the Portsmouth and Roanoke Railroad (yellow line) improved upon the transportation already provided by the Dismal Swamp Canal (blue line) between the Roanoke River and the Chesapeake Bay
Source: University of North Carolina - Learn NC
Map of the Dismal Swamp Canal (by D. S. Walton, 1867)
Shipping tobacco, lumber, wheat, and other products down the Roanoke River was easier than hauling agricultural products overland to Petersburg. Roads were unpaved and often unusable. Farmers in the Blackwater River, Nottoway River, Meherrin River, and Roanoke River watersheds saw too much of their potential profits consumed by the costs of transport to market.
Floating goods downstream via the Roanoke River avoided the roads, but sending good to market that way was also not very profitable. That river emptied into Albemarle Sound, where shallow channels through barrier islands of the Outer Banks made it difficult for ships to navigate. On the North Carolina coast north of Wilmington, there were no major ports. Far more ships sailed into the Chesapeake Bay, creating a higher demand and higher prices for goods that that were transported to ports on the Elizabeth River.
the Roanoke River flows to Albemarle Sound, but in the 1800's the ports with the most traffic and best prices were on the Chesapeake Bay
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online
Farmers in the Roanoke River watershed and merchants in southeastern Virginia shared the same objective, to improve transportation between the Roanoke River and the Chesapeake Bay. The Dismal Swamp Canal provided water access from Albemarle Sound to the Elizabeth River. By 1815, flour from mills in Southside Virginia could travel by boat to Norfolk.
By 1830, after the rapids in the Roanoke River were altered and the canal improved, Portsmouth and Norfolk became major destinations for tobacco and other agricultural cargo produced in the Roanoke River watershed for shipment to New York, Charleston, or even cities in Europe. The success of the Hampton Roads ports drew business away from the Fall Line ports of Richmond and Petersburg.
The new technology of railroads gave Petersburg the opportunity to compete with Portsmouth/Norfolk. Between 1830-33, Petersburg built the Petersburg Railroad south to Weldon, North Carolina. It intercepted the river traffic there, offering a better alternative to floating the extra distance to Norfolk.1
In response, Hampton Roads merchants financed construction of the 78-mile long Portsmouth and Roanoke Railroad. It connected to the Roanoke River at Weldon, North Carolina. Shipping cargo by rail from Weldon to Portsmouth spurred business in southeastern Virginia. The Portsmouth and Roanoke Railroad provided jobs for laborers in Hampton Roads, and opportunities for shippers and store owners to make profits.
Construction of the Portsmouth and Roanoke Railroad started in Portsmouth in 1833. It reached Suffolk in 1834, and then extended to the southwest. The straight route through the tree-covered swamps was the least expensive to build. That route also opened up new territory for transporting lumber and cedar shakes that previously had been shipped via canals. Wood products generated traffic on the new railroad even before it reached the Roanoke River at Weldon in 1837.
the Portsmouth and Roanoke Railroad connected a port on the Chesapeake Bay at Portsmouth with trade on the Roanoke River at Weldon
Source: University of Virginia, Plan of the Portsmouth and Roanoke Rail Road
Cars loaded with cargo and passengers were pulled along the rails by horses until the first steam locomotive arrived in 1834. The steam engine, which could pull a train at 15 miles/hour, made two round trips daily between Suffolk and Portsmouth. A second locomotive was placed in service in 1835, the year the track reached the Meherrin River.
The last stage of construction was to build a bridge across the Roanoke River to Weldon, completing the 17 miles of track within North Carolina. Constructing the bridge was expensive, but helped to draw more trade from the southern bank of the river to Portsmouth.2
the railroad between the Chesapeake Bay and the Roanoke River was known as the Portsmouth and Weldon, Portsmouth and Roanoke, and Seaboard & Roanoke prior to the Civil War
Source: Library of Congress -
Map of the Seaboard & Roanoke Railroad from Portsmouth, Va. to Weldon, N.C. showing its connection with railroad & steamboat routes (1847)
Merchants in Norfolk invested in the Portsmouth and Roanoke Railroad, financing 60% of its cost. The Virginia Board of Public Works purchased 40% of the stock, which provided the state's standard share of financial support for railroads chartered by the General Assembly prior to the Civil War.
The merchants in Petersburg and Richmond were threatened by the new railroad to Portsmouth, and they did not view growth of Hampton Roads ports as part of a statewide competition with Baltimore. A new railroad that diverted cotton and other goods from the Roanoke River to Portsmouth was a railroad that reduced business activity in Petersburg and Richmond.
The Fall Line cities had one major advantage for attracting the tobacco trade - their factories purchased the raw material and processed it into pipe and chewing tobacco products. To suppy that steady demand, most tobacco continued to go north on the Petersburg Railroad. However, the completion of the Portsmouth and Roanoke Railroad created competition for the tobacco exported to Europe.
In the game of attracting the Roanoke River traffic, Petersburg made the next move. It built a new railroad link to the Roanoke River that connected upstream from the locations where boats could unload and transfer cargo to the rival Portsmouth and Roanoke Railroad.
The Petersburg Railroad built an extension southwest from Hicksford (which later merged with Belfield to form Emporia) to the Roanoke River at Gaston, North Carolina. That extension was managed as the Greensville & Roanoke Railroad.
The Petersburg Railroad also tried to drive the Portsmouth and Roanoke Railroad into bankruptcy.
It arranged with the two independent railroad lines to its north, the Richmond and Petersburg Railroad and the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad, to offer a joint fare with discounted prices for passengers traveling to Baltimore and points north. To compete with the "inland route," the Portsmouth and Roanoke Railroad struck a deal with the Baltimore and Norfolk Steam Packet Company (the Bay Line) to offer competitive prices.
Cutting revenue was a recipe for financial disaster for all the railroads involved. The Petersburg Railroad and the Portsmouth and Roanoke Railroad needed more revenue to maintain and upgrade their infrastructure. The initial tracks had been constructed cheaply, and they required extensive maintenance and upgrades. The discounted rates severely reduced income that was badly needed to stabilize the fledgling railroads.
In 1842 the Petersburg Railroad told its largest stockholder, the state of Virginia, that no dividend would be paid that year:3
the Petersburg Railroad built a branch line from Hicksford (later part of Emporia) to the Roanoke River at Gaston
Source: Library of Congress, Map of the proposed line of Rail Road connection between tide water Virginia and the Ohio River at Guyandotte, Parkersburg and Wheeling (1847)
The final challenge to the financially over-extended Portsmouth and Roanoke Railroad occurred when business rivals in Petersburg bought some of its debt and asserted ownership over the railroad. In 1844, the new owners sent a work crew into North Carolina to remove rails northeast of the Roanoke River.
The intent was to sabotage the Portsmouth and Roanoke Railroad, intentionally blocking trains from running between Weldon and Portsmouth. Without the revenue from that business, the railroad could not make its scheduled debt payments and would have to close down.
Petersburg merchants made quarterly payments to the new owners of the railroad's debt to ensure the Portsmouth and Roanoke Railroad stayed out of service. Those merchants calculated that, in the long run, higher profits from increased trade going to Petersburg (instead of Portsmouth) would be greater than the payments required to eliminate the competition.
Portsmouth responded by sending a team of men into North Carolina to rebuilt the torn-up track. Traffic was restored briefly, but the dispute ended up being settled in the courts. The North Carolina Supreme Court determined that the Petersburg-based owners could tear up their own track within North Carolina if they chose.
Once traffic from North Carolina ceased on the Portsmouth and Roanoke Railroad, the Petersburg Railroad cancelled its discounted "through fare" arrangements with the Richmond and Petersburg Railroad and with the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad. As planned, cutting the rail line from the Roanoke River to Portsmouth resulted in greater profits for the Petersburg Railroad.
Petersburg's victory was short-lived. After defeating the competition in Portsmouth, the business and political leaders over-reached and tried to intercept Richmond's trade on the James River.
Petersburg built a canal to improve its connection to the James River via the Appomattox River, and then improved the City Point Railroad link to the James River. Petersburg also constructed the South Side Railroad to Lynchburg, which diverted the traffic going to Richmond via the James River and Kanawha Canal.
Richmond's merchants reacted to Petersburg's threat. The Richmond and Petersburg Railroad, which was dominated by Richmond-based investors, constructed a branch line to Port Walthall and Bermuda Hundred on the James River, just upstream of its confluence with the Appomattox River. A rail link to Port Walthall could draw business away from Petersburg towards Richmond, since the shipping channel there was even deeper than the channel at today's Richmond Marine Terminal (RMT).
The Richmond-oriented railroads also organized a steamship company to carry passengers down the James River and ultimately up the Chesapeake Bay to Baltimore, directly competing with the efforts of the Petersburg Railroad to do the same. Initially it was less important for the steamship line to make a profit than it was to cut into the revenue of the Petersburg Railroad, but soon it became clear that the Bay Line could make a healthy profit if the Weldon-Portsmouth railroad connection was re-established.4
the Portsmouth and Roanoke Railroad offered an alternative to the Petersburg Railroad for transport of passengers to Baltimore and export of freight via the Chesapeake Bay
Source: Atlas of the Historical Geography of the United States, Railroads in Operation, 1840 (Plate 138L) digitized by University of Richmond
After the Portsmouth and Roanoke Railroad went into bankruptcy in 1846, Virginia's Board of Public Works bought it. State ownership eliminated the ability of the Petersburg investors to sabotage operations.
With the support of Petersburg's rivals in Richmond and Hampton Roads, the Board of Public Works leased the railroad to Portsmouth. The city renamed it the Seaboard and Roanoke Railroad and put it back into operation.5
the Seaboard and Roanoke Railroad was operating in 1881
Source: Internet Archive, A history of Old Point Comfort and Fortress Monroe, Va., from 1608 to January 1st, 1881 (1881)
The restored link between Portsmouth and the Roanoke River provided effective competition. The Petersburg Railroad offered the "inland route" for passengers and freight, but the Seaboard and Roanoke Railroad provided an alternative way to reach the Chesapeake Bay. Passengers going north from Weldon could go to Portsmouth, catch a steamship at Hampton Roads, and get to Baltimore and points north.
The Seaboard and Roanoke Railroad was incorporated into the Seaboard Air Line when it was established in 1888. That railroad later became part of the Seaboard Coast Line, and finally the CSX.
Today, CSX uses the route of the old Portsmouth and Roanoke Railroad as its main line to Hampton Roads south of the James River. CSX uses it to transport containers, primarily from the Portsmouth Marine Terminal (PMT) and Virginia International Gateway (VIG), to its mainline near Weldon.
the line developed initially as the Portsmouth and Roanoke Railroad is now the modern route of the CSX (outlined in red), providing access to shipping terminals on the Elizabeth River
Source: Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation, Virginia Railroad Map
1. Peter C. Stewart, "Railroads and Urban Rivalries in Antebellum Eastern Virginia," The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Volume 81 Number 1 (January, 1973), pp.4-5, http://www.jstor.org/stable/4247766 (last checked August 10, 2016)
2. "North Carolina Railroads - Portsmouth & Roanoke Railroad," Carolana, http://www.carolana.com/NC/Transportation/railroads/nc_rrs_portsmouth_roanoke.html (last checked August 10, 2016)
3. Peter C. Stewart, "Railroads and Urban Rivalries in Antebellum Eastern Virginia," The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Volume 81 Number 1 (January, 1973), p.7, http://www.jstor.org/stable/4247766 (last checked August 10, 2016)
4. Peter C. Stewart, "Railroads and Urban Rivalries in Antebellum Eastern Virginia," The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Volume 81 Number 1 (January, 1973), pp.10-13, http://www.jstor.org/stable/4247766 (last checked August 10, 2016)
5. "North Carolina Railroads - Portsmouth & Roanoke Railroad," Carolana, http://www.carolana.com/NC/Transportation/railroads/nc_rrs_portsmouth_roanoke.html (last checked August 10, 2016)