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 Dismap 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, and 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, Norfolk had established itself as the primary port for those living in the Roanoke River watershed.
The new technology of railroads provided a better option. 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 linked Weldon (North Carolina) to Portsmouth so the business community in southeastern Virginia could continue to benefit from the Roanoke River trade.
Railroad construction started in Portsmouth in 1833, reached Suffolk in 1834, and then stretched 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, generating traffic on the railroad even before it reached the Roanoke River 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 could pull a train at 15 miles/hour, and it 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 railroad buit a bridge across the Roanoke River to Weldon, completing the 17 miles of track in North Carolina. Building 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
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. The Virginia Board of Public Works purchased 40% of its stock to provide the state's standard share of financial support.
In contrast, the merchants in Petersburg were cut-throat rivals. From their perspective, a railroad that diverted cotton and other goods from the Roanoke River to Portsmouth was a railroad that reduced business activity in Petersburg. Most tobacco continued to go north on the Petersburg Railroad to the processing plants in Petersburg and Richmond, but any growth at a Hampton Roads port was viewed as a threat to Petersburg rather than part of a statewide competition with Baltimore.
In a competitive move, the Petersburg Railroad built an extension southwest from Hicksford (later merged with Belfiekd to form Emporia) to the Roanoke River at Gaston, North Carolina. That extension, managed as the Greensville & Roanoke Railroad, linked Petersburg with boats floating down the Roanoke River before they reached Weldon, where cargo could be loaded on the rival Portsmouth and Roanoke Railroad.
The Petersburg Railroad also arranged with the two independent railroad lines to its north, the Richmond and Petersburg Railroad and the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad, to offer low 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. Both the Petersburg Railroad and the Portsmouth and Roanoke Railroad needed more revenue to maintain and upgrade their infrastructure, which was constructed cheaply at the start and required extensive maintenance. In 1842 the Petersburg Railroad told its largest stockholder, the state of Virginia, that no dividend would be paid:3
The final challenge to the financially over-extended Portsmouth and Roanoke Railroad occurred when advocates of business in Petersburg bought some of its debt and asserted ownership over the railroad.
the Petersburg Railroad built a branch line from Hicksford (later part of Emporia) to the Roanoke River at Gaston, to divert trade north before boats reached the Portsmouth and Roanoke Railroad at Weldon
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)
In 1844, the new owners sent a work crew into North Carolina to remove rails northeast of the Roanoke River, intentionally blocking traffic on the Portsmouth and Roanoke Railroad between Weldon and Portsmouth. The economic impact of destroying a portion of the railroad and cutting most traffic was offset by quarterly payments from Petersburg merchants to ensure the line 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.
Portsmouth responded by sending a force into North Carolina to restore the 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.
Petersburg's victory was short-lived. Once traffic from North Carolina ceased on the Portsmouth and Roanoke Railroad, the Petersburg Railroad cancelled its arrangements with the Richmond and Petersburg Railroad and the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad. Petersburg's business leaders also sought to intercept Richmond's trade on the James River, first with a canal to improve its connection via the Appomattox River and then by actual improvement of the City Point Railroad. Petersburg also sought to divert the traffic going to Richmond via the James River and Kanawha Canal, by constructing the South Side Railroad to Lynchburg.
The Richmond and Petersburg Railroad, dominated by Richmond's merchants, reacted by constructing a branch line to Port Walthall and Bermuda Hundred on the James River, just upstream of its confluence with the Appomattox River. The shipping channel was even deeper than 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
The Portsmouth and Roanoke Railroad went into bankruptcy again in 1846. Virginia's Board of Public Works bought it. With the support of Petersburg's rivals in Richmond and Hampton Roads, the state 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 for passenger travel to the Petersburg Railroad and the "inland route" to Baltimore, and for the export of freight through the Chesapeake Bay. It was incorporated into the Seaboard Air Line at its formation in 1888, and later the Seaboard Coast Line.
Today, CSX uses the route of the old Portsmouth and Roanoke Railroad as its main line to that part of Hampton Roads south of the James River, including the Portsmouth Marine Terminal (PMT).
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)