Railroads of the Shenandoah Valley - and Why Isn't Harrisonburg on the Main Line?

In Virginia, most railroads built before the Civil War were located east of the Blue Ridge and designed to connect the Piedmont to the port cities in eastern Virginia. Crossing the Blue Ridge was a major engineering challenge. Locomotives can pull massive amounts of weight on the slick rails, but they lose most of their power when the rails are tilted uphill and have great difficulty stopping on downill grades.

On a 0.5 % grade, the track rises the height of an average stairway step (6 inches) over the distance of 1/3 of a football field (100 feet). However, a modern locomotive that can pull 1,000 tons on a flat grade can pull only 200 tons on a 0.5% grade.1

No railroad ever crossed the Blue Ridge between Manassas Gap and Afton Gap. The Alexandria, Loudoun, and Hampshire Railroad planned in several corporate incarnations to cross near Snickers Gap (route of Route 7 today) between Leesburg and Winchester. That railroad was never extended west of Purcellville; there is no railroad crossing the Blue Ridge between Manassas Gap (I-66) and the Potomac River.

Further south, the Louisa Railroad was chartered in 1836 as a direct Richmond-Harrisonburg route, and expected to cross the Blue Ridge at Swift Run Gap (where US 33 crosses today). After the line - renamed the Virginia Central in 1850 - had been extended to Gordonsville, the company skillfully maneuvered investors to purchase stock by pitting Charlottesville against Harrisonburg. To the dismay of Harrisonburg, the Virginia Central altered its route, built its line south to Charlottesville, and crossed the Blue Ridge at Rockfish Gap (where I-64 crosses today). A quick look at a map will show that if Charlottesville had been the planned destination, the Virginia Central should parallel modern I-64 rather than swerve north to Gordonsville first.2

As a result of the Virginia Central's shift in its planned route, Charlottesville and Staunton got rail connections to Richmond before the Civil War. Harrisonburg had to wait for a railroad until 1868, when the Orange, Alexandria, & Manassas Railroad extended the old Manassas Gap line south from Mt. Jackson.

the planned Virginia Central path to Harrisonburg through Swift Run Gap was altered and the railroad crossed the Blue Ridge at Rockfish Gap
the planned Virginia Central path to Harrisonburg through Swift Run Gap was altered and the railroad crossed the Blue Ridge at Rockfish Gap
Source: Library of Congress, "Map of the Virginia Central Rail Road showing the connection between tide water Virginia, and the Ohio River at Big Sandy, Guyandotte and Point Pleasant

Crossing the Blue Ridge at either Swift Run Gap or Rockfish Gap would require drilling tunnels to provide an acceptably-flat route. The cost and risk of such an effort in the 1850's, using hand labor with black powder as the primary explosive, exceeded the capacity of the Virginia Central investors.

To ensure the railroad would connect Richmond with the Shenandoah Valley, the Commonwealth of Virginia created the Blue Ridge Railroad. Claudius Crozet built the necessary tunnels through the Blue Ridge, and the Virginia Central then leased the Blue Ridge Railroad from the state. During the four years of tunnel construction, a temporary line - the Mountain Top Track - was built to haul cargo and passengers over the mountain crest. Locomotives hauled three-four cars, carrying up to 50 tons total, up and down grades exceeding 5% until the four tunnels through the Blue Ridge were completed.3

Before the Civil War, sectional competition between port cities as well as topography shaped the location of Virginia's turnpikes, canals, and railroads. Alexandria merchants and taxpayers financed transportation links that sent business from the rural "hinterland" to that port on the Potomac River. Richmond financed competing links westward, across the Blue Ridge, if they would funnel business to that competing port on the James River.

Neither Richmond nor Alexandria saw any benefit in building rail connections from the Shenandoah Valley to Baltimore or Philadelphia. Only after the Civil War, when Virginia was economically distressed, was a railroad constructed north-south through the entire Shenandoah Valley. In 1883, the Shenandoah Vally Railroad (renamed the Norfolk and Western Railroad) finally connected the entire Valley and Ridge province to Baltimore and Pennsylvania.

the valley, prior to the Manassas Gap Railroad reaching Strasburg (1836)
the "lower" valley, prior to the Manassas Gap Railroad reaching Strasburg (click for larger image)
Source: Library of Congress, "The tourist's guide through the states of Maryland, Delaware and part of
Pennysylvania & Virginia with the routes to their springs &c. / engraved by J. Yeager, Philadelphia."
(1836)

The lower Shenandoah Valley got its first railroad connection in 1834 when the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (B&O) reached Harpers Ferry. Farmers near the Potomac River could haul their crops to Harpers Ferry, reducing transportation costs to reach Alexandria by wagon via Ashby Gap (modern Route 50), Snickers Gap (modern Route 7), and Keyes Gap (modern Route 9). Further upstream, all the way to Port Republic in Rockingham County, farmers and iron manufacturers could load their goods on "gundalows" and float downstream to the markets at Harpers Ferry. Because the Shenandoah River was only marginally navigable, the boats were sold for lumber and boatmen walked back home. Much trade was in just one direction - downhill.4

The Winchester & Potomac Railroad connected Winchester to the B&O in 1836, expanding the reach of Baltimore merchants into the valley and improving the farming economy in the lower valley. A connection further south ("up the valley") was not built until after the Civil War. In 1867, the Winchester & Strasburg Railroad finally connected Harpers Ferry to Front Royal, providing the B&O Railroad more access to business in Virginia.

Winchester and Potomac Railroad, 1855
Winchester and Potomac Railroad (parallel to the Valley Pike, most of the way...)
Source: Library of Congress, "Map of the Manassas Gap Railroad and its extensions; September, 1855"

Why the delay, when the heavy traffic along the Valley Pike clearly justified further extension of the railroad south of Winchester to Strasburg? Merchants in Alexandria and Richmond benefitted from Shenandoah Valley trade, and were able to deter construction of a transportation system that would hurt their economic interests.

The Virginia General Assembly, which had the sole authority to issue railroad charters in the state, did not want more Shenandoah Valley products to be shipped by the B&O to Baltimore. The Board of Public Works - a government body funded by Virginia taxpayers to purchase up to 60% of the stock of new railroads, canals, and turnpikes - was reluctant to invest in new railroads unless they would benefit Virginia port cities.

Farmers in the Shenandoah Valley and northwestern counties sought state support for rail connections to urban markets, which would increase profits from farming and raise land values. However, Eastern Virginia was politically dominant. Until the Civil War, Tidewater politicians were able to restrict the economic channels for most of the Shenandoah Valley to just Virginia outlets - but the Commonwealth of Virginia was willing to invest in railroads that connected the Shenandoah Valley to Virginia ports on the Fall Line.

Shenandoah Valley, without north-south railroads in 1852
Shenandoah Valley, without north-south railroads in 1852
Source: Library of Congress, "Map of the Virginia Central R.R. and its proposed connections (1852)

Virginia Central, from Rockfish Gap to planned destination at Covington (1852)
Virginia Central, from Rockfish Gap to Staunton (1852)
Source: Library of Congress, "Map of the Virginia Central Rail Road showing the connection between tide water Virginia, and the Ohio River at Big Sandy, Guyandotte and Point Pleasant

railroads in Shenandoah Valley, 1855
railroads in Shenandoah Valley, 1855 (note the gap between Winchester and Strasburg)
Source: Library of Congress - Williams' commercial map of the United States and Canada with railroads, routes, and distances (1855)

By the start of the Civil War, the Virginia Central railroad had connected the upper valley (near Staunton) to Richmond, and the Manassas Gap Railroad connected the middle of the Shenandoah Valley to Alexandria. Gundalows that once floated down the Shenandoah River to Harpers Ferry then stopped at Front Royal and transferred their products to the Manassas Gap Railroad, benefitting Alexandria merchants rather tha Baltimore businesses.

Neither railroad crossing the Blue Ridge connected to the Winchester and Potomac; few Shenandoah Valley goods could reach Baltimore by rail. The result was an inefficient transportation system for the farmers and iron furnaces in the Shenandoah Valley, limiting competition, but the economit benefits of trade were concentrated in Virginia and "leakage" of profits to Maryland and Pennsylvania was limited.

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 control of railroads shifted to non-Virginian capitalists. After the war, the General Assembly sold its stock in railroads to northern investors.

With the change in ownership, the focus on building railroads just to draw traffic to Tidewater ports shifted. 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. Northern companies were able to get railroad charters, and ultimately one built a railroad line through the valley.

The Shenandoah Valley Railroad was built to connect the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad to the Pennsylvania Railroad. The Shenandoah Valley Railroad was the first railroad to go entirely through the entire Shenandoah Valley from north to south. The Pennsylvania-based investors constructed a new rail line through the entire Shenandoah Valley, without raising capital from Virginians interested primarily in steering traffic to a particular port. 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.

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 Shenandoah Valley Railroad finally provided Harrisonburg and farmers/industrialists throughout the valley access to Philadelphia via a connection with the Pennsylvania Railroad at Hagerstown.

While the Shenandoah Rail Road was being completed, the Valley Rail Road was built on the west side of the valley to provide a connection to Baltimore via the B&O. The Valley Rail Road linked Staunton to Harrisonburg, and Harrisonburg to Front Royal.

Competition between Baltimore and Philadelphia shaped the post-war expansion of railroad lines in the Shenandoah Valley. Initially, the Valley Rail Road was controlled by the B&O, while the Shenandoah Valley Railroad was controlled by the Pennsylvania Railroad.

The B&O focused its efforts on extending its line south from Winchester to Lexington. It financed the various projects that paralleled the Valley Pike on the west side of Massanutten Mountain, providing Harrisonburg its rail connection to Baltimore. After the financial recession of 1872, however, the B&O retrenched and was unable to extend the Valley Rail Road south of Lexington.

The rival Pennsylvania Railroad financed construction of the Shenandoah Valley Railroad on the east side of Massanutten Mountain, through Page Valley south of Front Royal to Waynesboro. That rail line follows the route of modern-day US 340, rather than Interstate 81. The route benefitted William Milnes, who owned the Shenandoah Iron Works at Milnes. (The town was renamed "Shenandoah" in 1890. Waynesboro is shown as "Basic City" on early maps, and Roanoke is shown as "Big Lick.")

Just as the B&O was affected by the financial recession in President Grant's second term, the Pennsylvania Railroad had to abandon some of its efforts to extend its rail system into the southern states after the Civil War. Philadelphia investors took over the Shenandoah Valley Railroad project, and the bankers were associated with William Milnes. The investors built their line east of Massanutten Mountain. Connecting with iron furnaces and forges at the base of the Blue Ridge generated more profitable traffic than the route through Harrisonburg, which was already controlled by the Valley Rail Road. Milnes built the Big Gem furnace on the South Fork of the Shenandoah River in 1882, once the railroad reduced transportation costs. After the Shenandoah Valley Railroad joined the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad, the two lines were renamed the Norfolk and Western.

the Shenandoah Valley Rail Road bypassed Harrisonburg in favor of traffic from iron furnaces/forges east of Massanutten Mountain (and to avoid competition with the Valley Rail Road financed by the B&O)
the Shenandoah Valley Rail Road bypassed Harrisonburg in favor of traffic from iron furnaces/forges east of Massanutten Mountain (and to avoid competition with the Valley Rail Road financed by the B&O)
Source: Library of Congress, "The Virginia, Tennessee, and Georgia Air Line; the Shenandoah Valley R.R.; Norfolk & Western R.R.; East Tennessee, Virginia, & Georgia R.R. (its leased lines,) and their connections (1882)"

Harrisonburg's last opportunity for a direct line across the Blue Ridge came at the end of the 19th Century, when a new railroad was built to haul coal from Rockingham County mines. A rail connection, ultimately named the Chesapeake and Western Railroad, was completed around the southern edge of Massanutten Mountain to the Norfolk and Western line at Elkton, but the cost of tunneling through the Blue Ridge blocked further expansion to the east.

Today, Harrisonburg's rail connections have withered. The old Valley Rail Road remained a cul-de-sac, and never grew into a main line of the Southern Railroad. Harrisonburg no longer has a direct railroad link south to Staunton or north to Front Royal.

The Chesapeake and Western Railroad (locally known as the "Crooked & Weedy") does connect with the modern Norfolk Southern's mainline at Elkton, so poultry plants and other industries in the Harrisonburg area still have rail service. Another shortline, recycling the name Shenandoah Valley Railroad, also offers rail service from Pleasant Valley (south of Harrisonburg) to Staunton, but the old Virginia Central route across the Blue Ridge has also been converted into a shortline railroad (the Buckingham Branch).

Links

the Norfolk Southern track in the Shenandoah Valley is located east of Massanutten Mountain, linking Front Royal with Waynesboro
the Norfolk Southern track in the Shenandoah Valley is located east of Massanutten Mountain, linking Front Royal with Waynesboro
Source: US Geological Survey (USGS), National Map

References

1. King, Ed, "Getting Them Up the Grade the Norfolk and Western Way," Trains Magazine, April 2004, p. 67
2. John Majewski, A House Dividing: Economic Development in Pennsylvania and Virginia Before the Civil War, Cambridge University Press, 2000, pp.61-63, http://books.google.com/books?id=RtvARIjfeP4C (last checked September 1, 2013)
3. Charles Ellett, "Railroad Across the Blue Ridge Mountains, Virginia US", Civil Engineer and Architects Journal, Volume XX, 1857, pp.190-191, http://books.google.com/books?id=gcNAAAAAcAAJ (last checked September 1, 2013)
4. "A Brief History of Port Republic, Virginia," The Society of Port Republic Preservationists, http://www.portrepublicmuseum.org/history.html (last checked September 1, 2013)

railroads of the Shenandoah Valley before segments were abandoned north and south of Harrisonburg
railroads of the Shenandoah Valley before segments were abandoned north and south of Harrisonburg (click on image for larger view)
Source: USGS Seamless Data Viewer


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