Carolina, Clinchfield and Ohio Railway

the Carolina, Clinchfield and Ohio Railway northern end was at Elkhorn City, Kentucky
the Carolina, Clinchfield and Ohio Railway northern end was at Elkhorn City, Kentucky
Source: The Commercial and Financial Chronicle (1911)

The Carolina, Clinchfield and Ohio Railway was built to carry coal from Southwest Virginia to customers in the southeastern United States. The 277-mile long railroad stretched from Elkhorn City, Kentucky to Spartansburg, South Carolina. Trains began hauling from Dante in 1909. The extension to Elkhorn City was completed in 1915.

The railroad was known simply as the Clinchfield after 1924, when it was leased to the Louisville & Nashville Railroad and the Atlantic Coast Line. In 1983, the corporate identity as an independent railroad disappeared when it was merged into the Seaboard System Railroad, which became part of CSX in 1986.

Charleston, South Carolina merchants built a railroad to the Fall Line on the Savannah River in 1830. They continued to invest in a transportation network in order to draw trade from inland areas (the "hinterland") to the port.

There were multiple proposals to build a railroad from South Carolina to the Ohio River Valley. Representatives from multiple states met in an 1831 convention at Estillville, Virginia (now Gate City), and proposed linking Charleston to Pikeville, Kentucky. From Pikeville, the Big Sandy River was navigable to the Ohio River.

The first attempt to build a railroad died in the 1837 financial recession. In the 1850's, the Blue Ridge Railroad started construction from Aiken, South Carolina towards Knoxville, Tennessee. It failed in 1859, leaving the unfinished Stumphouse Mountain Tunnel cut into the Blue Ridge.

After the Civil War, the Charleston, Cincinnati and Chicago Railroad (the "3-C" line) built north to the base of the Blue Ridge at Marion, North Carolina. A railroad grade was completed between Johnson City, Tennessee and Dante, Virginia by 1890.

Mocassin Gap in Scott County was an obvious route for a railroad across Clinch Mountain
Mocassin Gap in Scott County was an obvious route for a railroad across Clinch Mountain
Source: Col. Long's report to the Estillville Convention (1831)

Grading a railroad line past Dante, at the headwaters of Lick Creek, would require digging an expensive tunnel. At the headwaters of Lick Creek was the watershed divide separating the Clinch and Big Sandy watersheds. Crossing the Allegheny Front would be too expensive for the initial phase of construction.

Failure of the Barings Bank in England in the 1893 recession dried up funding needed for further construction. The assets of the railroad were sold.

Buyers of the seven mile section along Lick Creek between St. Paul and Dante laid rails on the prepared trackbed. They operated the ambitiously-named Lick Creek and Lake Erie Railroad, though the potential to build through the rugged terrain of the Appalachian Plateau to Lake Erie was wildly unrealistic.

George L. Carter had the business skills and financial connections to finally complete a line from Dante across the Eastern Continental Divide into Kentucky. In 1915, he completed the connection through Pound Gap to the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad at Elkhorn City.

Carter started by organizing the South and Western Railway in 1902. He purchased the Lick Creek and Lake Erie Railroad and many assets once part of the planned "3-C" line, but chose his own route to meet his goal of connecting the Ohio River to Charleston, South Carolina.

It was clear to Carter that construction costs through the mountain ranges would be excessive for a line shipping just general freight, but it would be profitable to ship coal from southwestern Virginia to a port city. His two port city options were Charleston, South Carolina and Southport, North Carolina. In the end, he stopped at Spartansburg, South Carolina and interchanged cars with other railroads to complete the trip.

Similarly, Carter did not build north past Elkhorn City, Kentucky after 1915. He ended his railroad contruction there, after making the connection to the Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Railroad. The two railroads battled to control the water-level route through Pine Mountain along the Russell Fork River, with rival survey and construction gangs.

After lengthy and expensive lawsuits, the two railroads settled. George's Carter's Carolina, Clinchfield and Ohio Railway ended up building the track. It required fur tunnels and two bridges, including State Line Tunnel at the Virginia-Kentucky border. The path through The Breaks was so narrow that no road for automobiles was ever built alongside the railroad.

The northern terminus at Elkhorn City was 795 feet above sea level. The southern terminus at Spartanburg was 775 feet above sea level, only 20 feet lower in total elevation. However, to connect the two points required crossing the Allegheny Front at Sandy Ridge, Powell Mountain, Clinch Mountain, and the Blue Ridge.

The highest point on the railroad was at 2,628 feet. There were 10 miles of tunnels and over three miles of bridges. The longest stretch of straight track on the 277-mile route was just two miles, and 43% of the track was on a curve. There was little flat track on the railroad; trains were going up or down most of the time.

The 35-mile extension from Dante to Elkhorn City was the last part of the Clinchfield to be completed. Engineers surveyed 42 different routes. In contrast to other railroads such as the Chesapeake and Ohio that prioritized low initial construction costs through the mountains, Carter took the advice of his Chief Engineer M. J. Caples and focused on achieving long-term savings by minimizing curves and grades that force trains to go slow. The chosen route was one of the most expensive to build, but the quality of the engineering and construction made train operations on the railroad more profitable.

The railroad had built up the Clinch River to Dante by 1909. Over the next six years, it tunneled through Sandy Ridge and bridged its way down the McClure and Russell Fork rivers to Elkhorn City. The maximum grade on the entire line was 1.2%, and the tightest curve was only eight degrees.1

The 7,854-foot long Sandy Ridge Tunnel, the longest railroad tunnel ever constructed in Virginia, crossed the Eastern Continental Divide and got the railroad into the Mississippi River watershed. Trains passed under Sandy Ridge, entering the McClure River drainage in Dickenson County and accessing the mines at Trammel.2

as early as 1875, Pound Gap was recognized as a preferred route for a railroad into Kentucky
as early as 1875, Pound Gap was recognized as a preferred route for a railroad into Kentucky
Source: Map showing proposed routes of the Richmond and Southwest Railway (by Jedediah Hotchkiss, 1875)

After World War I, the Louisville & Nashville Railroad was originating traffic in the Virginia coal fields and transferring it to the Carolina, Clinchfield and Ohio Railway. Many of those loaded coal cars were hauled to Spartanburg, South Carolina and transferred to the Atlantic Coast Line, which delivered them to final customers and to Charleston for export.

To eliminate the costs for interchanging cars, the Louisville & Nashville and the Atlantic Coast Line leased the Carolina, Clinchfield and Ohio Railway in 1924.3



1. James A. Goforth, Building the Clinchfield: A Construction History of America's Most Unusual Railroad, The Overmountain Press, 1989, p.5, pp.10-15, pp.18-19, p.40, pp.104-105,; "The Breaks: Centuries of Struggle," Kentucky Educational Television, April 10, 2018,; "Welcome to the Clinchfield Railroad!", (last checked November 25, 2018)
2. "Rating: 2 votes CSX - Sandy Ridge Tunnel,", (last checked November 25, 2018)
3. Ed Wolfe, The Interstate Railroad: History of an Appalachian Coal Road, Old Line Graphics, 1994, pp.8-23

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