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)
The Portsmouth and Roanoke Railroad was also known initially as the Portsmouth and Weldon Railroad. Track was built from Portsmouth southwest, with the line reaching Suffolk in 1834. The line was completed to Weldon, North Carolina in 1837.
in 1847, the Seaboard and Roanoke Railroad provided an alternative route to a Chesapeake Bay port
Source: Library of Congress, Map of the Seaboard & Roanoke Railroad from Portsmouth, Va. to Weldon, N.C (by Ephraim W. Bouv�, T. J Carter, 1847)
After a tempestuous nine years, it was renamed the Seaboard and Roanoke Railroad.
The Seaboard and Roanoke Railroad was added to the Seaboard Air Line as an alliance among various railroads in 1881, and incorporated into that company formally in 1900. The Seaboard Air Line merged with the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad in 1967 to create the Seaboard Coast Line. In 1986, it became a part of the CSX Transportation Company.1
The justification for building the Portsmouth and Roanoke Railroad was to reduce the high costs of transporting agricultural products from the Piedmont to port in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, either Petersburg or Portsmouth. Water transport in the Blackwater River, Nottoway River, Meherrin River, and Roanoke River watersheds was too expensive.
Shipping tobacco, lumber, wheat, and other products down the Roanoke River was less expensive and required less time than hauling products over plank and mud roads to Petersburg. Those roads were often unusable. Farmers saw too much of their potential profits being consumed by the cost of transport to market.
Floating goods downstream via the Roanoke River avoided the roads, but 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 in that watershed.
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 Portsmouth and Roanoke Railroad provided a faster link than the Dismal Swamp Canal to the Chesapeake Bay
Source: University of North Carolina, Map of North and South Carolina exhibiting the post offices, post roads, canals, rail roads, &c. (by David H. Burr, 1839)
The new technology of railroads gave Petersburg the opportunity to compete with Portsmouth/Norfolk. Between 1830-33, Petersburg built the Petersburg Railroad south to the Roanoke River near Weldon, North Carolina. It intercepted the river traffic on the north bank there at Blakeley Depot, south of Garysburgh and across the river from Weldon. The Petersburg Railroad offered a better alternative to floating the extra distance to the Dismal Swamp Canal, then going north to Portsmouth or Norfolk.2
In its competitive response, Hampton Roads merchants financed completion of the 79-mile long Portsmouth and Roanoke Railroad to Weldon. Shipping cargo by rail from Weldon to Portsmouth spurred business in southeastern Virginia, and reduced business at Petersburg. The Portsmouth and Roanoke Railroad provided jobs for laborers at docks on the Elizabeth River, not on the Appomattox River.
the Portsmouth and Roanoke Railroad was completed in 1837, intercepting boats on the Roanoke River upstream of the Dismal Swamp Canal
Source: University of Virginia Library, Plan of the Portsmouth & Roanoke Rail-Road and Trace of the Petersburg Rail Road (by Thos. H. Williamson, c.1835-1840)
Construction of the Portsmouth and Roanoke Railroad started in Portsmouth in 1833. The wharves were located in the center of town, north of the Gosport Navy Shipyard (now called the Norfolk Naval Shipyard). The Norfolk and Carolina Railroad and the Atlantic & Danville Railroad later constructed piers further north (downstream) on the Elizabeth River at Pinners Point.
the Seaboard and Roanoke Railroad docks were in downtown Portsmouth during the Civil ar, but later railroads built to Pinners Point
Source: David Rumsey Historical Map Collection, Suffolk & vicinity (Atlas to accompany the official records of the Union and Confederate armies, 1895)
The site of the original shipping piers for the Portsmouth and Roanoke Railroad is now part of downtown Portsmouth. Pinners Point has become the Portsmouth Marine Terminal.
the Portsmouth and Roanoke Railroad built its shipping piers on the Elizabeth River near the Gosport Navy Shipyard
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 Portsmouth and Roanoke Railroad reached Suffolk in 1834, and construction continued further to the southwest.
The straight route through the tree-covered swamps southwest of Suffolk 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 and ditches in the Great Dismal Swamp. Wood products generated traffic on the new railroad even before it reached the Roanoke River.
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 Library, Plan of the Portsmouth & Roanoke Rail-Road and Trace of the Petersburg Rail Road (by Thos. H. Williamson, c.1835-1840)
To construct the track through the swamps, workers dug a ditch along the route and piled the excavated soil and a foot of additional sand on the roadbed. Railroad ties were buried in the soil to create an easy path for horses to pull the rail cars loaded with cargo and passengers. Track was a wooden timber with a strap of iron on top, providing a solid surface for the wheels of the railroad cars.
The first steam locomotive arrived in 1834, replacing the horses. The steam engine could pull a train at 15 miles/hour, and made two round trips daily between Suffolk and Portsmouth. A second locomotive was placed in service in 1835, the year the railroad bridged the Nottoway and Meherrin rivers.
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)
In 1836, the Portsmouth and Roanoke Railroad built a bridge to cross over the Petersburg Railroad tracks at Blakely's Depot (Garysburgh), two miles northeast of Weldon.
The last stage of construction was to negotiate the right to use the Weldon Toll Bridge across the Roanoke River. Widening that bridge to carry the rails, and construction of track from Garysburgh to the south bank of the Roanoke River, completed the 17 miles of track within North Carolina.
The Portsmouth and Roanoke Railroad was not a cooperative partner with the Petersburg Railroad. The Weldon Toll Bridge convinced the North Carolina legislature to refuse the Petersburg Railroad's request for authorization to build its own bridge across the Roanoke River.
The Petersburg Railroad did get state authorization to build a new branch line, the Greensville and Roanoke Railroad. The Virginia legislature chartered it from Hicksford (Emporia) to the state border. The North Carolina legislature authorized construction from the Virginia line south to the upstream end of the Roanoke Canal at Wilkins Ferry (Gaston), located upstream of the Fall Line rapids at Weldon.
The Petersburg Railroad and the Portsmouth and Roanoke Railroad moved agricultural products grown in North Carolina to ports located in Virginia. Diverting trade to the Chesapeake Bay watershed was a threat to the growth of Wilmington, North Carolina's major port.
Wilmington was not blocked physically by the barrier islands, unlike cities on Albemarle Sound, but it lacked the inland infrastructure to move crops to the coast. Virginians built two railroads and the Dismal Swamp Canal, diverting North Carolina trade to a rival state.
Wilmington's response was to construct the Wilmington & Raleigh Railroad. The state of North Carolina bought 40% of its stock to provide funds for construction.
Despite its name, that track ended up running from Wilmington to Weldon, not to Raleigh. It crossed the Neuse River at Waynesborough (which became Goldsborough's Junction, now Goldsboro) and connected to the Portsmouth and Roanoke Railroad at Weldon in 1840. The mis-labelled railroad finally was renamed the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad in 1855.
Much later, the legislature facilitated construction of track that connected the interior of North Carolina to the coast before the Civil War. The North Carolina Railroad was built between Charlotte and Goldsboro in 1856. Completion of the Atlantic & North Carolina Railroad in 1858, from Goldsboro to Beaufort, created a network that finally provided railroad connections from the eastern base of the Blue Ridge to both of North Carolina's port cities.3
In the 1830's, merchants in Norfolk understood the value of diverting more North Carolina trade to their port. They financed most of the Portsmouth and Roanoke Railroad, buying 60% of its stock. The Virginia Board of Public Works purchased the other 40% of the stock, which was 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. They did not view growth of Hampton Roads ports as part of a statewide competition of Virginia with Maryland, and its port at Baltimore. Instead, they viewed the Portsmouth and Roanoke Railroad as a sectional rival. It diverted cotton, tobacco, and other goods from the Roanoke River to Portsmouth. That reduced business activity in Petersburg and Richmond.
The Fall Line cities of Petersburg and Richmond had one major advantage for attracting the tobacco being floated down the Roanoke River. Factories that relied upon waterpower created a stable market, always purchasing tobacco as a "raw material" and processing it into pipe and chewing tobacco products. To supply 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 1851, only the Portsmouth and Roanoke Railroad connected the Roanoke River trade to Portsmouth
Source: Library of Congress, General map of the Orange & Alexandria Rail Road and its connections north, south, and west. (1851)
In the game of attracting the Roanoke River traffic, Petersburg made the next move. In 1837 the Petersburg Railroad built an extension southwest from Hicksford (which later merged with Belfield to form Emporia) to the Roanoke River at Wilkin's Ferry, North Carolina. That extension was managed as the Greensville & Roanoke Railroad. Wilkin's Ferry was renamed Gaston, then Old Gaston, and is now Thelma, North Carolina. (Modern Gaston is located north of the Roanoke River.)
The Greensville & Roanoke Railroad provided the Petersburg Railroad a chance to shift cargo from boats to railcars at a spot upstream from the rival Portsmouth and Roanoke Railroad landing at Weldon. The rival Petersburg Railroad facilitated construction of the Raleigh and Gaston Railroad, which bridged the Roanoke River and provided a rail connection to Raleigh.
The Petersburg Railroad also tried to drive the Portsmouth and Roanoke Railroad into bankruptcy.
In 1843, 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.
The Portsmouth and Roanoke Railroad used steamships to build a competitor to compete with that "inland route." The Portsmouth and Roanoke struck a deal with the Baltimore and Norfolk Steam Packet Company (the Bay Line) to offer competitive prices and schedules for transport to Baltimore.4
the Petersburg Railroad built a branch line from Hicksford (later part of Emporia) to the Roanoke River at Gaston (now Thelma, North Carolina)
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. On the night of January 6, 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 improved capacity. The Richmond and Petersburg Railroad, which was dominated by Richmond-based investors, had upgraded a branch line to Port Walthall and Bermuda Hundred on the James River, just upstream of its confluence with the Appomattox River, in 1840. That rail link had been built originally to carry coal from Chesterfield County mines to the James River, replacing the wharves upstream at Manchester.
Port Walthall could draw business away from Petersburg. The natural shipping channel there was even deeper than the dredged channel at today's Richmond Marine Terminal (RMT).
In 1845, the Richmond-oriented railroads organized the Port Walthall Steamboat 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.5
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.6
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 extended from Weldon east to Portsmouth in 1900
Source: University of North Carolina Libraries, Railroad map of North Carolina 1900 (by Henry C. Brown, 1900)
The Petersburg Railroad managed to build its own bridge across the Roanoke River in 1840, but both railroad bridges were destroyed in the Civil War. The Petersburg Railroad negotiated rights to use the Seaboard and Roanoke Railroad bridge in 1867. That continued after a flood washed out the bridge in 1875, until the "Petersburg Railroad" finally built its own in 1910-1912. At that point, the Petersburg Railroad had been incorporated into the Atlantic Coast Line, and the Seaboard and Roanoke Railroad had been incorporated into the rival Seaboard Air Line.
In 1873, the Seaboard and Roanoke Railroad was combined with the Raleigh and Gaston Railroad to create the Seaboard and Roanoke Railroad, but the two lines retained their separate identifies. They evolved into the powerful Seaboard Air Line by 1881, with control of the Carolina Central Railroad, Raleigh and Augusta Air-Line, and Georgia, Carolina, and Northern Railroad as well. Under the leadership of John Robinson, the informal alliance of separate railroads advertised together as the Seaboard Air Line. It offered streamlined processing of freight and passengers between Atlanta and Portsmouth, plus steamship connections to New York City.
When the Seaboard Air Line was formally established in 1900, the Seaboard and Roanoke Railroad lost its corporate identity.
The rivalry between the original Portsmouth and Petersburg railroads continued after the Civil War. The Portsmouth and Roanoke/Seaboard and Roanoke Railroad became part of the Seaboard Air Line. The Petersburg Railroad became part of the Atlantic Coast Line.
Both were folded into the same corporation when the Seaboard Coast Line was organized in 1967. At that point, only one bridge was required to cross the Roanoke River. The bridge of the Seaboard Coast Line, at the site of the old Weldon Toll Road/Portsmouth and Roanoke Railroad bridge, was decommissioned and spans were removed.7
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
the Seaboard and Roanoke Railroad in 1848
Source: Library of Congress, A map of the internal improvements of Virginia (Claudius Crozet, 1848)
1. "North Carolina Railroads - Portsmouth & Roanoke Railroad," Carolana, http://www.carolana.com/NC/Transportation/railroads/nc_rrs_portsmouth_roanoke.html; "North Carolina Railroads - Seaboard & Roanoke Railroad," Carolana, http://www.carolana.com/NC/Transportation/railroads/nc_rrs_seaboard_roanoke.html; "North Carolina Railroads - Seaboard Air Line Railway / Railroad," Carolana, http://www.carolana.com/NC/Transportation/railroads/nc_rrs_seaboard_air_line.html; "North Carolina Railroads - Seaboard Coast Line Railroad," Carolana, http://www.carolana.com/NC/Transportation/railroads/nc_rrs_seaboard_coast_line.html (last checked December 3, 2018)
2. 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; ; "Greenville and Roanoke Railroad," NCPHS Newsletter, Volume 10, Number 4 (Fall 1991), pp.6-8, http://www.ncpostalhistory.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/NCPHS_Journal-038-1991-Fall.pdf (last checked December 3, 2018)
3. "North Carolina Railroads - Portsmouth & Roanoke Railroad," Carolana, http://www.carolana.com/NC/Transportation/railroads/nc_rrs_portsmouth_roanoke.html; Douglas A. Wait and John R. deTreville, "First Rail Lines and the Birth of the North Carolina Railroad," NCpedia, 2006, https://www.ncpedia.org/railroads-part-2-first-rail-lines; James C. Burke, "North Carolina�s First Railroads, A Study in Historical Geography," PhD thesis, University of North Carolina at Greensboro, 2008, pp.2-3, p.5, p.32, pp.312-314, https://libres.uncg.edu/ir/uncg/f/Burke_uncg_0154D_10006.pdf; James C. Burke, The Wilmington & Raleigh Rail Road Company, 1833-1854, McFarland, 2011, p.24, https://books.google.com/books?id=Bc1dcgpEbZoC; George A. Kennedy, "Wilmington & Weldon Railroad," NCpedia, 2006, https://www.ncpedia.org/wilmington-weldon-railroad; "A History of Goldsboro, North Carolina," Carolana, http://www.carolana.com/NC/Towns/Goldsboro_NC.html; "The First Railroad Hub of the South - Weldon NC," Weldon, North Carolina, https://www.historicweldonnc.com/about-weldon-nc/68-the-first-railroad-hub-of-the-south-weldon-nc.html (last checked January 18, 2019)
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.6-7, 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; 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; "Chapter 8: Historical & Cultural Resources," Moving Forward: The Comprehensive Plan for Chesterfield County, Chesterfield County, May, 2018, p.54, https://www.chesterfield.gov/documentcenter/view/2108 (last checked December 4, 2018)
6. "North Carolina Railroads - Portsmouth & Roanoke Railroad," Carolana, http://www.carolana.com/NC/Transportation/railroads/nc_rrs_portsmouth_roanoke.html (last checked August 10, 2016)
7. "The First Railroad Hub of the South - Weldon NC," Weldon, North Carolina, https://www.historicweldonnc.com/about-weldon-nc/68-the-first-railroad-hub-of-the-south-weldon-nc.html; "The Roanoke River - Weldon, NC ," Weldon, North Carolina, https://www.historicweldonnc.com/about-weldon-nc/65-the-roanoke-river-weldon-nc.html; "North Carolina Railroads - Seaboard Air Line Railway / Railroad," Carolana, http://www.carolana.com/NC/Transportation/railroads/nc_rrs_seaboard_air_line.html (last checked January 18, 2019)