The Chesapeake Western Railway once extended from Stokesville, Virginia in Augusta County eastward to Elkton via Harrisonburg. Despite its early potential as a through route between Cincinnati and Washington D.C., and later as a feeder to the coal mines in West Virginia, the railroad never lived up to its potential.
The origins of the CW date to 1871 when the Washington, Cincinnati & St. Louis Railroad (WC&StL) was chartered in Virginia as a narrow-gauge railroad to operate from Washington, D.C. westward to Elkton, Harrisonburg and Bridgewater, Virginia and westward through central West Virginia towards Cincinnati, Ohio. Right-of-way was eventually purchased and some grading began before funding ran dry. Work was stopped just three years after its charter was issued.2
In 1892, several promoters incorporated the Chesapeake, Shendun and Western Railroad to transport coal from West Virginia to the Chesapeake & Ohio (C&O) at Gloucester Point, Virginia.2 The railroad was quickly renamed the Chesapeake & Western Railroad (C&W). The route was projected to follow through the Allegheny Mountains via North River Gap west of Harrisonburg,1 and would use part of the old WC&StL right-of-way.2
Construction on the railroad began in 1895 in Harrisonburg after the city issued $150,000 to ensure that the railroad would pass in the city.2 On March 23, 1896, a 26-mile segment of the C&W opened from Bridgewater to the Norfolk & Western Railway (N&W) at Elkton.1 The line included a 5 mile 2% grade west of Elkton at Massanutten Mountain, and a 1.8% grade at Keezletown Hill. Shops and a yard were built at Elkton.
In 1901, the C&W was reorganized and became the Chesapeake Western Railway (CW) and began construction of the western extension into West Virginia and a similar extension through the Blue Ridge Mountains at Powell’s Gap. This segment was financed by New York investor Thomas Stokes who wanted to develop coal mines in western Rockingham County.2 But after he became mired in financial technicalities, his brother purchased control of the C&W and renamed it the Tidewater & West Virginia Railroad in 1900, although this became the Chesapeake Western Railway just a year later. He leased the C&W line for 99 years.
A new section of the C&W was completed to Stokesville at North River Gap in 1902 which served several narrow-gauge logging railroads. Unfortunately for the line, western Virginia’s coal proved to be of little value, and there was not enough financing to construct the CW further west. Despite the lack of coal revenue and because of its exclusion from the B&O and N&W “Union Station” at Harrisonburg, a larger more elaborate station in Harrisonburg was constructed in 1913.
In 1930, the CW between Stokesville and Mt. Solon was dismantled, followed by the remainder to Bridgewater in 1933. Stokes continued to operate the C&W until his death in 1926, which fell into the hands of his estate unti 1938 who left the remainder of the line in shambles.2 An offer was made by Japanese interests to sell the entire line for scrap.1 It was at that time that the general manager of the railroad, Don Thomas, stepped up to purchase the railroad which was underwritten by the N&W who saw the line was an important connector for its railroad. Four years later, the CW was expanded when the B&O was purchased from Harrisonburg to Lexington. The Staunton to Lexington section was dismantled due to redundancy and for scrap.
In 1954, the N&W assumed direct control of the CW. In 1985, the bridge at Elkton was replaced after a flood washed out the span, and the original CW line between Bridgewater and Pleasant Hill to the north was dismantled two years later due to a lack of traffic. In 1989, the shops at Elkton were demolished.1 The former B&O south of Pleasant Valley was mothballed in 1985 and in 1993, was sold to the Buckingham Branch Railroad that is now the Shenandoah Valley Railroad.
Although the CW never reached expectations, a large segment of the railroad is operated today as the Norfolk Southern Chesapeake Western Branch.