The railroads serving West Virginia played an enormously important role in the state’s growth and development. They connected West Virginia with the world, speeding the Mountain State’s coal, timber and other products to market and bringing in goods from near and far.
The rail industry has changed dramatically over the decades. West Virginia once had dozens of railroads of varying lengths, some long and many short. But over time a tidal wave of consolidations and mergers dramatically reduced their number. The state now is served by only two Class 1 railroads, CSX Transportation and Norfolk Southern Corp.
But make no mistake, there’s something that hasn’t changed: CSX and Norfolk Southern remain key players in the West Virginia economy, continuing their role as vital transportation links.
The Baltimore & Ohio — America’s first railroad, commonly known as the B&O — pushed its tracks into what is now West Virginia in the 1840s, entering the state at Harpers Ferry, traveling on to Grafton and arriving in Wheeling on the Ohio River in 1853. Later, it extended down the Ohio to Parkersburg and Huntington.West Virginia’s heavily forested mountains and valleys held a wealth of lumber and rich deposits of coal, natural gas and oil. But those natural resources were largely inaccessible until the coming of the railroads. With the beginning of the nation’s industrialization, rail lines were constructed to access those riches.
In 1869, rail tycoon Collis Potter Huntington acquired the year-old Chesapeake & Ohio Railway, which had been cobbled together from two small predecessor lines. Once C&O stockholders elected Huntington as the railroad’s president, he pushed the railroad from Virginia westward over the mountains and across the then-new state of West Virginia to the Ohio River. He even built a new city to receive it — and immodestly named it after himself.
The construction crews who pushed the C&O through West Virginia faced enormous challenges. Tunnels had to be blasted and drilled through the mountains. The work not only gave birth to a rail line but also legends like the story of John Henry, the famous “Steel Driving Man.” A statue of the legendary railroad man stands at the Great Bend Tunnel at Talcott, said to be the site of his battle with a steam drill.
The first train from Richmond, Virginia, arrived in the new community of Huntington on Jan. 29, 1872. To celebrate, a barrel of James River water was dumped into the Ohio River. Passengers and freight could now connect with the steamboats that traveled between Huntington and Cincinnati. But that connection wasn’t needed for long, because the canny Huntington started putting together two rail routes west of his namesake city in 1879.
“Although the C&O was built as part of a great transcontinental scheme of its builder, Collis P. Huntington, local coal soon became a dominant commodity as mines opened along the new railway,” said Thomas W. Dixon Jr., chairman and president emeritus of the C&O Historical Society.
Over the years, the B&O had its financial ups and downs. It boomed in the 1920s, paying its stockholders handsome dividends. Then came the Great Depression, which hit B&O harder than most railroads. It barely survived, then recovered briefly during the busy years of World War II. After the war, the decline of coal mining along its lines and increasing competition from trucking left it all but bankrupt.In 1963, the C&O took control of B&O, and the affiliated — not merged — railroads became known as the C&O/B&O. True merger would have to wait until B&O’s financial strength improved.
Even though the two railroads remained separate on paper, their president, Hays T. Watkins, decided in 1971 to accept the result of a study recommending that they be known together as the Chessie System — a name taken from the sleeping kitten trademark long used to promote the C&O’s passenger service.
In 1980, CSX Corp. was formed as a holding company for the Chessie System and the Seaboard Coast Line railroad.
While the B&O traversed the northern part of West Virginia and the C&O crossed the state’s mid-section, the Norfolk and Western (N&W) followed a southern route. Interested in the coal deposits in the Flat Top area on both sides of the Virginia-West Virginia line, the N&W constructed 75 miles of track to carry the coal to its Norfolk, Virginia, port.
From its earliest days, Bluefield was a major location on the N&W, first as its western terminal and then as a major division point. Beginning in 1888, the N&W built across McDowell, Mingo and Wayne counties to Kenova on the Ohio, just west of Huntington.
Through World War I, the Great Depression and World War II, the N&W was one of the nation’s most profitable railroads and a major factor in the West Virginia economy. It was primarily a coal-hauling railroad and, logically enough, relied on coal-fired trains, long after other railroads had switched to diesel power.
About the time the N&W finally began turning to diesel locomotives, it began acquiring other railroads, including the Virginian and the Nickel Plate. Finally, in 1982, the N&W and the Southern Railway System combined as the Norfolk Southern Corp. In 1999, Norfolk Southern and CSX absorbed Conrail (the major railroad in the northeast) and divided its lines between themselves.
C&O historian Dixon noted that West Virginia Congressman Harley Staggers pushed through laws that essentially deregulated railroads in the early 1980s. Today the remaining major rail systems have fewer employees “and about one-third the track that existed at the height of the railway age about 1920,” he said. “Apart from several short lines, Norfolk Southern and CSX Transportation today control railroading in the state. Both systems still rely on coal transportation as their main commodity from West Virginia.”But today’s power plants are burning less coal because utilities are relying more on natural gas. Utilities in southern states are burning dirtier — and cheaper — coal mined in Illinois, not West Virginia. In addition, economic slowdowns in Asia and Europe have weakened the market for export coal.
Thus, it’s hardly surprising that these shifts in the coal industry have pinched railroad revenues and forced them into a cost-cutting mode.
In January 2016, CSX announced that it was reducing its operations from 10 divisions to 9, eliminating its Huntington division, then located in the city’s vintage 1913 former C&O passenger station. The change would eliminate 110 jobs and mean shutting down the former station, CSX said. A spokeswoman described the action as a “response to the transition in the energy markets, including the decline in Central Appalachian coal traffic.”
By mid-2016, CSX had decided to instead retain 30 jobs at the former Huntington station and keep it open.
In March 2017, CSX hired Hunter Harrison, a veteran railroad executive known for his cost-cutting ways, as its new CEO. Harrison immediately set about slashing jobs, shutting rail yards, mothballing locomotives and rail cars and running fewer — but longer — trains on strict schedules rather than based on customer needs.
When Harrison unexpectedly died the following December, he was succeeded as CEO by Jim Foote, who said: “We are picking up right where Hunter left off, and we are going to deliver, just as he envisioned.” The continued cost cutting has boosted CSX’s stock price and its quarterly earnings.
In January 2016, Norfolk Southern (NS) announced it was consolidating its Virginia and Pocahontas divisions. NS described the consolidation as “part of the company’s ongoing drive to enhance operating efficiencies and support long-term growth.”
In a related move, the railroad said it was changing traffic patterns and idling parts of its West Virginia Secondary, a 253-mile line between Alloy and Columbus, Ohio, that had experienced steady declines in business in recent years. This followed the idling of a 33-mile stretch of NS mainline between Elmore and Princeton in September 2015.
Subsequently, Watco Transportation Services announced that its subsidiary, the Kanawha River Railroad, was leasing the West Virginia Secondary and would restore service on it. The successful new venture celebrated its second anniversary in July.
Meanwhile, the Heartland Intermodal Gateway (HIG), a rail-to-truck container trans-loading facility for Norfolk Southern in Prichard has seen a welcome increase in container traffic in recent weeks.The Heartland Gateway was built to handle intermodal trains carrying double stacks of freight containers. In a major engineering feat, NS had to raise clearances in 28 tunnels to make way for double-stack trains traveling between Norfolk and Prichard. Little wonder the work took three years to complete.
In May, DARCO International became the first local company since Toyota Motor Manufacturing to utilize the facility for the continuous shipment of its in-bound freight containers. DARCO’s first container shipments arrived at the facility ready for local delivery; and, days later, those same containers, now empty, were loaded with wood products for shipment to China.
Officials with the Huntington Area Development Council (HADCO) say this is significant, as these initial shipments provide a proof-of-concept for containerized exports to and from the Port of Shanghai. The successful execution of these shipments can provide a model for companies throughout the region who want to use the facility.
“HADCO has been working alongside the West Virginia Public Port Authority, as well as the West Virginia Development Office and Division of Forestry, to generate container shipments through the facility,” said Adam Phillips, business development specialist for HADCO. “All have worked to identify area importers and exporters and to help manage future containers movements.”
The high-tech Heartland Gateway, with its double-stacked container cars and its giant overhead cranes, is a graphic example of how, even though today’s railroads have only a fraction of yesteryear’s workforce and far fewer miles of track, they still remain a vital part of the West Virginia economy.