Virginia was a farming colony until 1776. Its primary need for transportation was to move bulky, heavy tobacco leaves from farm fields to Europe. Large plantations and small farms produced a surplus of one staple crop, a crop that was good only for export. You can't eat tobacco, so Virginians had to ship it to the customers overseas.
In the 1600's and 1700's, plantations were carved out of the wooded countryside, and early plantations were concentrated along rivers. Every plantation in Tidewater developed a wharf to ship tobacco directly to England - hauling 1,000-pound hogsheads of tobacco along muddy roads from the tobacco barns just to the wharf was hard enough. Roads were developed so people could walk or ride from farms to churches and the county courthouse, but there was little investment in upgrading the roads in Tidewater so Virginians could to move freight in wagons.
Once settlement moved upstream past the Fall Line in the 1720's, however, the need for better roads increased. Starting in the 1830's, the new technology of wood-burning locomotives and iron rails stimulated further the competition of commercial centers on the Fall Line to build low-cost transportation connections to inland "backcountry" or "hinterland" areas, far away from the port cities.
The first large-scale use of the steam-powered locomotive in North America was the South Carolina Canal and Rail Road Company, between Charleston and Hamburg, South Carolina (across the Savannah River from Augusta, Georgia). From the beginning, rail construction showed how one port city could use new transportation technology to intercept the trade of another port. The railroad enabled Charleston to "steal" from Savannah the trade in cotton grown in the South Carolina/Georgia Piedmont. Farmers had been carrying cotton in wagons to ships that could sail on the Savannah River, up to the falls at Augusta. With construction of the railroad, farmers found it easier to ship to Charleston by rail. The rail line provided benefits to one port city, at the expense of another.
Prior to the Civil War, Virginia's railroads were not designed to create a logical transportation network linking all major cities in the state. Even in the cities, railroads built terminals in separate locations. In the days before "union" stations, draymen earned a good living hauling freight by horse and wagon from one railroad's terminal to another, usually just several blocks away. It was inefficient, but each railroad was independent. The concept of a trade network based on rail transportation would require consolidation of separate railroad companies (which occurred in a series of mergers and hostile takeovers after the Civil War).
Virginia's railroads were designed originally to transport farm products to specific ports. Different cities built different railroads to bring raw goods from the west to the specific port on the Fall Line, and to ship manufactured goods (especially imports from Northern manufacturing centers and overseas) back to rural communities. Railroads were tools for economic development of specific locations, and political decisions on what railroads to authorize affected the land use, population growth, and wealth of those locations.
The General Assembly authorized railroad lines that would steer trade from the Piedmont/Valley and Ridge provinces to a favored Fall Line port - and blocked most proposed railroad extensions that would have directed Shenandoah Valley trade to an out-of-state port. Multiple rail lines were authorized to cross the Blue Ridge and link Alexandria/Richmond with the Shenandoah Valley, but no railroad was built in the valley itself to link farm communities with each other - or with Baltimore/Philadelphia - until the 1880's.
The Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) railroad was blocked from extering Virginia, except for a short extension to Winchester. Staunton and Winchester did not have a direct railroad connection until after the Civil War. Northern capitalists had to gain sufficient economic/political control to re-shape the pattern of railroads in Virginia, before rail lines were constructed to connect all major poulation centers.
Prior to the Civil War, Alexandria built the Orange and Alexandria (O&A) railroad to connect to the farms in the upper Rappahannock River watershed in the Piedmont. Alexandria intercepted the trade in wheat and other products that might have gone down the Rappahannock River to Fredericksburg. Alexandria then built the Manassas Gap railroad through the Blue Ridge at Manassas Gap, expanding its railroad connections into the Shenandoah Valley. At Front Royal, rafts and boats bringing iron "pigs," lumber, and farm products on the Shenandoah River could shift their goods to the Manassas Gap railroad, rather than float further downstream to Harpers Ferry, the C&O Canal, and ultimately Georgetown.
A recession or "financial panic" in 1857 forced Alexandria merchants to truncate plans to build a more-expensive Manassas Gap line. The original design was to build an independent, second track roughly parallel to the Orange and Alexandria (O&A) from Alexandria to Manassas, before turning west to cross the Blue Ridge. Without the financing after the recession, the Manassas Gap rail line was joined to the Orange and Alexandria at an insignifiant location. That rail junction, known as Manassas, became the focal point of the Union Army in 1861. Union generals planned to use the rail line to haul hay and other supplies for the army, as it marched "On to Richmond" in the first major military campaign of the Civil War.
To capture even more business that might go to Maryland or Pennsylvania, Alexandria also built the Alexandria, Loudoun, and Hampshire (AL&H) railroad into Loudoun County. Alexandria had no direct railroad line to Fredericksburg until after the Civil War, when the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac (RF&P) was extended north to eliminate the inefficient transfer or cargo/passengers to steamships on the Potomac River.
Richmond built a number of rail lines. Even before the wood-burning locomotive was developed, rails (with cars pulled by mules) connected the coal fields of Chesterfield County with the city.
Richmond built the Central Virginia Railroad to draw business from farms located along the upper reaches of the North Anna and South Anna rivers and some of the Rivanna River watershed in the Piedmont. The line was originally aimed at Harrisonburg in the Shenandoah Valley, but the Blue Ridge was too high a barrier. The route was curved south from Gordonsville, to Afton Gap. A tunnel was carved through the Blue Ridge where I-64 now crosses, and the rail line stretched past Staunton before construction was interrupted by the Civil War.
The Richmond and Danville Railroad was built to attract trade from as far away as Halifax and Pittsylvania counties, on the North Carolina border. Richmond built a rail line in the opposite direction to West Point. It is located at the confluence of the Pamunkey and Mattaponi rivers, the headwaters of the York River. The river channel was deeper there. Richmond was competing with Norfolk, with its naturally-deep harbor, in hopes of controlling the trade in coal, wheat, and tobacco from the Appalachian Plateau/Shenandoah Valley/Piedmont.
Petersburg developed as the southern gateway to Richmond, via the RF&P. The South Side Railroad connected Petersburg to the farms in the Appomattox River watershed, and the Petersburg and Roanoke railroad captured business from cargo shipped by batteaux and canal boats down the Roanoke River.
During the Civil War, the Confederacy was quick to utilize railroads, bringing troops from the Shenandoah Valley to Manassas in July 1861 and building the first military railroad between Manassas and the front lines at Centreville in early 1862. In 1861, Robert E. Lee warned that the failure to connect the lines of the Alexandria, Loudoun and Hampshire Railroad with the tracks of the Orange and Alexandria would be costly. When the Union invaded Alexandria in May, 1861, two locomotives were stranded on the AL&H. The Confederacy had to haul them overland across the hills of Fauquier county, to Piedmont Station (today known as Delaplane) on the Manassas Gap Railroad.
The Richmond and Danville Railroad created a dilemma for Confederate officials. North Carolina strongly resisted the decision by Confederate officials to construct the Piedmont Railroad, connecting Danville and Greensboro. That state wanted the trade from its Piedmont to go through Wilmington, NC rather than a Virginia port. The national Confederate government ultimately rejected the states rights concerns of North Carolina, and forced construction of the Piedmont Railroad as a military necessity. After the Civil War, farmers on the North Carolina Piedmont could ship their cargo and buy their goods from Petersburg and Richmond, costing North Carolina businesses some economic opportunities.
Roanoke and Manassas grew from the start as towns where two railroads connected. Not every railroad intersection developed into a town - Doswell, for example, has remained a tiny crossroads community for 175 years.
When railroads were constructed, physical geography trumped political geography. Some towns with county courthouses were completely bypassed, leaving a few centrally-located communities to stagnate. For example, the Orange and Alexandria Railroad followed the flattest path south and bypassed the court houses built on the tops of hills - Fairfax Court House (Fairfax), Brentsville (Prince William County), and Warrenton (Fauquier). The town of Fairfax coped by developing Fairfax Station, and Warrenton later managed to get a spur line connecting it to the railroad.
In Prince William County, however, Brentsville remained isolated from the population growth stimulated by the railroad. After several hotly-contested elections, Manassas was able to get the county voters to move the courthouse to combine the government center with the county's commercial center. After the move, Brentsville essentially disappeared off the map for 100 years, until local officials decided to restore the old courthouse as a historic site.
historic Virginia Central/RF&P rail interchange at Doswell (Hanover County)
Bay Coast Railroad
Buckingham Branch Railroad
Chesapeake and Albemarle
Franklin and Carolina Railroad
Norfolk and Portsmouth Belt Line
North Carolina & Virginia Railroad
Shenandoah Valley Railroad
Virginia Railway Express
Winchester and Western Railroad