double-tracked and heavy, 131-pound rail had been used. This type of track was necessary to handle the daily coal trains, which averaged 10,000 tons, but sometimes reached 17,000 tons and more than a mile in length. In addition, the railroad was one of the first to use massive 100-ton hoppers to haul the coal.
Each of these steps were taken to improve the railroad’s efficiency, to drop its operating ratio, and to generate more revenue. The strategy worked; in 1948 the VGN hauled approximately 17.5 million tons of freight; coal comprised 88% of the total.
For 50 years the Virginian Railway was profitable, primarily hauling bituminous coal from the West Virginia coal fields to the coal piers at Sewell’s Point. However, the N&W had been bothered by the much smaller railroad since it began operations. In the late 1950s the N&W paid a premium to acquire the Virginian and then eliminate its long-time competitor.
According to American-Rails.com, “this acquisition is credited with kicking off the modern mega-merger movement.” After the Interstate Commerce Commission approved the acquisition in 1959, the Virginian Railway formally disappeared.
Moreover, within three years of the acquisition, the N&W stopped the electrified portion of the former Virginian Railway on June 30, 1962. The N&W also pulled up one of the Virginian’s two main lines.
On June 1, 1982, Norfolk & Western Railway merged with the Southern Railway to form the Norfolk Southern Railway, which is a component of Norfolk Southern Corp. Today, most of the Virginian Railway’s main line continues to play an important role for Norfolk Southern.
FreightWaves Classics thanks the Virginian Railway Facebook page and its over 900 followers, the West Virginia Encyclopedia (wvencyclopedia.org), and other sources for information and photographs used in this article.
In addition, this article would not have been possible without the resources made available by Adam Burns of American-Rails.com. Those interested in learning more about the railroads operating in North America – and those that are now “fallen flags” – should explore the American-Rails site.