The Virginian Railway (AAR reporting mark VGN) was a Class I railroad located in Virginia and West Virginia in the United States. The VGN was created to transport high quality "smokeless" bituminous coal from southern West Virginia to port at Hampton Roads. Founders William N. Page and Henry H. Rogers quietly built the "Mountains to Sea" railroad right under the noses of the big railroads and the robber barons who controlled them.
Completed in 1909, the Virginian Railway was a modern well-engineered railroad with all new infrastructure and could operate more efficiently than its larger competitors. Throughout a profitable 50-year history, the VGN continued the Page-Rogers philosophy of "paying up front for the best". It achieved best efficiencies in the mountains, rolling piedmont, and flat tidewater terrain. Known for operating the largest and best steam, electric, and diesel motive power, it became nicknamed "Richest Little Railroad in the World." Merged into Norfolk & Western Railway in 1959, a large portion of the former VGN remains in service in the 21st century for Norfolk Southern Corp, a Fortune 500 company headquartered in Norfolk a few blocks from the former Virginian Railway offices in Norfolk Terminal Station.
Its story was first told by H. Reid in The Virginian Railway, published in 1961. Although one of the smaller fallen flags of U.S. railroads, the VGN continues over 40 years later to have a loyal following of former employees, modelers, authors, photographers, historians, and preservationists.
Building the Virginian Railway
The Virginian Railway (VGN) was conceived early in the 20th century by two men. One was a brilliant civil engineer and entrepreneur, William Nelson Page. His partner was millionaire industrialist, Henry Huttleston Rogers. Together, they built a well-engineered railroad that was virtually a "conveyor belt on rails" to transport high quality "smokeless" bituminous coal from southern West Virginia to port on Hampton Roads, near Norfolk, Virginia.
The story of the building of the Virginian Railway is a textbook example of natural resources, railroads, and a smaller company taking on big business (and winning) early in the 20th century. It was a time when notorious and powerful robber barons of the industrial era ruled and big railroads represented great power. Neither the automobile nor federal laws were of any major concern to them.
A partnership: The idea man from Ansted meets a millionaire
William Nelson Page (1854-1932), was a civil engineer and entrepreneur.
Page, who was born in Virginia, and educated at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville originally came to West Virginia in the 1870s to help build the double-track Chesapeake & Ohio Railway in the New River and Kanawha River Valleys.
A colorful man by all accounts, Col. Page, as he came to be known, soon became involved in many coal and related enterprises in the mountains of Virginia and West Virginia, settling in the tiny mountain hamlet of Ansted in Fayette County, West Virginia.
Col. Page was one of the more successful men who developed West Virginia's rich bituminous coal fields in the late 19th and early 20th century and build the railroads to transport it. With his training and experience as a civil engineer, Page was exceptionally well-prepared to capitalize on southern West Virginia's hidden wealth. Former West Virginia Governor William A. MacCorkle described him as a man who knew "the land as a farmer knows his fields." He was also an energetic entrepreneur. Author H. Reid summed it up by labeling Col. Page: "The idea man from Ansted."
See also featured article William Nelson Page
Henry Huttleston Rogers (1840-1909) was a financier and industrialist who had grown up in a working-class family in Massachusetts. He began working while young, and had helped part-time in his father's grocery store and delivered newspapers. After graduating from high school, Rogers got experience as a brakeman on a local railroad while saving his money. In 1861, he and a friend set out for the mountains of Pennsylvania, and helped develop oil and natural gas resources there during the U.S. Civil War, eventually becoming one of the key men with John D. Rockefeller's the Standard Oil Trust. He was an energetic entrepreneur, much like the younger Page, and was also involved in many rail and mineral development projects. He was also a very wealthy millionaire.
See also article Henry Huttleston Rogers
Rogers became acquainted with Page while the latter was president of Gauley Mountain Coal Company (among many other ventures). Page knew of rich untapped bituminous coal fields lying between the New River Valley and the lower Guyandotte River in southern West Virginia in an area not yet reached by the C&O and its major competitor, the Norfolk & Western Railway (N&W). While the bigger railroads were preoccupied developing nearby areas and shipping coal via rail to Hampton Roads, Page formed a plan to take advantage of the undeveloped coal lands, with Rogers and several others as investors. A powerful partnership had been formed.
See article Building the Virginian Railway
Deepwater Railway and Tidewater Railway
The Virginian Railway was built early in the 20th century by building the Deepwater Railway in West Virginia and the Tidewater Railway in Virginia, and then combining them.
Important points on the Deepwater Railway were Page, Mullens, and Princeton in West Virginia.
Over in Virginia, on the Tidewater Railway, the principal points were Roanoke, Victoria, and Sewell's Point, where a new coal pier was located on Hampton Roads near Norfolk.
Victoria is created
Late in 1906, near the halfway point on the Tidewater Railway between Roanoke and Sewell's Point, a new town with space set aside for railroad offices and shops was created in Lunenburg County, Virginia. It was named Victoria, in honor of Queen Victoria of England, who was long-admired by Henry Rogers.
Victoria was the location of a large equipment maintenance operation, with roundhouse, turntable coaling and water facilities for servicing steam locomotives, and a large yard. Offices for the VGN's Norfolk Division were built by adding a second floor to the passenger station building a few years later.
1907: Virginian railway is born
Only a few months after Victoria was incorporated, in early 1907, the name of the Tidewater Railway was changed to "The Virginian Railway Company." The Deepwater Railway was merged into it a month later, and on April 15, 1907, Col. William Nelson Page became the first president of the new Virginian Railway.
Work progressed on the VGN throughout 1907 and 1908 using construction techniques not available when the larger railroads had been built about 25 years earlier. By paying for work with Henry Rogers' own personal fortune, the railway was built with no public debt. This feat, a key feature of the successful secrecy in securing the route, was not accomplished without some considerable burden to Rogers, however. He had suffered some setbacks in the "Financial Panic" which began in March of 1907. Then, a few months later that same year, he experienced a debilitating stroke. Fortunately, Henry Rogers recovered his health, at least partially, and saw to it that construction was continued on the new railroad until it was finally completed early in 1909.
Final spike, celebrations
The final spike in the Virginian Railway was driven on January 29, 1909, at the west side of the massive New River Bridge at Glen Lyn, near where the new railroad crossed the West Virginia-Virginia state line.
In April, 1909, Henry Huttleston Rogers and Mark Twain, old friends, returned to Norfolk, Virginia together once again for a huge celebration of the new "Mountains to the Sea" railroad's completion.
Rogers left the next day on his first (and only) tour of the newly completed railroad. He died suddenly only six weeks later at the age of 69 at his home in New York. But by then, the work of the Page-Rogers partnership to build the Virginian Railway had been completed.
While neither William Page or Henry Rogers ended up running the newly completed Virginian Railway, it was arguably a crowning lifetime achievement for each man. Together, they had conceived and built a modern, well-engineered rail pathway from the coal mines of West Virginia to port at Hampton Roads right under the noses of the big railroads. The Virginian Railway could operate more efficiently than its larger competitors, had all new infrastructure, and no debt. It was an accomplishment like no other in the history of US railroading, before or since.
Operating and Electrifying "the Richest Little Railroad in the World"
Mr. Rogers left his heirs and employees with a marvelous new railroad. Throughout its profitable 50 year history, the VGN continued to follow the Page-Rogers policy of "paying up front for the best." It became particularly well-known for treating its employees and vendors well, another investment which paid rich dividends. The VGN sought (and achieved) best efficiencies in the mountains, rolling piedmont, and flat tidewater terrain. The profitable VGN experimented with the finest and largest steam, electric, and diesel locomotives (motive power). It was well-known for operating the largest and best equipment, and could afford to. It became nicknamed "the richest little railroad in the world."
The VGN had a very major grade at Clark's Gap, West Virginia, and tried ever-larger steam locomotives before turning to an alternative already in use by one of its neighboring competitors, Norfolk & Western Railway. With work authorized beginning in 1922, a 134 mile portion of the railroad in the mountains from Mullens, West Virginia over Clark's Gap and several other major grades to Roanoke, Virginia was equipped with a railway electrification system. The electrification was completed in 1925 at a cost of $15 million. The VGN built its own power plant at Narrows, Virginia. A link was established with Norfolk & Western to share electricity during contingencies.
The seemingly remotely-located terminal Page and Rogers planned and built at Sewell's Point played an important role in 20th century U.S. naval history. Beginning in 1917, the former Jamestown Exposition grounds adjacent to the VGN coal pier became an important facility for the United States Navy. The VGN transported the high quality "smokeless" West Virginia bituminous coal favored by the US Navy for its ships and submarines, providing a reliable supply during both World Wars.
In the mid-1950s, VGN management realized that the company's devotion to coal as its energy source (for steam locomotives and the power plant at Narrows for the electrification system) was becoming overshadowed by the economies of diesel-electric locomotives. Between 1954 and 1957, a total of 66 diesel-electric locomotives were purchased, including 25 Fairbanks-Morse H24-66 Trainmasters. The last steam locomotive operated in June, 1957.
End of steam: decline at servicing points
Beginning in 1903, Page, West Virginia, named for Col. William Page, became the site of a switching yard, roundhouse, and station on the Deepwater Railway and later the Virginian Railway (VGN). After the railroad eliminated steam locomotives in 1957, and the area coal mines were largely depleted, the facilities at Page were unneeded. Mullens and Princeton in West Virginia, and Roanoke, Victoria and Sewell's Point in Virginia were other locations where the extensive steam locomotive servicing facilities and roundhouses were also no longer needed after 1957. The pattern was the same all across America as the steam locomotive era ended.
The VGN-N&W Merger
In time, the big railroads learned to coexist with their newer competitor, and came to regret turning down opportunities to purchase it before completion.
During World War I, the VGN was jointly operated with its adjacent competitor, the Norfolk & Western Railway (N&W), under the USRA's wartime takeover of the Pocahontas Roads. The operating efficiencies were significant. After the war, the railroads were returned to their respective owners and competitive status. However, the N&W never lost sight of the VGN and its low-grade routing through Virginia.
After the first world war, there were many attempts by the C&O, the N&W, and others to acquire the profitable little Virginian Railway. However, the US Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) turned down attempts at combining the roads until the late 1950s, when a proposed Norfolk & Western Railway and Virginian Railway merger was finally approved in 1959. The VGN-NW merger is widely believed to have begun the modern era of major railroad mergers as the ICC came to accept that railroads needed to be able to compete more successfully against other modes of transport (i.e. highways and air travel) rather than just against each other.
Heritage: "There will always be a Virginian"
When the VGN lost its identity upon purchase by the Norfolk & Western in 1959, author and photographer H. Reid wrote an epoch book, "The Virginian Railway" and stated "There will always be a Virginian." So far, time has proved him correct.
The VGN in the 21st century
Today, major portions of the VGN low gradient route are the preferred eastbound coal path for the N&W's successor, Norfolk Southern Corporation.
Other portions of VGN right-of-way in eastern Virginia now transport precious fresh water and are under study for future high speed passenger rail service to South Hampton Roads from Richmond and Petersburg.
The former VGN property at Sewell's Point is part of the Norfolk Navy Base, the largest naval facility in the world.
The Virginian Railway is still a favorite among the many fallen flags of railroading in the US.
Hobbyists around the world model the VGN in many gauges, with some items valuable collectibles.
Preservation activity & gatherings
Demonstrative of the lasting spirit of the Virginian, preservationists have saved VGN passenger stations in Suffolk and Roanoke, Virginia. The Suffolk Passenger Station, which was also used by the Seaboard railroads, has been restored and is in use as a museum. Similar plans are underway by the local chapter of the National Railway Historical Society in Roanoke.
Three of the VGN's locomotives, and numerous cabooses and other rolling stock survive. One steam and one electric locomotive have been cosmetically restored, and are on display at the Virginia Museum of Transportation in Roanoke, Virginia.
In October, 2002, VGN authors and enthusiasts restored the Mullens, West Virginia Caboose Museum which had been ravaged in one of West Virgina's notorious floods. The work funded by sale of handmade models and contributions.
In May, 2003, a Gathering of Rail Friends was held at Victoria, Virginia, home to a new museum, with a park with historical interpretations of the roundhouse and turntable sites under development. Norfolk Southern Corporation sent its exhibition train to nearby Crewe for the event.
In April, 2004, children of Boonsboro Elementary School in nearby Bedford, Virginia and the local Kiwanis group in Lynchburg, Virginia teamed to raise funds and work to save the only surviving original (circa 1910) class C-1 wooden Caboose.
In October, 2004, the Roanoke Times newspaper ran a feature story about the weekly meetings of the "Takin' Twenty with the Virginian Brethren" group of retired VGN railroaders, prominently displaying the model of a modern GE locomotive in Virginian Railway livery which they hope the railroad will use as a basis for a special painting of current-day Norfolk Southern locomotive to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the 1907 founding of their favorite railroad, the Virginian Railway.
In December, 2004, a restored VGN caboose, C-10 #342, was moved to newly laid rails at Victoria, where it is the centerpiece of a new rail heritage park.
VGN lives on through the Internet
One of the lasting features of the VGN seems to be the heritage of this little railroad, an example of a successful US transportation company. Beginning with H. Reid's epoch storytelling and photography in "The Virginian Railway", published in 1961, and reprinted at least 3 times, there have been numerous books published and enthusiasts groups formed, some of which meet physically, and others, on the worldwide web.
Formed in 2002, Virginian Railway (VGN) Enthusiasts, a non-profit group of preservationists, authors, photographers, historians, modelers, and rail fans has grown to over 500 members as far from the VGN tracks as Australia, including U.S. troops stationed in the war-torn Middle East. A group of retired railroaders calling themselves "The Virginian Brethren" meet weekly, share tales of the VGN, and answer questions posed by members of the on-line group.
- Barger, Ralph L. (1983) Corporate History of Coal & Coke Railway Co., Charleston, Clendennin & Sutton R.R., Roaring Creek & Belington R.R. Co., as of Date of Valuation, June 30, 1918. Baltimore, MD: Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Historical Society.
- Cartlidge, Oscar (1936) Fifty Years of Coal Mining Charleston, WV: Rose City Press.
- Conley, Phil (1960) History of the Coal Industry of West Virginia Charleston, WV: Educational Foundation.
- Conley, Phil (1923) Life in a West Virginia Coal Field Charleston, WV: American Constitutional Association.
- Corbin, David Alan (1981) Life, Work and Rebellion in the Coal Fields: The Southern West Virginia Miners, 1880-1922 Chicago, Illinois: University of Illinois Press.
- Corbin, David Alan, editor (1990) The West Virginia Mine Wars: An Anthology Charleston, WV: Appalachian Editions.
- Craigo, Robert W., editor (1977) The New River Company: Mining Coal and Making History, 1906-1976 Mount Hope, WV: New River Company.
- Dix, Keith (1977) Work Relations in the Coal Industry: The Hand Loading Era, 1880-1930 Morgantown, WV: West Virginia University Institute for Labor Studies.
- Dixon, Thomas W, Jr., (1994) Appalachian Coal Mines & Railroads. Lynchburg, Virginia: TLC Publishing Inc. ISBN 1-883089-08-5
- Frazier, Claude Albee (1992) Miners and Medicine: West Virginia Memories Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press.
- Huddleston, Eugene L, Ph.D. (2002) Appalachian Conquest, Lynchburg, Virginia: TLC Publishing Inc. ISBN 1-883089-79-4
- Lambie, Joseph T. (1954) From Mine to Market: The History of Coal Transportation on the Norfolk and Western Railway New York: New York University Press
- Lane, Winthrop David (1921) Civil War in West Virginia: A Story of the Industrial Conflict in the Coal Mines New York, NY: B. W. Huebsch, Inc.
- Lewis, Lloyd D. (1992) The Virginian Era. Lynchburg, Virgina: TLC Publishing Inc.
- Lewis, Lloyd D. (1994) Norfolk & Western and Virginian Railways in Color by H. Reid. Lynchburg, Virginia: TLC Publishing Inc. ISBN 1-883089-09-3
- MacCorkle, William (1928) The Recollections of Fifty Years New York, New York: G.P.Putnam's Sons Publishing
- Middleton, William D. (1974) When The Steam Railroads Electrified (1st ed.). Milwaukee, Wisconsin: Kalmbach Publishing Co. ISBN 0-89024-028-0
- Reid, H. (1961). The Virginian Railway (1st ed.). Milwaukee, Wisconsin: Kalmbach Publishing Co.
- Reisweber, Kurt (1995) Virginian Rails 1953-1993 (1st ed.) Old Line Graphics. ISBN 1-879314-11-8
- Sullivan, Ken, editor (1991) The Goldenseal Book of the West Virginia Mine Wars: Articles Reprinted from Goldenseal Magazine, 1977-1991. Charleston: Pictorial Histories Pub. Co.
- Striplin, E. F. Pat. (1981) The Norfolk & Western : a history Roanoke, Va. : Norfolk and Western Railway Co. ISBN 0963325469
- Tams, W. P. (1963) The Smokeless Coal Fields of West Virginia Morgantown, WV: West Virginia University Library.
- Thoenen, Eugene D. (1964) History of the Oil and Gas Industry in West Virginia Charleston, WV:
- Traser, Donald R. (1998) Virginia Railway Depots. Old Dominion Chapter, National Railway Historical Society. ISBN 0-9669906-0-9
- various contributors (1968). Who Was Who in America Volume I (7th ed.). New Providence, New Jersey: Marquis Who’s Who
- Wiley, Aubrey and Wallace, Conley (1985}. The Virginian Railway Handbook. Lynchburg, Virginia: W-W Publications.
Periodical, business, and on-line publications
- Beale, Frank D. (1955) The Virginian Railway Company 45th Annual Report Year Ended December 31, 1954. published in-house
- Cuthriell, N.L. (1956) Coal On The Move Via The Virginian Railway, reprinted with permission of Norfolk Southern Corporation in 1995 by Norfolk & Western Historical Society, Inc. ISBN 0-9633254-2-6
- Dept. of the Navy - (2004) Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships - article on steamship William N. Page. Washington DC: US Naval Historical Center
- Huddleston, Eugene L, Ph.D. (1992) National Railway Bulletin Vol. 57, Number 4, article: Virginian: Henry Huttleston Rogers' Questionable Achievement
- Reid, H. (1953) "Trains & Travel Magazine" December, 1953 "Some Fine Engines", Kalmbach Publishing Co.
- Skaggs, Geoffery - (1985) Page-Vawter House Project in Ansted Ansted, WV: Fayette County Government
- Special Collection William Nelson Page Papers, Library of the University of North Carolina
- US Dept. of the Navy, Naval Historical Center
- Millicent Library, Fairhaven MA, Henry Rogers homepage
- Mark Twain and Henry Huttleston Rogers in Virginia featuring excerpts from their trips together to the 1907 Jamestown Exposition and the 1909 Dedication of the Virginian Railway
- Mark Twain's Correspondence with Henry Huttleston Rogers, 1893-1909
- New River CVB Guide to Ansted, WV
- West Virginia Coal Mines site
- Norfolk & Western Historical Society covers Virginian history
- Virginia Museum of Transportation displays 2 of only 3 extant VGN steam and electric locomotives, located in Roanoke, VA
- Virginian Railway (VGN) Enthusiasts non-profit group of preservationists, authors, photographers, historians, modelers, and railfans
- listing of Virginian Railway authors and their works
- Mullens West Virginia Caboose Museuma community project with photos
- Victoria Virginia's new home for Virginian railway Caboose 342 a community project with photos
- Lynchburg Virginia's project to save the oldest extant Virginian Railway Caboose # 64 a community project with photos
- preserving the Virginian Railway Passenger Station at Roanoke Virginia a community project with photos (requires a pdf file viewer)
- Winding Gulf MSN GroupA group focused on one of the VGN's most productive coalfields, with information about many coal camps, family histories, maps, photos and links
- Norfolk Southern Corp website
- link to site of Railfan.net forum for Virginian Railway which has Roanoke Times story and photos