The Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad (C&O) Greenbrier Division served the Greenbrier River valley in Greenbrier and Pocahontas counties in West Virginia. At its peak, the route was 101 miles in length and extended from Whitcomb between Lewisburg and White Sulphur Springs northward to Winterburn, east of Durbin. It was one of the C&O’s primary branch lines for timber products and served more lumber companies than any other in the state.
Planning and Construction
Until the late 1800s, the upper Greenbrier River valley was an isolated wilderness, dotted with only isolated settlements and the occasional farm. Planning for a railroad along the Greenbrier River only commenced when the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad (C&O) was completed between Richmond, Virginia and the Ohio River.1 The line, a combination of the Virginia Central Railroad and the Covington & Ohio Railroad, merged after the war to form the C&O. The predecessor to the Virginia Central, the Louisa Railroad, was chartered in February 1836 to connect Richmond to points west. In 1850, the railroad was renamed to the Virginia Central and by the war’s conclusion, it stretched from Richmond westward to Clifton Forge. In 1853, the Covington & Ohio was formed to connect Covington and the Ohio River. The route to White Sulphur Springs was finished by July 1869 and to the Ohio River in January 1873.
Not wanting to be delayed, the County Court of Pocahontas County ordered a vote to be held on August 29, 1850, on the matter of subscribing to at least $10,000 in the stock of the Virginia Central, which ultimately did not pass.1 A similar vote held on October 24, 1867 on the subscription of $50,000 in the stock of the C&O also failed by a large margin. Generally, any rail proposal met with some resistance, mostly from landowners and farmers.(5) Companies often expected counties to impose taxes via subscriptions, such as the case with the Chicago, Parkersburg & Norfolk Railway (CP&N). The CP&N requested a public vote on the question of the purchase of $50,000 in stock to finance the construction of the railroad. A majority of the citizens opposed the proposal.5
Other railroads were once proposed for the region, which included:
- The Monongahela & Lewisburg Railway, which was incorporated in 1865 to build a railroad from Pennsylvania through Morgantown, Fairmont, Clarksburg and Buckhannon to the C&O. The line was never built.
- The Washington, Cincinnati & St. Louis Railroad, which was chartered in 1872 to build a railroad from Washington D.C. westward through Monterey, Virginia and Point Pleasant, West Virginia. It would connect to Cincinnati and St. Louis. The line, outside of some grading near Harrisonburg, Virginia, was never built.
- The Chicago, Parkersburg & Norfolk Railway was another similar route proposed from Parkersburg through the central part of the state to White Sulphur Springs. It would have included a 2,850-foot tunnel and 7,400-feet in trestles and bridges.
There were over a dozen other proposed railroads that never came to fruition. It was not until 1890 that the West Virginia & Pittsburgh Railroad (WV&P) was formed in December 1899 in an agreement with the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad (B&O).1 The WV&P was a consolidation of two small railroads that connected Weston and Buckhannon with the B&O that was controlled by Johnson N. Camden. The B&O agreed to provide financial assistance and to lease and operate the railroad. The WV&P was proposed from Weston to Flatwoods, north along the Elk River, southeast along the Gauley River and down to the Williams River. The WV&P would then head eastward towards the Greenbrier River valley.
It was planned that the WV&P would junction the C&O at Covington, Virginia, but it was determined that the C&O’s Hot Springs branch could be extended westward into Pocahontas County, West Virginia and intersect the WV&P somewhere near Marlinton.1 By 1891, the WV&P had narrowed a route towards the Greenbrier River valley via Williams River and Stony Creek. At Marlinton, the C&O would arrive from the east and traverse down 10th Street and junction the WV&P at 2nd Avenue. From there, the WV&P would cross the Greenbrier River and head westward. A C&O yard would be located between 6th and 8th avenues along 10th Street, with the shops being located closer to 11th Street and 4th Avenue. The WV&P yard and shops would be located along the Greenbrier River and 1st Avenue near 6th Street.
Market conditions held off any construction of the WV&P and C&O.1 The WV&P had financial issues in the 1890s and was forced into receivership in 1898 and it was sold to the B&O in 1899. Eventually, WV&P’s route along the Williams River was eventually built by the B&O to Richwood where it served the massive Cherry River Boom & Lumber Company’s mills. Logging railroads extended from Richwood but none connected to the Greenbrier River valley.
On November 16, 1897, the C&O chartered the Greenbrier Railway Company to construct a line from the C&O in Greenbrier County to the Forks of the Greenbrier River in Pocahontas County.2 Surveying began at Marlinton on April 9, 1898, and by June work had proceeded south to Caldwell. The crew turned around and completed a more detailed survey on their way back to Marlinton, arriving in October.
Right-of-way acquisition began in March 1899 and the first construction contract was let in April for five miles from Whitcomb north.2 The first train arrived in Marlinton on October 26, 1900. Regular passenger service between Whitcomb and Marlinton began on December 17.
Work soon began on the C&O north of Marlinton to serve the West Virginia Pulp & Paper Company, who desired pulp wood from Cass for its new paper mill in Covington, Virginia.2 By November 6, the track had been laid across a temporary bridge over the Greenbrier River at Sharps Tunnel, and by Christmas, Cass had been reached. The line from Cass to Durbin was constructed from June 1901 to May 26, 1902. At Durbin, the C&O interchanged with the Coal & Iron Railroad, later a part of the Western Maryland Railway (W&M). A contract to extend the track east to Bartow was let in August 1903 and completed by April 1904. The final extension, to Winterburn, was built from March to June 1905.
In total, $2.13 million was expended on the construction of the Greenbrier Division.2
The Greenbrier Division was a busy railroad upon its full opening. The first customer on the line was the Greenbrier River Lumber Company, which opened north of Marlinton at Stony Creek in October 1900.6
The West Virginia Pulp and Paper Company (WVP&P) was waiting in anticipation for the completion of the railroad for its Covington, Virginia mill.6 It had started up operations at Covington in March 1900 but was finding timber in short supply. Times became so desperate for the company that it attempted log drives down the Greenbrier River during the dry summer months. By the end of the year, reliable trams from the logging camps connected to the railroad and shipments increased accordingly.
Its Cass plant, built by the WVP&P subsidiary, the West Virginia Spruce Lumber Company, began shipping pulp wood on January 28, 1901.6 A railroad had been constructed up Back Allegheny Mountain. The original intent was to timber the nearby forests for spruce and hemlock for pulp for paper products, but after rich hardwoods were discovered, such as maple, oak, and birch, the WVP&P opted to construct a double-band sawmill and other amenities.
There were over 40 small mills located throughout the railroad corridor, a quarry near Renick, and stock pens by 1902.6 By June 1903, 191,677 tons of freight were shipped along the Greenbrier, increasing to 422,930 tons by June 1907, with Cass taking the lion’s share, growing from 107,826 tons to 167,536 tons.
As virgin forests became exhausted, timber hauls began to peak by 1910. The introduction of commercial tree farms in the early 20th century led to some stabilization of the logging industry but it was not enough to start a slow and steady decline in output.5 Many of the small mills closed as their timber tracts were stripped bare, but some big band mills opened leading to a revival in traffic on the Greenbrier.6 Cass expanded operations, adding a tanning extract plant for waste bark in 1913-15, which allowed the company to manufacture hemlock and spruce bark extracts.
During this time, the railroad was hauling 1,200 carloads of livestock out of the valley to slaughterhouses and regional markets.5 This was more than double the number that existed only forty years prior, partially through fenced pastures that replaced open grazing methods, improved breeding, and more pastureland.
In late 1923, the C&O reached an agreement with the WM to interchange cars at Durbin and create a through north to south route.6 Through trains began operating between Ronceverte near Lewisburg to Elkins on January 1, 1924 after heavier rail was installed on the line. It’s early success led to a second through train in October and the construction of a new side track at Durbin in 1925. This helped offset some of the larger mills closing out in the late 1920s that led to a reduction in freight hauls and eventually passenger operations.
The first agency to be closed was at Hosterman on April 15, 1919 after the sawmill closed up seven years prior, followed by Winterburn on July 1, 1920, and Thornwood.6 Passenger service remained to Winterburn until July 1923. On September 15, 1928, the Anthony, Bartow, Beard and Sitlington agency stations closed, followed by Raywood on July 22, 1929. All passenger service by the C&O was discontinued on the Greenbrier on January 8, 1958.
Discussions began around this time for a 32-mile northern extension of the Greenbrier Division into Pendleton County via the East Fork of the Greenbrier River to Poca Lick Run, Walderman Run and down the North Fork of the Potomac River to the Mouth of Seneca.6 The Great Depression killed any hopes of the extension being built.
In June 1942, the WVP&P sold its Cass operation to the Mower Lumber Company who began to cut second-growth timber at Cheat Mountain. But lower production volumes meant lower revenues and the Cass operations were shuttered on July 1, 1960. Following the closure, the railroad was sold to the Midwest Raleigh Corporation, which began to scrap the railroad and its steam engines. A group of local businessmen, led by railroad enthusiast Russell Baum, convinced the state to make Cass Railroad a state park. After years of rehabilitation, Cass Railroad State Park operated its first excursion train from Cass in 1963.
Elsewhere, the C&O was in on-again and off-again discussions with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on track realignment for the formation of flood control projects along the Greenbrier River, namely lakes with dams. Relocation of a portion of the Greenbrier Division had been discussed as early as 1936 when the Corps studied several flood control projects.3 The issue was brought up again in October 1967 when the Corps submitted a proposal to relocate 24 miles of the line from Marlinton to Cass. The new route would have paralleled the original line to Thorny Creek before gaining elevation. About one mile from Sitlington, the relocated line would cross Peters Mountain either via a tunnel or cut. The relocation would cut the Greenbrier Division by three miles and necessitate the abandonment of Sharps Tunnel.
Discussions were held on whether partial or full abandonment of the Greenbrier Division would be a better proposal.3 The C&O submitted a proposal in 1967 to connect the C&O and the W&M via the Williams River between Marlinton and Cowen in Webster County. The idea had actually come up three years prior as a way to connect the B&O with the C&O – expediting shipment of coal from the B&O to Newport News, Virginia.
The Greenbrier Division had been losing traffic as timber resources became depleted over the years. In 1967, the line serviced:
- Woodchips and lumber at Inter State Lumber Company in Bartow;
- Howes Leather Company in Frank;
- Woodchips and lumber at J.B. Belcher and Sons in Durbin;
- Hides and chemicals at the International Shoe Company in Marlinton;
- Pulpwood loading at Westvaco in Marlinton;
- Various businesses in Marlinton;
- Woodchips and lumber at R.S. Burrus in Stillwell;
- Stone at R.H. Burns Lumber Company at Seebert; and
- Building supplies at S.J. Neathawk in North Caldwell.
Belcher closed their Durbin mill which sharply reduced shipments from that region in 1968.3 The closure of the International Shoe Company in May 1970 led the C&O to discuss abandonment of the entire Greenbrier Division and shipments along the line were a third down from just three years prior. The C&O Board of Directors gave their approval in December 1971. In early 1974, the C&O serviced its customers only one day per week, down from three, to save money but financially impacted the remaining industries. In March 1975, the Westvaco pulp yard in Marlinton closed due to the infrequent train service, and Burrus at Stillwell switched to truck hauls in 1975.3
One of the concerns with outright abandonment was the remaining customers at Durbin and Bartow and the Cass Scenic Railroad.3 The C&O resolved this initially by ending its northern limit of abandonment to just south of the WM junction at Durbin and allow the WM to lease 2.8 miles of track to Bartow. The C&O also corresponded with Cass Scenic Railroad to allow the railroad to acquire the track between Durbin and Cass to allow shipment of coal and trains.
On March 18, 1975, the C&O requested permission from the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) to abandon 92 miles of the Greenbrier Division from North Caldwell to the West Fork of the Greenbrier River at Durbin.3 It cited declining traffic and maintenance issues. Hearings were held in August 1977, where it was noted that the C&O had made little to no effort to promote or retain its services to the industries that remained, had deferred maintenance, spending only $34,000 in 1975 and 1976. Despite that, the ICC granted permission to abandon on August 16, 1978, and the C&O announced that the line would be put out of service on December 29.
Greenbrier River Trail
In 1975,4 the West Virginia Railroad Maintenance Authority was formed to monitor proposed railroad abandonments, find alternatives for customers along the affected routes, acquire lines for operation and “rail bank” selected routes for trail use. One of its first tasks was to study the Greenbrier Division, but the study concluded that the line was too small to acquire and operate as a short line.
Instead, 92 miles of right-of-way was donated by the Chessie, C&O’s successor, to the state for a rail-to-trail.3 This included the depot at Marlinton and Durbin, the latter of which was not needed by the WM for its operations between Durbin and Bartow, and the sale of track between milepost 78 and Durbin for the net salvage value of $598,730.
The state proposed to reuse the track between Cass and Durbin to maintain access to the Cass Scenic Railroad and for potential freight service to any operations down there, with the remainder south to North Caldwell leased to the Department of Natural Resources as a linear state park. The depot at Marlinton was donated to the town.
Track removal began in July 1979 from North Caldwell to milepost 78 and was completed by mid-1980.3 The abandoned lines were transferred over to the state on June 20.
Development of the Greenbrier River Trail was slow, and portions of it were damaged in a flood in 1985.3 Federal Emergency Management funds were awarded only in 1992 to repair the damaged sections, and work was completed two years later. Elsewhere, the Cass to Durbin segment saw limited traffic, as potential freight operations never materialized. Cass Scenic Railroad received its coal shipments by truck. The line saw occasional use by railfan excursions and a wayward boxcar. The Western Maryland line from Durbin to Bartow saw a sharp decline in traffic after the C&O line was abandoned. It was believed that traffic would increase as the tannery and mill in Durbin and Bartow would ship via the WM, but the opposite occurred. Interstate Lumber decided to not to ship chips and sawdust by truck to a Westvaco plant in Luke, Maryland; the Westvaco pulp yard at Durbin reduced the number of shipments by rail due to reductions in service; Howes Leather tannery declined similarly.
In June 1983, the WM, C&O and the B&O filed an application with the ICC to abandon the WM from the Greenbrier Junction to Durbin, and the C&O from Durbin to Bartow.3 The final train operated over the line on September 25, and an approval to abandon was granted on December 6. Service officially stopped on February 15, 1984.