West Virginia has many miles of fantastic rail-to-trails, or railroads that have been abandoned and converted into recreational corridors. Most of the trails are not paved, and many contain impressive bridges and tunnels that make any trip exciting. And quite a few of them have remnants of their coal mining past remaining, whether it is abandoned mine portals or discarded equipment.
Several years ago, I traveled to Hawks Nest State Park along the US 60, the Midland Trail, to hike along the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad (C&O) Hawks Nest Subdivision. The 3.4-mile line was originally as a narrow-gauge railroad alongside Mill Creek in Fayette County, connecting the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad (C&O) at Hawks Nest Station to Ansted and is today a rail-to-trail.
Ansted was chartered in 1891 and was named after David T. Ansted, a British geologist who was surveying the area for seams of high grade bituminous coal. Ansted and his party purchased over 1,000 acres of land, representing the English-owned Gauley and Kanawha Coal Company that was formed in 1872. The company constructed a narrow gauge railroad along Mill Creek after the C&O voted against constructing the line, citing steep grades. By 1875, much of the capital had been expended building the railroad with few buildings completed. A small mine was located 1,000 feet above the New River and 300 feet below the summit of Gauley Mountain.
Hawks Nest Railroad was operated with a saddleback locomotive due to grades of up to 4.2% with small, 2.5-ton capacity coal cars. When 16 cars were loaded, two brakemen would ride the coal cars down the grade, using the handbrakes to control the descent speed. At Hawks Nest, the coal cars would be dumped into larger cars for the C&O, a process that was done nine times a day. The line included a 472-foot runaway track around milepost 1.5, and a 47-foot high, 321-foot curved trestle over Mill Creek.
The British-owned Hawks Nest Coal Company was organized in 1875 and by 1877, nearly all of their capital was expended in building facilities, including a tipple and two coke ovens at Hawks Nest. Instead of reorganizing, Hawks Nest leased the property to the National Cooperative Mining, Manufacturing and Colonization Association, who raised $40,000 in working capital to start mining operations and contracted with the C&O . But just after four months, the mines were showing a steep loss and all work stopped.
In 1878, the mine was leased to Colonel Joseph L. Beury, who was the manager of the first company to ship coal on the C&O from the New River gorge, the New River Coal Company at Quinnimont. With some new capital, the Hawks Nest Coal Company was reorganized and Captain William N. Page, an American, was appointed manager.
The railroad became infamous when the Hawks Nest Railroad’s locomotive No. 2, “Mountain Queen,” ferried an excursion up the branch in 1881 for attendees at the annual convention of the American Institute of Mechanical Engineers. The riders were ferried in the small coal cars which were cleaned as best as possible; the train was nicknamed the “Pig Pen Special.”
In 1881, 100 beehive coke ovens were built in Ansted, which hummed with activity, bringing the company profits until 1884. Between 1884 and 1888, the company sustained serious losses that resulted in the company being liquidated. The state of West Virginia could not lease the property at a fair price, and leased the property with the right to buy to the Gauley Mountain Coal Company for $125,000. Page was one of the new owners of the new enterprise, who soon opened a second mine at Ansted.
Another mine, operated by the Mill Creek Colliery Company, was located halfway between Hawks Nest and the Mill Creek trestle, and was opened in 1921. It was smaller than the ones at Ansted.
On November 19, 1889, C&O’s Board of Directors, with the lone dissenting vote of C.P. Huntington, decided to buy the Hawks Nest line and convert it to standard gauge. At the time, the C&O was changing hands and Huntington relinquished his controlling financial interests to the Vanderbilts and J.P. Morgan. The railroad contracted with Page to convert the line to standard guage, which was completed in August 1890. The original 1873 wooden truss over Mill Creek was replaced with a newer, heavier span in 1891. The narrow gauge track and equipment was reused as a connection between the two mines at Ansted.
The Hawks Nest branch continued to serve the mines above Ansted until 1965, although the line was not formally abandoned until May 17, 1972.
Not too far away is the Nicholas, Fayette & Greenbrier Railway (NF&G), a paper railroad that was named after the three counties it served. The ICC created the NF&G in 1929 to resolve claims by the C&O and the New York Central (NYC) to serve newly developing mines in the Sewall seam in the remote areas north of the New River and along the Meadow River.
The predecessor to the NF&G was the C&O’s Gauley Branch, which was built from 1893-94 from Gauley Junction to Greendale to the west. To the east, the Sewell Valley Railroad was constructed from 1908 to 1910 from the C&O mainline at Meadow Creek near Hinton northward to Rainelle to serve the Meadow River Lumber Company. From Rainelle, the Loop & Lookout Railroad was constructed to Nallen between 1908 and 1916. Finally, the Kanawha & West Virginia Railroad constructed a 11 mile line for Flynn Lumber from Belva along the C&O Gauley Branch to Swiss.
Between Swiss and Nallen was 28 miles of virgin timber and mining opportunities. The Sewell Valley and Loop & Lookout were transferred by lease to the Sewell Valley & Ohio Railway in 1917, only to be conveyed by deed to the NF&G. The newly formed railroad constructed a single track line between Swiss and Nallen, including two tunnels and two trestles, between 1929 and 1931. Included was the Koontz Bridge and 3,164-foot Koontz Tunnel.
The NF&G did not own any locomotive or revenue cars, but did own some non-revenue equipment, such as a NF&G wrecker. A coal assembly yard was located at Rainelle, then-home of the largest triple-band sawmill in the world. From the town, the C&O took coal southward towards the mainline at Meadow Creek, while the NF&G ran westward from Rainelle along the Meadow and Gauley rivers to Swiss, where it connected with the NYC.
Due to declining traffic, CSX and Conrail – the owners and operators of the NF&G, filed an application to dissolve the 143 mile NF&G in 1996. Conrail acquired the NF&G from Swiss to Peters Junction, and CSX acquired the NF&G from Peters Junction to Meadow Creek and operated it under the Sewell Valley Subdivision.
The last train operated over CSX’s Sewell Valley Subdivision from milepost 59 at Peters Junction and Russ Station (near Nallen) at milepost 43.7, a distance of 15.27 miles, in July 1996. CSX filed for abandonment in January 1997. In 2006, a coal mine along Glade Creek at milepost 43.7 was shuttered and in April 2008, CSX filed a notice to abandon a section of its Sewell Subdivision from milepost 27 near Rainelle to milepost 43.7 at Russ Station, a distance of 16.7 miles. The abandonment would include two stations at Babcock at milepost 38 and Nallen at milepost 39. Both requests were approved.
Today, the portion of the NF&G through the Gauley River National Recreation Area is an ad-hoc rail-to-trail, and the bridge over the Gauley River has been redecked for future recreational use. Further east, between Nallen and Rainelle, work is underway to convert the disused line into the Meadow River Rail Trail. But a coal mine, which could be placed into operation by Xinergy by 2015, could jeopardize the rail trail efforts. Regardless, the West Virginia Department of Highways is continuing its efforts in developing the rail trail.