Once Europeans colonized Virginia, the transportation network developed as a farm-to-market system, expanding beyond the trails initially created by Native Americans. For 250 years after Jamestown was settled in 1607, the primary transportation requirement of Virginia's residents was the need to move bulky, heavy tobacco from farm fields to Europe.
Large plantations and small farms produced a surplus of that one staple crop. People do not eat tobacco, and the supply vastly exceeded local demand for smoking/chewing, so Virginians had to ship tobacco to customers.
The need to export tobacco across the Atlantic Ocean caused settlement to be concentrated along Tidewater rivers during the 1600's and 1700's. Every plantation in Tidewater developed a wharf to ship tobacco directly to England - hauling 1,000-pound hogsheads of tobacco along muddy roads from tobacco barns just to a wharf was hard enough.> Roads were developed so people could walk or ride from farms to churches and the county courthouse, but until settlement began to move upstream past the Fall Line in the 1720's, there was little investment in building land-based transportation. Once Virginians moved into the Piedmont, agricultural freight was hauled in wagons on dirt roads to Tidewater ports. Turnpikes were chartered, starting with the Little River Turnpike in 1795. Stockholders funded road improvements/bridges and ensured regular maintenance, in exchange for tolls. The Manchester Pike was gravelled in 1808, becoming the first paved road in Virginia.1
Shipping farm products in bulk via dirt roads was expensive, so new technology was explored to improve farm-to-market transportation. Virginia politicians such as George Washington tried to create artificial waterways, with both economic and political objectives. Canals crossing the Appalachians would steer business to Atlantic Ocean ports (rather than down the Mississippi River to New Orleans), and economic ties would ensure the western settlers retained their allegiance to the United States (rather than consider allying with Spain, which controlled New Orleans until the Louisiana Purchase).
Canals built along the Potomac River and the James River were expected to reach the Ohio River, in hopes of mimicking the success of the Erie Canal. However, the canal builders had competition.
Starting in the 1830's, the new technology of wood-burning locomotives and iron rails stimulated cities on the Fall Line to build low-cost railroad connections to inland "backcountry" or "hinterland" areas, far away from navigable rivers. From the beginning, rail construction in North America showed how one port city could use new transportation technology to intercept the trade of another port. The first large-scale use of steam-powered locomotives in North America was the South Carolina Canal and Rail Road Company, built to connect Charleston to the Fall Line of the Savannah River at Augusta, Georgia.
The railroad enabled Charleston to "steal" business from Savannah. The primary commodity shipped in the region was cotton, grown in the South Carolina/Georgia Piedmont. Farmers had been carrying cotton in wagons to the Fall Line to Augusta, Georgia. There, the bales were loaded on ships that could sail up to the falls on the Savannah River. After construction of the railroad, farmers found it more profitable to ship their cotton to Charleston by rail, shifting their business from Georgia to South Carolina. The rail line provided benefits to one port city and one state, at the expense of another.
Despite the clear success of the South Carolina railroad, Virginia politicians continued to debate the relative merits of canals vs. railroads. The Virginia State Engineer, Claudius Crozet, recommended shifting public investment from canals to railroads in 1830, but the General Assembly then forced his resignation. Crozet was later re-hired, but political support for canals (especially the James River and Kanawha Canal) led the General Assembly to eliminate his pesky advice by abolishing the office of chief engineer in 1843.2
Between 1850-1950 railroads were the focus for expanding transportation capacity in Virginia. However, prior to the Civil War, Virginia's railroads were not designed to create a logical transportation network linking all major cities in the state.
Virginia's railroads were designed originally to transport farm products to specific ports, mimicking the farm-to-market pattern of turnpikes. Local stockholders constructed competing rail lines to develope trade to competing Virginia cities. The General Assembly subsidized the competition by purchasing 40-60% of the stock without requiring companies to cooperate.
Even in Virginia cities served by two or more railroads, the separate tracks were not connected with each other. Each railroad built its terminal in a separate location, demonstrating its intent to send trade to a specific city. If the railroad lines had been designed to provide transportation through the city for a more-distant destination, tracks would have been joined and a common gauge would have been adopted. Instead, some Virginia railroads built tracks with a "broad" 5-foot distance between the rails while others used the "standard" gauge of 4 feet, 8-1/2 inches.
In the days before union stations, local draymen earned a good living hauling freight by horse and wagon from one railroad's terminal to another. Passengers with luggage had to pay for local carriages to get between terminals, usually just several blocks away. Through-travel was difficult. Local hotels benefitted from inconsistent train schedules that required passengers to wait overnight, before catching a train on a separate line the next day.
until the 1850's, there was no railroad line linking Richmond with points north of Fredericksburg
Source: Atlas of the Historical Geography of the United States, Railroads in Operation, 1840 (Plate 138L) digitized by University of Richmond
Though state taxpayers financed 40-60% of the cost for most Virginia railroads, the lines were located to serve as tools for local economic development and not for the entire state. Refusing to link rail lines was inefficient, but each railroad was independent. Individual cities benefitted from carting and warehousing the freight, and from passengers who bought meals or stayed overnight.
Political decisions on what railroads to authorize - or block - affected the land use, population growth, and wealth of competing communities. Different cities financed different railroads to bring farm products, timber, and iron to a specific port on the Fall Line, and to ship manufactured goods (especially imports from Northern manufacturing centers and overseas) back to rural areas. Railroad managers often struggled to fill their boxcars with cargo headed back to the hinterland.
Sectional competition in railroad construction mirrored the competition in canal construction. The most intense conflicts for state charters and funding were between cities on the Potomac vs. James rivers, steering traffic from the Piedmont/Shenandoah Valley to ports on the Fall Line.
Alexandria was a shipping port that incentivized farmers to trade in Alexandria by building the Orange and Alexandria, the Manassas Gap, and the Alexandria, Loudoun, and Hampshire railroads.
Alexandria investors built the Alexandria, Loudoun, and Hampshire Railroad to steer business to Alexandria from Loudoun County and (ideally) the Shenandoah Valley and the coal fields of Hampshire County
Source: Library of Congress, Atlas of fifteen miles around Washington (by G. M. Hopkins
Richmond-oriented investors built the Virginia Central and other lines to draw business to their port, particularly in competition with Norfolk. Petersburg investors funded the South Side Railroad, which drew trade away from Richmond. Completion of that railroad to Lynchburg forced the James River and Kanawha Canal to reduce its tolls.3
The concept of an interstate trade network, or even regional rather than local service, would require the consolidation of separate railroad companies. That finally occurred through a series of mergers and hostile takeovers after the Civil War, when the General Assembly sold its stock in railroads to northern investors and control of railroads shifted to non-Virginian capitalists.
Prior to 1861, 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 the Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) railroad was blocked from building south from Harpers Ferry, except for a short extension to Winchester.
At Harpers Ferry, trains went over a 900-foot long viaduct above the Potomac River, then used the Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) railroad to carry Virginia-grown farm products to market at Baltimore. The Winchester and Potomac railroad found few manufactured items or other goods to load at Harpers Ferry for the back haul, so it agreed to carry "plaster" (lime fertilizer) for free. The plaster was used to increase fertility of wheat fields in the Shenandoah Valley, ultimately generating more flour/wheat for the railroad to haul to Harpers Ferry, but the railroad depended upon one-way travel from farm to market.4
Up to 1881, Staunton could ship directly to Richmond and Front Royal could ship directly to Alexandria - but those cities had no rail connection to Winchester.
The Strasburg-Winchester rail gap, maintained by a General Assembly unwilling to charter a railroad link until after the Civil War, ensured most of the valley did not have a railroad connection to Baltimore or Philadelphia. Rail lines were constructed to connect all major population centers only after Virginia came close to bankruptcy during Reconstruction, and northern capitalists gained sufficient economic/political control to re-shape the pattern of railroads in Virginia.
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 investors also built the Manassas Gap railroad through the Blue Ridge at Manassas Gap. That line expanded the port city's 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.
the Manassas Gap Railroad was contructed in the 1850's through the low points in the Blue Ridge (Thoroughfare Gap in the east near Haymarket, then across Fauquier County to Manassas Gap in the west near Front Royal) to link Alexandria with the Shenandoah Valley
Source: Library of Congress, A map of the state of Virginia, constructed in conformity to law from the late surveys authorized by the legislature and other original and authentic documents
The 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.
Notable, Alexandria merchants did not seek to build a railroad directly south to link up with the rail connection to the state capital at Richmond. The farm trade in Tidewater could use the Potomac River, and Alexandria did not seek to become a gateway for through freight traffic... so why build south? 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 radiating in all directions. Even before the wood-burning locomotive was developed, rails (with cars pulled by mules) connected the coal fields of Chesterfield County with Richmond.
Richmond business leaders financed the Virginia Central Railroad (originally chartered as the Louisa Railroad) to draw business from the Rivanna River watershed in the Piedmont, and especially from farms located along the upper reaches of the North Anna and South Anna rivers (which had the option of trading at Ashland or Fredericksburg). The Virginia Central 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 Rockfish Gap, after Charlottesville-area investors purchased sufficient stock in the railroad to affect the decision. To ensure the Virginia Central would connect with the Shenadoah Valley, the state spent 100% of the money required to carve tunnels through the Blue Ridge where I-64 now crosses Afton Mountain. The rail line stretched past Staunton before construction was interrupted by the Civil War.
The Richmond and Danville Railroad was built to attract trade to the James River from as far away as Halifax and Pittsylvania counties on the North Carolina border.
Richmond also built a rail line in the opposite direction. The Richmond and York River Railroad ran east to West Point. At West Point, at the confluence of the Pamunkey and Mattaponi rivers and thus the headwaters of the York River, the river channel was deeper. Richmond was competing with Norfolk and its naturally-deep harbor in hopes of controlling the trade in coal, wheat, and tobacco from the Appalachian Plateau/Shenandoah Valley/Piedmont.
the Richmond and York River Railroad crossed the shallow Chickahominy River and the Pamunkey River to reach deeper water at West Point (headwaters of the York River)
Source: Library of Congress, Military topographical map of eastern Virginia
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, while the Petersburg and Roanoke railroad captured business from cargo shipped by batteaux and canal boats down the Roanoke River. After the Norfolk and Petersburg Railroad was completed in 1858, Piedmont farmers shipping goods east via the South Side Railroad (and other customers west of Lynchburg, all the way to Bristol) had the opportunity to bypass the Appomattox River port at Petersburg and send goods directly to Hampton Roads.
Two cities in Virginia exist solely because of railroad junctions. 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 normally 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 that the railroad stimulated. 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.
Fairfax Station (Fairfax P. O.) developed after the rail line bypassed Fairfax Court House (Farrs X Roads), to avoid climbing the hill
Source: Library of Congress, Atlas of fifteen miles around Washington (by G. M. Hopkins) (1878)
in 1852 the Orange and Alexandria Railroad built the Warrenton Branch, a spur from its mainline to the county seat of Fauquier County (Warrenton)
Source: Illustrated London News, The War in America: Warrenton, Virginia (May 30, 1863)
by 1863, the Orange and Alexandria Railroad stations and railroad ties near Warrenton had been burned, and the rails pulled up and twisted so they were unusable
Source: Library of Congress, Map of Warrenton Junction, Orange and Alexandria R.R., Virginia shewing destruction of R.R. by enemy, October 1863
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.5
The Confederacy had only one complete rail connection between the Mississippi River to Richmond. The Virginia and Tennessee Railroad linked Memphis to the Confederacy's capital, via Chattanooga. A second route from Vicksburg linked to other lines though Savannah, and then north to Richmond. However, that longer route had significant gaps, and boats had to be used to get people/material across Mobile Bay.6
The obvious solution was to link the Richmond and Danville Railroad, which terminated at Danville, to the North Carolina Railroad at Greensboro. North Carolina strongly resisted the decision by Confederate officials to construct the Piedmont Railroad as a national project for military purposes. North Carolina wanted the trade from its Piedmont to go through Wilmington, rather than to any Virginia port.
The Confederate government ultimately rejected the state's rights concerns of North Carolina and forced construction of the Piedmont Railroad as a military necessity. As feared by North Carolina officials, after the Civil War farmers on the North Carolina Piedmont shipped cargo and bought goods from Petersburg and Richmond, costing North Carolina businesses some economic opportunities.7
During the Civil War, Union forces targeted the rail network of the Confederacy, and converted some lines to use by the US Military Railroad to supply various armies trying to march "On to Richmond." Both sides destroyed railroad bridges to block the use of rail lines by the other side. The destruction of the Petersburg and Richmond Railroad bridge across the James River in Richmond was caused by the Confederate forces when they abandoned the capital in April, 1865.
After the Civil War, competing railroads finally built connections so freight and people did not need to be unloaded, "drayed" to a competing railroad's station several blocks to a mile away, then reloaded onto a different train. Railroads, when interchanging freight, finally built massive "yards" such as the old Potomac Yard in Alexandria. When interchanging passengers, union stations were built.
After the Civil War, with the shift in railroad ownership to non-Virginians, connections were built to move people and freight seamlessly across the state rather than just to feed traffic into the selected port cities of Alexandria, Richmond, Petersburg, and Portsmouth/Norfolk. In 1886, over the course of two days, all rail lines were converted to the Pennsylvania Railroad's 4 feet 9 inch gauge, and later standardized to 4 feet 8.5 inches.9
the Triple Crossing in Richmond is reportedly the only location in the world where three rail lines crossed at one location
Source: "Rarely Seen Richmond," Virginia Commonwealth University James Branch Cabell Library Special Collections and Archives, 'Is Two over one Railroad Fare?' (Sixteenth and Dock), Richmond, Va.
The Shenandoah Valley Railroad was the first railroad to go entirely through the entire Shenandoah Valley, from north to south. It was financed by Pennsylvania investors after the Civil War. Virginia was desperate for economic development, even if it involved a connection to the Pennsylvania Railroad and Virginia-based traffic could end up boosting business at Philadelphia.
in 1870, Alexandria was connect to Bristol on the east side of the Blue Ridge by railroad - but on the west side of the mountains, there was still no rail line connection through the Shenandoah Valley linking Winchester to Staunton, or connecting Staunton to Tennessee
Source: Atlas of the Historical Geography of the United States, Railroads in Operation, 1870 (Plate 140a, digitized by University of Richmond)
After northern capitalists gained control of the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad, the Shenandoah Valley Railroad was built to connect it to the Pennsylvania Railroad. The Pennsylvania-based investors constructed a new rail line through the entire Shenandoah Valley, without neding to raise capital from Virginians interested primarily in steering traffic to a particular port. The new line ran on the eastern side of Massanutten Mountain. Traffic to Harrisonburg and other towns on the west side of Massanutten Mountain was projected to be less profitable than freight business from the iron furnaces/forges at Shenandoah, Glasgow, Vesuvius, and other locations near the Blue Ridge.
The Pennsylvania investors were willing to let local investors determine the southern terminus of the railroad, the junction where the Shenandoah Valley Railroad would unite with the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad. Big Lick property owners contributed right-of-way and funds, with John C. Moomaw delivering commitments to railroad officials in Lexington after a dramatic horseback ride. The consolidated Shenandoah Valley/Virginia and Tennessee railroads, renamed the Norfolk and Western (N&W), located its machine shops at the junction, which grew so quickly that the new city of Roanoke was called the "Magic City."10
the hamlet of Big Lick did not grow significantly when the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad was built through the Blue Ridge, but boomed into the "magic city" of Roanoke when the Shenandoah Valley Railroad chose that site for its junction with the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad
Source: Library of Virginia, Lynchburg Tennessee Line Rail Road, Bureau of Public Works collection, BPW 538 (5)
The Norfolk and Western railroad quickly expanded into the coal fields of the Appalachian Plateau. It built westward, down the New River valley, into West Virginia to gain access to the coal mines. The Virginia Central, which had morphed into the Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) after the Civil War, did the same and built west from Staunton into the coal fields. The N&W hauled its coal across Virginia to Norfolk, while the C&O built a new port at Newport News.
Until construction of the coal railroads into the Appalachian Plateau the 1880's, Virginia railroads were mostly farm-to-market transportation corridors, local connections linking the farms and small towns in the western part of the state to Fall Line ports and Norfolk in the east. Curiously, the coal business converted both the N&W and the C&O into rail lines dominated by one-way traffic to competing Virginia ports, echoing the original design of Virginia's freight railroads.
Since World War II, highways and airplanes have successfully competed to peel away customers from railroads. Virginia still has passenger rail, via Amtrak and one commuter rail system in Northern Virginia (Virginia Railway Express). There is one heavy rail transit system in the state: Metrorail is operated by Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, with Blue, Yellow, Orange, and Silver lines in Northern Virginia. One light rail system, The Tide, carries passengers for 7.4 miles in Norfolk.
Today, Virginia has two Class 1 freight railroads (CSX and Northern Southern), several "short lines" carrying local freight (such as the Bay Coast Railroad on the Eastern Shore), one major commuter rail system (Virginia Railway Express), portions of the Washington-area Metrorail network, and the Tide light rail system in Norfolk.
Freight lines are corporations owned by stockholders, while passenger rail operations are handled by public agencies (including Amtrak). The Virginia Department of Highways has morphed into the Virginia Department of Transportation, with a unit devoted to rail - the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation. Public funds are being invested to upgrade the privately-owned rail lines, in order to increase passenger rail capacity. Public funding for private railroads is also designed to increase business at the Port of Virginia, and to reduce highway truck traffic by diverting cargo containers.
Railroads move people and cargo from Point A to Point B, increasing economic activity along their corridors and at their terminals. Because railroads won the competition with canals, railroads were the key factor in determining where population would grow in Virginia until the rail network was completed around 1900. The success of railroads shaped the development of several urban areas in Virginia, especially Alexandria, Danville, and Roanoke, while the failure of railroads stunted population growth in the Shenandoah Valley.
West Point was considered as the terminus for the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad, before the line was extended from Richmond to Newport News
Source: Library of Congress, Map of the state of Virginia: showing the advantages of the harbor of West Point as an entrepot for emmigration and the shipment of the products of the southern and western states
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
the wooden infrastructure of major railway bridges was protected from rainfall by roofs
Source: Illustrated London News, Railway Bridge Over the Rapids of James River (May 31, 1862)
railroads in southeastern Virginia include both Class 1 rail lines (CSX and Norfolk Southern), plus four of the nine Class 2 "shortlines" in Virginia (Bay Coast Railway, Chesapeake and Albemarle, Norfolk and Portsmouth Beltline, and Commonwealth Railway)
Source: Virginia State Rail Map (2012)
after the Civil War, the train station in Gordonsville was a mixing ground for both whites and blacks in the area
Source: University of North Carolina, The Great South; A Record of Journeys in Louisiana, Texas, the Indian Territory, Missouri, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, and Maryland (1875)
Northern Virginia rail connections to the north
Source: National Capital Planning Commission, Freight Railroad Realignment Study (Figure 2-1)
major rail lines in Virginia, 2013
Source: US Geological Survey (USGS), National Map
the Virginia Central Railroad build a line between Richmond-Hanover Junction (modern Doswell) in the 1850's, allowing it to compete more effectively with the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad
Source: Library of Congress, Atlas of the War of the Rebellion, Southeastern Virginia and Fort Monroe, Va. (1892)
1. A History Of Roads In Virginia, Virginia Department of Transportation, 2006, p.13, http://www.virginiadot.org/about/resources/historyofrds.pdf (last checked September 3, 2013)
historic Virginia Central/RF&P rail interchange at Doswell (Hanover County)