the first part of the Atlantic and Danville Railroad to be constructed was a narrow-gauge line from Emporia to Claremont (yellow line) that intersected the Norfolk and Western (blue line) at Waverly
Source: Library of Congress, Maps showing the Norfolk, Albermarle & Atlantic Railroad and its connections
The Atlantic & Danville Railroad received its charter in 1882. At the time, the Norfolk and Western Railroad was actively expanding up the New River Valley to the coal fields near Flat Top Mountain. The General Assembly was willing to support multiple proposals to construct additional lines to Norfolk, and did not give Norfolk and Western a monopoly on railroad traffic to the port.
In 1885 the railroad completed a three-foot narrow-gauge line that connected Belfield and Hicksford (renamed Emporia after they merged in 1887) at the Fall Line on the Meherrin River. The track stretched to the James River, 50 miles away. A new wharf was constructed at Claremont on the James River, for the ships to load cargo brought by the railroad.
The narrow-gauge track was not the first railroad to carry lumber to that part of the James River. Prior to the Civil War, Claremont Plantation built a short stretch of track to transport lumber to the James River. Like many of the initial railroad tracks in Virginia, the plantation's trains ran on a strap of iron tacked to wooden stringers.1
the Atlantic & Danville Railroad started as a narrow-gauge line to the James River at Claremont in Surry County
Source: US Geological Survey (USGS), Surry 1:62,500 scale topographic quadrangle (1919)
Though the 1882 charter authorized building to Danville, the first stage of the Atlantic & Danville Railroad was less ambitious. The rail line to Claremont was developed under a different business model than the Petersburg Railroad or the Portsmouth & Roanoke (Seaboard and Roanoke) Railroad.
The Atlantic & Danville Railroad's initial profits were expected to come from hauling local timber products to the new port at Claremont. Traffic on the small Meherrin River was very limited, and the economic benefits of capturing the Meherrin River trade would not have justified the investment of building even a narrow-gauge railroad. Hauling wood to a deep water port on the James River justified the initial investment, primarily by Virginia residents.
The General Assembly had chartered two railroads on December 2, 1882. In addition to the Atlantic & Danville Railroad, the state legislature incorporated the Surry County Railroad & Lumber Co. The two agreed to build a common railroad line between the lumber company's mill on the Blackwater River and Claremont. The new port at Claremont would be 1.5 miles downstream from the lumber company's existing wharf at Sloop Point.
That arrangement lasted until 1886. The Surry County Railroad & Lumber Co. was reorganized after bankruptcy. The successor railroad, the Surry, Sussex and Southampton Railway, chose to build its own narrow-gauge line to a new destination, Scotland Wharf on the James River opposite Jamstown.2
At Belfield and Hicksford (Emporia), the narrow gauge the Atlantic & Danville Railroad connected to the standard gauge Atlantic Coast Line Railroad. That line included the old Petersburg Railroad and the Richmond & Petersburg Railroad, providing a north-south connection between Richmond and the Roanoke River.
Prior to the Civil War, the Petersburg Railroad had connected Weldon on the Roanoke River to Richmond. The Seaboard and Roanoke Railroad (built originally as the Portsmouth & Roanoke Railroad) also had connected Weldon to Norfolk. Both railroads redirected Piedmont trade to the Chesapeake Bay, diverting traffic that otherwise might have gone further down the Roanoke River on bateaux.
After the Civil War and the Panic of 1873, northern investors could gain control of competing railroads as states and other owners were forced to sell stock in the depressed economy. A group of investors could acquire separate railroads and build integrated interstate systems with a rational alignment of track, unlike pre-war owners who favored directing trade to a single port at the expense of a railroad's total revenue.
Shipping lumber from Emporia was just an interim step. The investors in the Atlantic & Danville Railroad planned to collect cotton from North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia, then carry it eastward to export at Claremont. Creating a new railroad and a new port on the James River offered an alternative to shipping Southern agricultural products via the rival choices of Charleston, South Carolina and Savannah, Georgia. Norfolk exported substantial amounts of cotton right after the Civil War.
In 1887 the Atlantic & Danville Railroad started to build a standard gauge line from Emporia to Danville, going 133 miles deep into the Piedmont to the west of the Fall Line. It followed the route surveyed by the Norfolk and Great Western Railroad in 1872, a company that failed to lay any track. The track was completed by 1891, including 20 miles that were located south of the border in North Carolina.
the Atlantic and Danville Railroad connected the upper Roanoke River watershed to the Chesapeake Bay
Source: Library of Congress, Map showing the location of the Virginias Railway across the grand divisions of West Virginia and Virginia from the Ohio to Hampton Roads (by Jedediah Hotchkiss, 1896)
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. The Atlantic & Danville Railroad investors also created the new town of South Hill.
The Atlantic and Danville was not the only railroad to create a new port on the James River.
The Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad had made a similar decision to create Newport New, upstream from existing docks at Hampton, Norfolk, and Portsmouth. Moving its export docks from Richmond to Newport News was a profitable decision for that railroad. In contrast to the Atlantic & Danville Railroad, the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad had a steady stream of coal to haul from West Virginia to ships docking at Newport News.
Building at Claremont turned out to be a bad business decision. The Atlantic and Danville had no coal and too little other cargo for export, and could not attract enough ships to the new port. A Hampton Roads port would be more attractive, so the railroad created a new eastern terminus.
In 1887 the Atlantic & Danville Railroad constructed a new deepwater port at West Norfolk, on the northern side of the Western Branch of the Elizabeth River. Its terminal was across the Western Branch from the terminal at Pinners Point which had been built in 1888 by the Western Branch Railway (soon renamed the Norfolk and Carolina Railroad).
The Atlantic & Danville Railroad also built an extension from Shoulders Hill to Portsmouth. The 78 miles of standard gauge track from West Norfolk reached Belfield in 1888. Connecting Emporia to the Elizabeth River generated enough traffic to be profitable, despite the competition from other railroads.3
after the Atlantic and Danville Railroad started with a narrow-gauge line from Emporia to Claremont, it built a standard gauge line from Emporia to West Norfolk
Source: David Rumsey Historical Map Collection, Virginia (1889)
the Atlantic and Danville Railroad ended up with a narrow-gauge line from Emporia to Claremont (yellow line), standard gauge lines from Emporia to Pinners Point (blue) and Danville (green), plus a standard gauge branch from Suffolk to West Norfolk (red)
Source: David Rumsey Historical Map Collection, Railway Distance Map of the State of Virginia (1934)
The 51-mile line to Claremont was maintained as a branch primarily to haul lumber. It was never upgraded to standard gauge, because it never generated enough business to justify the cost.
the Atlantic and Danville Railroad built a second terminal on the Elizabeth River at West Norfolk
Source: US Geological Survey (USGS), Newport News 1:62,500 topographic quadrangle (1941)
Building a standard gauge line parallel to the North Carolina-Virginia border enabled the Atlantic & Danville Railroad to ship manufactured goods and processed tobacco from Danville to the Elizabeth River. At Danville it interchanged with the Piedmont Railroad, which brought agricultural products up from North Carolina
The Atlantic and Danville Railroad, as its name implied, intercepted the Roanoke River trade. Unlike the Petersburg Railroad and the Seaboard and Roanoke Railroad, the trade was intercepted much further upstream from Weldon, North Carolina. Traffic which originated in the Roanoke River watershed as far west as Halifax County gained a direct rail outlet to an Elizabeth River port.
The Atlantic and Danville Railroad also competed with the Richmond and Danville Railroad, which went from Danville via Richmond to a York River port at West Point. Another rival was the Atlantic Coast Line. It went from Weldon to Petersburg via the former Petersburg Railroad, and to Portsmouth via the former Portsmouth and Roanoke (Seaboard and Roanoke) Railroad.
The Norfolk & Western Railroad was a third competitor for traffic across the Piedmont from the Blue Ridge to the Chesapeake Bay. The Norfolk & Western (formerly the Atlantic Mississippi & Ohio) carried freight to Norfolk. It had wharves on the east side of the Elizabeth River, opposite the Atlantic and Danville dock on the west side of the river.
To finance the standard gauge line between the Elizabeth River and Danville, the Atlantic & Danville Railroad sold bonds. Benjamin Newgass and other English investors bought them, in hopes of profits generated by shipping Southern cotton to England via the Chesapeake Bay. In 1892, after the railroad had spent a year in receivership (bankruptcy), Newgass took control. He consolidated his authority in 1894.
Under his leadership, the railroad reduced mileage by abandoning its line from Shoulders Hill to Portsmouth. It also built a branch from Virgilina to the Holloway copper mine in North Carolina. It did not have the resources required to build further west, creating a major trunk line into the coal fields.4
the Atlantic and Danville Railroad built terminals on both sides of the Western Branch of the Elizabeth River, first at West Norfolk and then at Pinners Point
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online
The Southern Railway system absorbed the Atlantic & Danville Railroad in 1899. It acquired a 50-year lease as part of the consolidation of railroads following the Panic of 1893.
in 1918, the Southern Railway operated though Lawrenceville on the leased tracks of the Atlantic & Danville Railroad
Source: US Geological Survey (USGS), Lawrenceville VA 1:62,500 topographic quadrangle (1918)
Acquiring control over the Atlantic & Danville Railroad gave the Southern another option for transporting freight and passengers to Portsmouth. The Southern Railway had obtained rights from the Atlantic Coast Line to use the old Norfolk and Carolina Railroad tracks from Tarboro to Pinners Point, but those rights could be lost if the Atlantic Coast Line went into receivership. Other rights to use the
The Southern had another port at West Point, acquired after it had leased the old Richmond and Danville Railroad. Norfolk was more attractive, but the Richmond and Danville had promised the Seaboard and Roanoke Railroad that it would not compete and build a line to the Elizabeth River. In exchange, in the days before the US Congress passed anti-trust laws, the Seaboard and Roanoke agreed not to build to Richmond. The Seaboard and Roanoke also agreed it would not operate a steamship line to Richmond and compete with the Richmond and Danville Railroad's dominance there.
By leasing the Atlantic and Danville, the Southern Railway was able to bypass the Richmond and Danville's promise not to start new facilities on the Elizabeth River. It expanded the Pinners Point facilities, making it rather than West Point the primary terminal on the Chesapeake Bay. The port facilities at West Norfolk, built by the Atlantic and Danville, were abandoned.5
when the Southern leased the Atlantic & Danville Railroad in 1899, it included an extension west from Danville to Stuart
Source: Library of Congress, Railroad map of North Carolina, 1900 (H. C. Brown, 1900)
The rail network established by 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 their Chesapeake Bay port destinations.
the Southern Railway leased the Atlantic and Danville Railroad for 50 years, between 1899-1949
Source: David Rumsey Historical Map Collection, Virginia (1903)
the Southern Railway leased the Atlantic and Danville between 1899-1949
Source: US Geological Survey (USGS), Boykins 1:62,500 scale topographic quadrangle (1920)
During the Great Depression, traffic dropped on the narrow gauge Claremont branch of the Atlantic and Danville Railroad. Since financing for new building construction was harder to obtain, demand for lumber declined precipitously.
The supply of timber in southeastern Virginia area crossed by the Atlantic and Danville Railroad was also declining. Landowners had not implemented sustainable forestry practices, and were not replanting as fast as they harvested. The forests were "mined" rather than "farmed." The Gray Lumber Company at Waverly shipped its products on the Norfolk and Western Railroad, chosing the standard gauge line over the narrow gauge Claremont Branch. Once boats quit scheduling regular stops at Claremont Wharf in the late 1920's, all Claremont Branch traffic went to Emporia and cargo was transferred there to standard gauge rail cars for transport to the Elizabeth River.
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 finally abandoned the narrow-gauge Claremont Branch in 1932. The Gray Lumber Company arranged to maintain the track in order to operate its own trains, which carried timber to the mill at Waverly. The stretch north of Waverly was used until 1933, and the track south of Waverly was kept operational until 1938.6
Claremont Wharf lost its railroad connection during the Great Depression
Source: US Geological Survey (USGS), Claremont 1:24,000 scale topographic quadrangle (1954)
Claremont Wharf is still identified on maps, but the railroad line linking the James River to Emporia was abandoned during the Great Depression
Source: US Geological Survey (USGS), Claremont 1:24,000 scale topographic quadrangle (2013)
After the boom years of World War II, traffic on the Atlantic and Danville Railroad track between Danville and Pinners Point declined again. 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. Rather than renew the 50-year lease when it expired in 1949, the Southern Railway chose not to relinquish control. It gave notice in 1944, five years before the lease expired.
The Atlantic & Danville Railroad had stayed alive as a paper corporation for the 50 years that the Southern Railway had leased it. The Claremont Branch and the port facilities at West Norfolk were abandoned, and the track was not made into the Southern's mainline, but the railroad was still a viable business. The Southern was obligated to leave the Atlantic & Danville with enough equipment to allow operations comparable to the railroad's capacity in 1899.
After the 50-year lease expired, the Atlantic & Danville Railroad operated as an independent line for another 13 years. It continued to use the 2-mile stretch of track built originally by the Richmond and Mecklenburg Railroad. On the eastern end, it obtained trackage rights to the shipping terminal at Pinners Point.
The Korean War created profitable traffic to Fort Pickett and other military facilities on the railroad's route. So did construction of the dam creating the Kerr reservoir (Buggs Island Lake). However, maintenance and operating costs exceeded revenues in most years.7
It went into receivership and was acquired by the Norfolk and Western in 1962. The Norfolk and Western renamed the line as the Norfolk, Franklin & Danville Railway. The Norfolk, Franklin & Danville Railway's distinctive identity disappeared in 1983, a year after the Norfolk and Western had merged with the Southern Railway to form the Norfolk Southern.
To reduce operating costs, the Norfolk Southern chose to abandon track that was duplicated 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 the West Norfolk site on the Elizabeth River Norfolk Southern recognized that chemical plants there generated enough business to lease that 17-mile stretch as part of the Thoroughbred Short Lines program. That stretch, now the Commonwealth Railway, handles the container traffic generated at the Virginia International Gateway terminal.8
Repurposing abandoned portions of the rail line is underway. The Tobacco Heritage Trail, spurred by the Roanoke River-Rails-to-Trails effort and local governments, will follow routes of the Atlantic and Danville, Richmond and Danville, and Virginian railroads. Economic development leaders anticipate that tourism will help to offset the decline of manufacturing jobs in Southside Virginia.9
the Tobacco Heritage Trail between Lawrenceville and South Hill follows the old route of the Atlantic and Danville Railroad
Source: Tobacco Heritage Trail, Tobacco Heritage Trail Webmap
the Tobacco Heritage Trail needs a replacement of the old Atlantic and Danville Railroad bridge over the Meherrin River
Source: Tobacco Heritage Trail, Tobacco Heritage Trail Webmap
today, no railroad tracks go northeast through Sussex and Surry counties to the James River
Source: Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT), State Rail Map (2018)