The Atlantic & Danville Railroad was constructed after the Civil War. It was financed by Benjamin Newgass and other English investors primarily to export cotton and tobacco via the Chesapeake Bay rather than Savannah, Charleston, or a North Carolina port.
In 1885 the railroad completed a three-foot narrow-gauge line that connected Belfield and Hicksford, at the Fall Line on the Meherrin River, to the James River 50 miles away. A new wharf was constructed at Claremont for the ships to load cargo brought by the railroad.1
Belfield and Hicksford combined to form the town of Emporia in 1887. That town was already connected to Richmond and the Carolinas by the standard gauge Atlantic Coast Line Railroad, which included the old Petersburg Railroad and the Richmond & Petersburg Railroad.
The Petersburg Railroad had connected the Roanoke River to Richmond. The Seaboard and Roanoke Railroad (built originally as the Portsmouth & Roanoke Railroad) had connected the Roanoke River to Norfolk. Both redirected trade to Virginia for shipping via the Chesapeake Bay, diverting traffic that otherwise might have gone down the Roanoke River for export via a port in North Carolina.
The Atlantic & Danville Railroad was similar in a way, because it linked Emporia on the Meherrin River to a new port on the Chesapeake Bay. The new rail line to Claremont was developed under a different business model, however. Traffic on the small Meherrin River was very limited, and the economic benefits of capturing that trade was not worth the investment in building even a narrow-gauge railroad.
Investors in the Atlantic & Danville Railroad planned to collect cotton from as far away as North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia, then carry it eastward to export at Claremont. Creating a new line and a new port on the James River offered an alternative to shipping Southern agricultural products via the Richmond and Danville Railroad.
After the Civil War and the Panic of 1873, northern investors could gain control of competing railroads and build integrated interstate systems. Shipping Southern cotton to England via the Chesapeake Bay, not shipping lumber from Emporia, offered an opportunity for enough profit to attract Benjamin Newgass and justify his creation of the Atlantic & Danville Railroad.
The Atlantic & Danville Railroad completion an extension to Danville, 133 miles to the west, in 1891. In addition to making a connection with cargo brought from points south, the extension also enabled shipments of manufactured goods and processed tobacco from Danville to Portsmouth. Like the Petersburg Railroad and the Seaboard and Roanoke Railroad, the Atlantic and Danville Railroad (as its name implied) intercepted the Roanoke River trade - even further upstream from Weldon, North Carolina.
Lawrenceville, the county seat of Brunswick, was expanded to accommodate the workers at the railroad's repair shops at the midpoint of the line between Portsmouth and Danville. Atlantic & Danville Railroad investors also created the new town of South Hill.2
Trying to create a new port at Claremont was a bad decision. The Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad had made a similar decision to create Newport News on the James River upstream from Hampton, Norfolk, and Portsmouth. In contrast to the Atlantic & Danville Railroad, the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad had a stready stream of coal to haul from West Virginia to ships docking at Newport News.
The Atlantic & Danville Railroad recognized that a Hampton Roads port would be more attractive, and created a new eastern terminus. Building a standard gauge line for 78 miles, from James River Junction at Emporia to Pinners Point in Portsmouth, increased traffic. The new terminus on the Elizabeth River is now the site of the Portsmouth Marine Terminal (PMT) owned by the Virginia Port Authority.
The line to Claremont was maintained as a branch primarily to haul lumber; it was never upgraded to standard gauge. Another branch, built as standard gauge, linked Suffolk to "West Norfolk" on the Elizabeth River just downstream of the Pinners Point terminal. That area, on the opposite side of the Western Branch of the Elizabeth River from Pinners Point, is near the location of the Virginia International Gateway (VIG) terminal operated by the Virginia Port Authority.
The Southern Railway system absorbed the Atlantic & Danville Railroad in 1899, acquiring a 50-year lease as part of the consolidation of railroads following the Panic of 1893.
The Southern Railway implemented the vision of Benjamin Newgass and others to streamline the shipment of agricultural products and manufactured goods from the Piedmont to Atlantic Coast port cities. A narrower version of that vision was implemented by the Chesapeake and Ohio, Norfolk and Western, and Virginian railroads, which relied heavily upon the shipment of just one product - coal - to Chesapeake Bay ports.
During the Great Depression, demand for lumber declined. Financing for new construction was harder to obtain, and demand dropped precipitously.
The supply of timber in southeastern Virginia area was also declining. Landowners had not implemented sustainable forestry practices, replanting as fast as they harvested. The forests were "mined" rather than "farmed."
The Surry Lumber Company mill in Dendron closed in 1927. The nearby Surry, Sussex and Southampton Railroad, another narrow-gauge line carrying timber products to Scotland Wharf on the James River downstream from Claremont, closed in 1930. The Southern Railway abandoned the narrow-gauge Claremont Branch a few years later.3
After World War II, trucks competed successfully for much of the freight-hauling business of the railroads. The Southern Railway had committed in 1899 to pay annually for control of the Atlantic & Danville Railroad, but reduced traffic made the fixed cost of the annual lease unprofitable. When the 50-year lease expired in 1949, the Southern Railway chose not to renew. It chose a cheaper alternative to get to Portsmouth, paying for trackage rights to use the Atlantic Coast Line.4
The Atlantic & Danville Railroad operated as an independent line for 13 years, until going into bankruptcy and being acquired by the Norfolk and Western in 1962. The Norfolk and Western renamed the line as the Norfolk, Franklin & Danville Railway. The railroad's distinctive identity disappeared a year after the Norfolk and Western merged with the Southern Railway to form the Norfolk Southern in 1982.
To reduce operating costs, the Norfolk Southern abandoned segments that duplicated tracks in the consolidated system. Norfolk Southern ended operations across the last 50 miles of the old Atlantic and Danville Railroad route in 2014. After International Paper closed its mills in Franklin, the route lacked the freight traffic to justify continued operations.
The only portion of the old Atlantic and Danville Railroad still in use by trains is the branch from Suffolk to West Norfolk, which is now the Commonwealth Railway.5
Repurposing of the rail line is underway, however. The Tobacco Heritage Trail, spurred by the Roanoke River-Rails-to-Trails and local governments, will follow routes of the Atlantic and Danville, Richmond and Danville, and Virginian railroads. Economic development leaders anticipate that tourim will help to offset the decline of manufacturing jobs in Southside Virginia.