Fredericksburg planned to build a railroad first to Gordonsville, then extend further west
Source: Library of Congress, Map showing the Fredericksburg & Gordonsville Rail Road of Virginia (1869)
In the competition to grow into a major port city, Fredericksburg lost its race with Alexandria. Alexandria extended its network of turnpikes and railroads into the Piedmont west of Fredericksburg and captured the trade from that hinterland first.
The Orange Turnpike was completed to Orange before 1820, but the Rappahannock Canal and the Fredericksburg and Gordonsville Railroad were built too late. Both Fredericksburg-focused transportation projects stopped far short of the eastern base of the Blue Ridge, while Alexandria extended its tentacles through the mountains to the Shenandoah Valley prior to the Civil War.
the planned railroad linking Fredericksburg and Gordonsville was graded but unfinished prior to the Civil War
Source: David Rumsey Map Collection, Fredericksburg. Prepared by Bvt. Brig. Gen. N. Michler (1867)
The General Assembly chartered the Fredericksburg & Gordonsville Railroad Company in 1853. The Bureau of Public Works purchased 30% of the stock, since Virginia was building railroads and other transportation projects as public-private partnerships. Other investors had to finance the remaining 70$ of the projected $460,000 costs, and the city of Fredericksburg used municipal funds to purchase a substantial share.
the route planned for the Fredericksburg and Gordonsville Railroad
Source: Library of Congress, Railroad map of the eastern, western and northern states, and Canada (1859)
Construction ended due to the Panic of 1857. By that time, 18 miles along the route had been cleared of trees and graded to create a flat grade.1
the Fredericksburg & Gordonsville Railroad was graded but unfinished in 1862
Source: Library of Congress, Map of Fredericksburg, Va., and vicinity (1862)
during the 1862 battle of Fredericsburg, the Fredericksburg & Gordonsville Railroad cut through Confederate lines
Source: Library of Congress, Map of the battle field of Fredericksburg, Dec. 13, 1862
The unfinished railroad stretched west to Parker's Store, near the boundary of Spottsylvania and Orange counties. Its path ran through the Wilderness, an area of young trees regrowing after forests had been cleared to make charcoal for Catharine's Furnace. The iron-making had ceased there in the 1840's, so the railroad expected to profit from hauling agricultural products and passengers rather than pig iron.2
At the start of the Civil War in 1861, there were no rails on the path of the Fredericksburg and Gordonsville Railroad that had been carved through the woods, so no tracks for trains to use. Union and Confederate commanders did not consider the unfinished railroad to be a strategic objective to control, in contrast to the Orange and Alexandria Railroad at Manassas. River fords, plank roads, and the Orange Turnpike west of Fredericksburg shaped troop movements, rather than the railroad.
the unfinished Fredericksburg and Gordonsville Railroad was a minor element in the military actions during Civil War
Source: The U.S. Army Campaigns of the Civil War, The Chancellorsville Campaign, January – May 1863 (Map 1)
During the 1863 Battle of Chancellorsville, Stonewall Jackson's flank march led him past Catharine's Furnace. Union forces attacked his rear guard where the railroad workers had dug a path through a local hill and captured most of the 23d Georgia regiment, but the railroad was largely irrelevant. Jackson's scouts must have used it, but he marched his troops on other narrow trails and the wider roads in order to get around Hooker's right flank.3
to attack Hooker's right flank at Chancellorsville, Stonewall Jackson marched his troops on Furnace and Brock roads because the railroad path was too narrow
Source: The U.S. Army Campaigns of the Civil War, The Chancellorsville Campaign, January – May 1863 (Map 3)
The unfinished railroad cut did play a role in 1864 during The Wilderness battle. On the second day of the battle, A. P. Hill's outnumbered Confederate troops were being pushed back by Union forces commanded by General Winfield Scott Hancock. Before the Confederate lines were broken, General James Longstreet's reinforcements arrived via the Plank Road. He used the unfinished railroad cut to align four Confederate brigades and catch Hancock's troops by surprise, rolling them up "like a wet blanket" and helping block the Union advance.4
General Longstreet used the railroad cut to organize four Confederate brigades before attacking Union forces on May 6, 1863 on the second day of The Wilderness
Source: National Park Service, Wilderness Battlefield
After the Civil War, New York investors purchased the Fredericksburg and Gordonsville Railroad. Track was installed for the 18 miles of completed grade as far west as Parker's Store. In another period of economic recession ("panic"), the company went through bankruptcy in 1873 and was reorganized as the Fredericksburg, Orange and Charlottesville Railroad.5
The new owners failed to fulfill their promise to build an additional 20 miles of track linking Parker's Store to Orange. The state reclaimed ownership based on the terms of the mortgage, and in 1876 the railroad was reorganized again as the Potomac, Fredericksburg & Piedmont (PF&P). A judge declared:6
The rail line was converted from standard gauge (4' 8.5" between rails) to narrow gauge (3' between rails), which was less expensive to operate. The narrow gauge line was extended to Orange, and service to that town started on February 26, 1877.
By that time, the original Orange and Alexandria Railroad had been through several reorganizations, and the Potomac, Fredericksburg & Piedmont Railroad's western connection at Orange was to the Washington City, Virginia Midland & Great Southern Railroad. Because the two rail lines used different gauges for their tracks, all freight and passengers had to be transferred to different rail cars at Orange.
The Royal Land Company controlled the Potomac, Fredericksburg & Piedmont Railroad for two years, between 1876-88. It planned to build the Shenandoah Valley and Ohio Railroad west of Orange across the Blue Ridge via Swift Run Gap, to access timber and coal on 155,000 acres owned in Rockingham and Pendleton counties. The potential for expansion to Pittsburg was also part of the company's planning.
The company also planned to extend the Potomac, Fredericksburg & Piedmont Railroad east of Fredericksburg to a port on the Potomac River at Mathias Point. That extension would provide a direct route for shipping the company's timber and coal to market.
Mathias Point was an attractive location because the Potomac River channel was 23' deep, while the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg was less than 10' deep at low water. In addition, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad had a branch line that started at Pope's Creek, directly across from Mathias Point on the Maryland side of the Potomac River.7
the Royal Land Company proposed to build a "Shenandoah Valley and Ohio Railroad" west of Orange, and to extend the Potomac, Fredericksburg & Piedmont Railroad from Fredericksburg to Mathias Point
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online
the Royal Land Company planned to extend the narrow gauge Potomac, Fredericksburg & Piedmont Railroad to a sea-level port
Source: Library of Congress, Profile, Royal Land Co. R.R. (188_?)
Mathias Point was across the Potomac River from the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad's landing at Pope's Creek, Maryland
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online
the Royal Land Company planned to build the Shenandoah Valley and Ohio Railroad west to its timberlands and coal fields
Source: Library of Congress, Map of Royal Land Company's railroad (narrow gauge) from their anthracite coal fields to deep water (187_?)
The Pittsburg-based Royal Land Company soon lost control of the Potomac, Fredericksburg & Piedmont Railroad to Philadelphia investors. Until the automobile and trucks diverted traffic in the 1920's, the narrow gauge line was financially viable but never a major money-maker. Traffic was low on what became known locally as the "Poor Folks and Preachers" railroad, and it was never expanded beyond the 38-mile stretch from Fredericksburg to Orange.8
the narrow gauge Potomac, Fredericksburg & Piedmont Railroad operated between Fredericksburg-Orange between 1876-1926
Source: Library of Congress, Map of northern Virginia (1894)
In 1925, locals purchased the railroad to prevent abandonment and conversion of the equipment into scrap. The new owners named it the Orange and Fredericksburg Railway. That undercapitalized, unprofitable operation lasted only a year.
After another sale, the line was renamed the Virginia Central Railroad and it advertised services on the "Battlefield Route." Despite the railroad's name, it was a completely separate line from the pre-Civil War "Virginia Central" railroad that was a key transportation link for moving Confederate supplies and troops north from Richmond.
The Virginia Central Railroad converted the Potomac, Fredericksburg & Piedmont's narrow gauge track back to standard gauge. That enabled the line to interchange freight and passenger cars with the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac (RF&P) Railroad in Fredericksburg, and with the Southern Railroad in Orange. Its most profitable operations were moving cars from the RF&P to industrial customers on the western side of Fredericksburg.
During the 1930's, the railroad was still called the "Narrow Gauge" despite the conversion to wider tracks.
There was at least one fatal accident on the Virginia Central Railroad. In 1928, a gang of workers gathered on a handcar that was pushed by the motorized car. The handcar derailed and was smashed by the car behind it. One worker died at the scene, and five were injured.9
Most "Narrow Gauge" railroad operations ended in 1938 as a result of the Great Depression. On the west end, a stub in the Town of Orange was used until the 1980's.
the Fredericksburg paper reported the fatal accident in 1928 on the Virginia Central Railroad
Source: Spottsylvania Memory, Death on the Virginia Central
On the east end, a one-mile portion in Fredericksburg remained active to provide switching and siding service for industrial customers, connecting them to the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad (now CSX) for long-distance transportation. There were few profits in that business, but the City of Fredericksburg wanted to keep the industrial businesses and the taxes they generated. In 1967, the owner of the Virginia Central sold the railroad to the city.
In 1975, the city found a buyer. His business was primarily providing income tax shelters to wealthy clients, and owning a railroad would facilitate greater tax deductions. Fredericksburg sold the railroad to Railvest for a nominal amount, after getting a commitment from the company to continue switching railcars for the industrial customers. The city retained ownership of the land, and Railvest placed several hundred boxcars into the national freight car pool as tax shelters.
Railvest collapsed in 1978, amid accusations of financial misdeeds. Company employees and the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad refused to move railcars for the industrial customers for several weeks until they were paid.
The city managed to sell the railroad once last time in 1979, once again to a buyer who planned to use it for the financial advantages of freight car leasing rather than for making a profit through railroad operations. In 1983, when Centrail Management was faced with the prospect of paying for repairs to the wooden trestle over Hazel Run, it closed down the railroad.10
The eastern end in Fredericksburg is now incorporated in the Virginia Central Railway trail at Alum Springs Park. The Virginia Central's railyard was developed into Cobblestone Square.11
Alum Springs Road (red line) and a trail in the park mark a segment of the route of the old Fredericksburg and Gordonsville Railroad
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online
Route 3 construction truncated the link to the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac (now CSX) railroad, and the Virginia Central line is now just a recreational trail
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online
1. Ames W. Williams, "Virginia Central Railway," National Railway Bulletin, Volume 50, Number 1 (1985), pp.4-5, http://vcr.golden.im/images/NRBarticle.pdf (last checked February 1, 2017)
2. "Death on the Virginia Central," Spottsylvania Memory, November 24, 2014, http://spotsylvaniamemory.blogspot.com/2014/11/death-on-virginia-central.html; "Virtual Tour Stop, Catharine Furnace," Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park, https://www.nps.gov/frsp/learn/photosmultimedia/catharinefurnace.htm (last checked February 1, 2017)
3. "Battle of Chancellorsville History: The Flank Attack," Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park, https://www.nps.gov/frsp/learn/historyculture/cvillehist-flank.htm; "Battle of Chancellorsville," Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park, https://www.nps.gov/frsp/learn/historyculture/chist.htm (last checked February 1, 2017)
4. "History of the Battle of the Wilderness," Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park, https://www.nps.gov/frsp/learn/historyculture/wildspot.htm (last checked February 1, 2017)
5. Ames W. Williams, "Virginia Central Railway," National Railway Bulletin, Volume 50, Number 1 (1985), p.6, http://vcr.golden.im/images/NRBarticle.pdf (last checked February 1, 2017)
6. Robert Hodge, "The Narrow Gauge Railroad," Fredericksburg Times, February, 1978, http://www.librarypoint.org/narrow_gauge_railroad; "The Potomac, Fredericksburg, and Piedmont Railroad (PFP)," The New O&A Railroad, November 15, 2013, http://thenewoanda.weebly.com/blog/thepotomac-fredericksburg-and-piedmont-railroad-pfp (last checked February 1, 2017)
7. The Royal Land Com'y of Virginia, Clemmitt & Jones, 1877, pp.2-3, p.15, pp.17-18, https://books.google.com/books?id=9K9AAAAAYAAJ (last checked February 2, 2017)
8. Ames W. Williams, "Virginia Central Railway," National Railway Bulletin, Volume 50, Number 1 (1985), p.6, http://vcr.golden.im/images/NRBarticle.pdf (last checked February 1, 2017)
9. "Orange to Fredericksburg," Abandoned Rails, http://www.abandonedrails.com/Orange_to_Fredericksburg; Robert Hodge, "The Narrow Gauge Railroad," Fredericksburg Times, February, 1978, http://www.librarypoint.org/narrow_gauge_railroad; "Death on the Virginia Central," Spottsylvania Memory, November 24, 2014, http://spotsylvaniamemory.blogspot.com/2014/11/death-on-virginia-central.html(last checked February 1, 2017)
10. Ames W. Williams, "Virginia Central Railway," National Railway Bulletin, Volume 50, Number 1 (1985), pp.10-15, http://vcr.golden.im/images/NRBarticle.pdf; "Boxcar Collapse Proves Costly Lesson for Many," Washington Post, August 20, 1978, https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/business/1978/08/20/boxcar-collapse-proves-costly-lesson-for-many/229218b2-22b2-4143-b0ff-db625cd17adb/?utm_term=.bfb4b45ad9ae (last checked February 1, 2017)
11. "The OTHER Va. Central Ry., Fredericksburg 1967?," post by Alan Maples in Railway Preservation News, February 2, 2013, http://www.rypn.org/forums/viewtopic.php?f=1&t=34477&view=previous (last checked February 1, 2017)
the route of the former Potomac, Fredericksburg & Piedmont Railroad is visible in Orange County on either side of US 20 (Constitution Highway)
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online
the narrow gauge Potomac, Fredericksburg & Piedmont Railroad (PF&P) ended next to the standard gauge Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac (RF&P) Railroad
Source: City of Fredericksburg Maps, 1890 Fredericksburg Map