in 1880, only the Seaboard and Ranoke Railroad linked northeastern North Carolina to ports on the Elizabeth River in Virginia
Source: Library of Congress, North & South Carolina (published by Adam and Charles Black between 1876 and 1879)
The first attempt to build a railroad between Norfolk and the Tar River in North Carolina was in response to the construction of the Petersburg Railroad. That railroad reached the banks of the Roanoke River, opposite Weldon, in 1833. Business leaders in Portsmouth and Norfolk recognized that grain, tobacco, cotton, and other crops which had been coming down the Roanoke River and via the Dismal Swamp Canal to their port cities would start going instead to the rival port of Petersburg.
Two railroads were proposed to compete with Petersburg and draw more trade to Hampton Roads. One option was the Tarborough Railroad, proposed to be constructed to the Tar River at Tarborough. The other investment option was the Portsmouth and Roanoke Railroad, which would connect to the Roanoke River at Weldon.
The Portsmouth and Roanoke Railroad was judged to offer the best potential to steer trade back to the Elizabeth River, and that line was completed in 1837. It took another 53 years before track was laid to Tarboro. The Norfolk & Carolina Railroad started running trains on that route in 1890.1
The Norfolk & Carolina Railroad was chartered initially as the Chowan & Southern Railroad. Both the Virginia and North Carolina legislatures authorized construction in 1887. The Chowan and Southern Railroad was renamed in 1889. Calling it the Norfolk & Carolina Railroad reflected plans to go further southwest, beyond the Chowan River.2
the original proposal for what became the Norfolk & Carolina Railroad was to build only to the Chowan River
Source: University of North Carolina, Map of the Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal: connecting Chesapeake Bay with Currituck, Albemarle and Pamplico sounds and their tributary streams (by A. Lindenkohl and Henry Lindenkohl, 1885)
The Chowan and Southern Railroad absorbed the already-built Western Branch Railway. That railroad had been constructed in 1888, going inland 12 miles from Pinners Point to Drivers, Virginia. The Western Branch Railway enabled farmers on the Elizabeth River to ship produce via the New York, Philadelphia & Norfolk Railroad to New York, Boston, and other markets in the Northeast.
prior to the Norfolk & Carolina Railroad, trains on the North Carolina Piedmont reached Norfolk via the Seaboard and Roanoke Railroad
Source: Library of Congress, Map showing the Norfolk & Western Railroad and its connections (G.W. & C.B. Colton & Co, 1887)
the Norfolk & Carolina Railroad serviced territory between the "original" Norfolk Southern to the east and the Seaboard and Roanoke Railroad to the north
Source: University of North Carolina, New railroad and county map of North Carolina (by George Franklin Cram, 1880's)
Track was completed from Pinners Point on the Elizabeth River to the Wilmington & Weldon Railroad 100 miles away at Tarboro, on the Tar River in North Carolina. There was no need to build more track to the west; the Wilmington & Raleigh (Wilmington and Weldon) Railroad had constructed a branch line to Tarboro before the Civil War.
The new railroad began operations in 1890. It created yet another connection from the Piedmont and Coastal Plain of North Carolina to the Chesapeake Bay.
the Norfolk & Carolina Railroad connected to the Wilmington and Weldon at Tarboro, south of the Seaboard and Roanoke connection at Weldon, North Carolina
Source: Library of Congress, Railroad map of North Carolina, 1900 (H. C. Brown, 1900)
The Pinners Point terminal at the northern end of the Norfolk & Carolina Railroad offered better access to markets than the port of Wilmington. Ships cabable of carrying timber and other agricultural products to customers in the Northeastern United States and Europe preferred to come to Chesapeake Bay ports, avoiding the hazards of sailing past Cape Hatteras and the Outer Banks.3
The Norfolk & Carolina Railroad had limited capacity to expand east and west via branch lines. To the west, the Seaboard and Roanoke Railroad owned the Roanoke and Tar River Railroad. To the east, shippers could choose to use the rival Suffolk and Carolina Railway. To generate more traffic, the Norfolk & Carolina Railroad needed to extend further west into the Piedmont of North Carolina.
competing railroads in Suffolk built separate freight depots
Source: Library of Congress, Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from Suffolk (Sanborn Map Company, April 1898)
To get more freight traffic, the Norfolk & Carolina Railroad aligned with other railroads that formed the Atlantic Coast Line partnership. The connection to Pinners Point, where deepwater ships could dock, was particularly valuable.
the Norfolk & Carolina Railroad built wharves at Pinners Point on the Elizabeth River, site of Portsmouth Marine Terminal today
Source: Norfolk Public Library, Panorama of Norfolk and Surroundings, 1892
The Atlantic Coast Line Railroad negotiated a deal with the Southern Railway in 1895, a year after the Southern was formed. The Atlantic Coast Line granted the Southern Railway "trackage rights" across the old Norfolk & Carolina Railroad, providing access to the port at Pinners Point on the Elizabeth River.
Both railroads built new piers at Pinners Point in 1896. The site of their shipping terminals there are now the Portsmouth Marine Terminal (PMT).4
the Norfolk & Carolina Railway in 1891, with competing lines on the east and west going to Suffolk
Source: Library of Congress, Maps showing the Norfolk, Albermarle & Atlantic Railroad and its connections (G.W. & C.B. Colton & Co., 1891)
The track from Tarboro to Pinners Point became a key segment in the Atlantic Coast Line, which made Pinners Point its primary terminal on the Chesapeake Bay. When the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad was incorporated in 1900, the Norfolk & Carolina Railroad was folded into the new corporation and lost its independent status.5
When the Atlantic Coast Line merged with the Seaboard Air Line to create the Seaboard Coast Line in 1967, the old route of the Portsmouth and Roanoke (Seaboard and Roanoke) Railroad became the main line carrying traffic from Weldon to Pinners Point. The stretch of track between the Chowan River north to Suffolk was abandoned.
After CSX acquired the Seaboard Coast Line in 1983, it created a new shortline railroad called the North Carolina & Virginia Railroad. Today that shortline uses part of the old Norfolk & Carolina Railroad route to carries freight to and from the Nucor Steel minimill on the Chowan River south to Kelford, North Carolina.
The North Carolina & Virginia Railroad does not continue further west to Tarboro, but instead turns north at Kelford. It uses the old Roanoke and Tar River Railroad route going north to connect to the CSX at Boykins, and on to the shipping terminals on the Elizabeth River.6
the remaining part of the Norfolk and Carolina Railroad still in use goes from Tunis to Kelford, North Carolina
Source: Library of Congress, Railroad map of North Carolina, 1900, examined and authorized by the North Carolina corporation commission (H. C. Brown, 1900)
the Norfolk & Carolina Railroad was incorporated into the Atlantic Coast Line
Source: Library of Congress, Chronicling America, Virginian-Pilot (p.9, December 23, 1899)