The Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad (C&O) Greenbrier Division is a former railroad in the Greenbrier River valley in Greenbrier and Pocahontas County, West Virginia. The 101-mile line was one of the C&O’s primary branch lines for timber products and served more lumber companies than any other in the state.
Until the late 1800s, the upper Greenbrier River valley was isolated, with scant settlements, a few farms, and little to no industry. 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 in Huntington, West Virginia, a product of the combination of the Virginia Central and the Covington & Ohio railroads that merged after the Civil War. 1
The Louisa Railroad, the predecessor to the Virginia Central, was chartered in February 1836 to connect Richmond with points west, becoming the Virginia Central in 1850. 1 By the end of the Civil War, the Virginia Central had connected Richmond to Clifton Forge and Covington. The Covington & Ohio was formed in 1853 to connect Covington and the Ohio River. 1 It was never formally incorporated and became part of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway (C&O) in 1868. The line was finished to White Sulphur Springs by July 1869 and to the Ohio River in January 1873.
Not wanting to be delayed in securing a connection to the C&O, the County Court of Pocahontas County ordered a vote to be held on the matter of subscribing at least $10,000 to the stock of the VC on August 29, 1850. 1 The measure did not pass. A similar vote was held on the subscription of $50,000 in the stock of the C&O on October 24, 1867, which also failed to pass. 5
Other railroads that were proposed for the region included,
- The Monongahela & Lewisburg Railway was incorporated in 1865 to build a railroad from Pennsylvania through Morgantown, Fairmont, Clarksburg, and Buckhannon, West Virginia to the C&O. The line was never built.
- The Washington, Cincinnati & St. Louis Railroad was chartered in 1872 to build a railroad from Washington D.C. west through Monterey, Virginia, and Point Pleasant, West Virginia, ultimately providing connections to Cincinnati and St. Louis. Outside of some grading near Harrisonburg, Virginia, the line was never finished.
- The Chicago, Parkersburg & Norfolk Railway was proposed to run from Parkersburg to White Sulphur Springs and would have included a 2,850-foot tunnel and 7,400-feet in trestles and bridges. It was never constructed.
There were over a dozen other proposed railroads that never came to fruition.
West Virginia & Pittsburgh Railroad
It was not until December 1899 that the West Virginia & Pittsburgh Railroad (WV&P) was formed in an agreement with the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad (B&O). 1 The WV&P was a consolidation of two small railroads that connected the B&O with Weston and Buckhannon. In return to access to those two communities, the B&O agreed to provide financial assistance and lease and operate the railroad.
The B&O proposed to extend the WV&P from Weston south to Flatwoods along the Elk, Gauley, and Williams Rivers, and then eatward toward the Greenbrier River valley where the WV&P would junction the C&O in Covington. 1 It was then determined that the C&O’s Hot Springs branch could be extended west into Pocahontas County and intersect the WV&P near Marlinton.
By 1891, the WV&P had anrrowed a route from Flatwoods toward Marlinton and the Greenbrier River valley via Williams River and Stony Creek. 1 The C&O would arrive from the east and junction the WV&P at 2nd Avenue in Marlinton. The C&O would construct a small yard between 6th and 8th Avenues along 10th Street, with shops located at 4th Avenue and 11th Street. The WV&P yard and shops would be located along the river and 1st Avenue near 6th Street.
Economic conditions delayed the construction of both railroads. The WV&P was forced into receivership in 1898 and sold to the B&O in 1899. 1 Eventually, WV&P’s route along the Williams River was built to Richwood by the B&O where it served Cherry River Boom & Lumber Company’s mills. Logging railroads extended east from Richwood but none connected to the Greenbrier River valley.
Elsewhere, the C&O chartered the Greenbrier Railway Company on November 16, 1897, to construct a line from the C&O at Caldwell near White Sulphur Springs to the Forks of the Greenbrier River in Pocahontas County. 2 Surveying began in 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 for the C&O’s new Greenbrier Division began in March 1899 and the first construction contract was let in April for a five-mile stretch from Whitcomb northward. 2 The first train arrived in Marlinton on October 26, 1900, and regular passenger service between Whitcomb and Marlinton began on December 17.
Work soon began on extending the Greenbrier Division north of Marlinton to serve the West Virginia Pulp & Paper Company, which had desired shipments of pulpwood from Cass for its new paper mill in Covington. 2 The company had started up operations in Covington in March 1900, but finding reliable stands timber had proved difficult with the company resorting to logging drives down the Greenbrier River to reach the C&O. 6
By November 6, the track had been laid across a temporary bridge over the Greenbrier River at Sharps Tunnel, with the Greenbrier Division reaching Cass on December 25. An extension north to Durbin to an interchange with the Coal & Iron Railroad (later Western Maryland Railway) was built from June 1901 to May 26, 1902. A contract to extend the Greenbrier Division east to Bartow was let in August 1903, which opened in April 1904, followed by an extension east to Winterburn, built between March and June 1905.
In total, $2.13 million was expended on the construction of the 101-mile Greenbrier Division. 2
When it opened, there were 53 structures crossing streams, and of those, 26 were steel bridges, while the rest were wood stringers on masonry piers. 6 The steel bridges were either built new or relocated from other locations. All but one of the steel structures built new was of the plate girder design and fabricated by the A.P. Roberts Company at the Pencoyd Iron Works in Pencoyd, Pennsylvania, in 1900. The relocated bridges came from other railroads, completed by the Phoenix Bridge Company, the Louisville Bridge & Iron Company, the Passaic Rolling Mill Company, and the Edge Moor Iron Company.
The first major customer to open on the Greenbrier Division was the Greenbrier River Lumber Company at Stony Creek, north of Marlinton, in October 1900. 6 West Virginia Pulp & Paper’s subsidiary, the West Virginia Spruce Lumber Company, opened a pulpwood plant in Cass on January 28, 1901, which began shipping pulp to Covington for processing into paper. 6 The company had intended to timber the nearby forests for spruce and hemlock for pulp for paper products, but after discovering significant maple, oak, and birch tree stands, West Virginia Pulp & Paper instead constructed a double-band sawmill. By 1902, there were over 40 small sawmills located along the Greenbrier Division, a rock quarry near Renick, and several stock pens. 6
Timber hauls along the Greenbrier Division peaked around 1910 which corresponded to the exhaustion of virgin timber tracts. 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 along the railroad began to close, but traffic was augmented by the opening of several big-band sawmills. 6 Elsewhere, Cass expanded operations with the addition of a tanning extract plant for waste bark in 1913-15, which allowed West Virginia Pulp & Paper to manufacture hemlock and spruce bark extracts.
By the late 1910s, the railroad was hauling 1,200 carloads of livestock out of the Greenbrier Valley to slaughterhouses and regional markets. 5 This was more than double the number that existed 40 years prior because of fenced pastures that replaced open grazing methods, improved breeding methods, and additional pastureland.
In late 1923, the C&O reached an agreement with the Western Maryland Railway (WM) to interchange cars at Durbin and create a north-to-south route. 6 After heavier rail was installed on the Greenbrier Division, through trains began operating between Ronceverte to Elkins on January 1, 1924. Its success led to a second through train in October and the construction of a new sidetrack at Durbin in 1925.
On May 4, 1925, one bridge span across the Greenbrier at Watoga collapsed when a manifest freight with two engines and 62 cars derailed on approach. 6 A car loaded with bricks derailed and bounced along the ties before hitting the edge of the bridge, causing one span to collapse into the water. A temporary bridge was quickly erected before the destroyed span was replaced with a new Warren through truss by the American Bridge Company between September 1926 and January 1926. 8
A major bridge improvement program was implemented between March 1929 and February 1930 to allow heavier freight engines to be utilized along the Greenbrier Division. 6 All of the “used” steel bridges, dating to 1887 and 1890, were generally replaced with through plate girder structures except for the span at Knapps Creek and the second span at Watoga which were replaced with Warren through trusses.
The first agency station to be closed was at Hosterman on April 15, 1919, after the sawmill closed up in 1912, followed by Winterburn on July 1, 1920. 6 However, passenger service remained at Winterburn until July 1923. On September 15, 1928, the Anthony, Bartow, Beard, and Sitlington agency stations closed, followed by Raywood on July 22, 1929. The advent of private automobile ownership and improved roads led to a steep decline in passenger revenue, and passenger service on the Greenbrier Division was discontinued on January 8, 1958.
During the early 1930s, the C&O proposed a 32-mile extension of the Greenbrier Division into Pendleton County via the East Fork of the Greenbrier River to Poca Lick Run, Walderman Run, and the North Fork of the Potomac River to the Mouth of Seneca, although the deep economic slump during the Great Depression nixed the proposal. 6
West Virginia Pulp & Paper of its Cass operations to the Mower Lumber Company in June 1942 because of a lack of growth prospects because of a lack of virgin timber. 6 Mower Lumber began to cut into second-growth timber stands at Cheat Mountain but lower production volumes and revenues forced the closure of its Cass plant on July 1, 1960. Following its closure, the rail lines operated by Mower Lumber were sold to the Midwest Raleigh Corporation for scrap. A group of local businessmen, led by railroad enthusiast Russell Baum, convinced the state to make Cass 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 proposals after the Corps proposed several flood control projects along the Greenbrier River. As early as 1936, the Corps had proposed the relocation of a portion of the Greenbrier Division. 3 The issue was brought up again in October 1967 when the Corps submitted a proposal to relocate 24 miles of the Greenbrier Division between Marlinton to Cass, with the new route paralleling the original line to Thorny Creek before gaining elevation. The relocated line about one mile from Sitlington would cross Peters Mountain either via a tunnel or deep cut. The relocation would cut the Greenbrier Division by three miles and require the abandonment of Sharps Tunnel.
At the same time, the C&O proposed connecting the Greenbrier Division with the WM via the Williams River between Marlinton and Cowen in Webster County. 3 The idea had originally been conceived in 1964 as a way to connect coal mines along the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad and WM with the C&O’s terminals in Newport News, Virginia, and to increase traffic on the Greenbrier Division.
Overall, traffic on the Greenbrier Division had been waning for decades, and by 1967, shippers included:
- Woodchips and lumber at Inter State Lumber Company in Bartow;
- Howes Leather Company in Frank;
- Woodchips and lumber at J.B. Belcher & 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.
J.B. Belcher & Sons closed their Durbin mill in 1968, 3 followed by the cessation of International Shoe in Marlinton in May 1970, which decreased traffic along the line by a third. This led the C&O to consider the outright closure of the entire Greenbrier Division. In December 1971, the C&O approved of its abandonment, but it pledged to continue running trains until customers could switch to truck hauls.
In 1974, the C&O began servicing the Greenbrier Division just one day per week, down from three per week. 3 Dissatisfied with the infrequent train service, the Westvaco pulp yard in Marlinton closed in March 1975, and the R.S. Burrus plant at Stillwell switched to truck hauls shortly after.
The C&O requested permission from the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) to abandon 92 miles of the Greenbrier Division from North Caldwell to Cass on March 18. 3 Hearings were held in August 1977, and on August 16, 1978, the ICC granted the C&O permission to abandon much of the Greenbrier Division. The railroad discontinued operations over the line between North Caldwell and Cass on December 29.
The segment from Durbin to Bartow continued to be operated by the WM until 1984.
Cass to Durbin
The 14-mile Cass to Durbin segment of the Greenbrier Division remained intact after the C&O discontinued operations between North Caldwell and Cass. 3 6 It was expected that Cass would serve as a destination or loading point for freight and coal, but it never developed; additionally, the Cass Scenic Railroad received its coal shipments by truck. The only use of the line was for an occasional shipment for the Cass Railroad and a few railfan excursions each year. However, the Cass Railroad finally began running excursion trips to Durbin in the summer of 1984. 6
Additionally, prior to the abandonment of the Greenbrier Division, it was hoped that there would be additional traffic on the WM’s Durbin Line. 6 At the time of the Greenbrier Division’s abandonment proceedings, the only traffic of significance along the Durbin Line was interchange traffic from the C&O and cars from the Westvaco pulp yard at Durbin. It was believed that the diversion of the traffic from Frank and Bartow, as well as the pulp wood loads, would provide the traffic needed to ensure continuous rail service to Durbin.
Instead, the Interstate Lumber Company decided not to ship chips and sawdust to the Westvaco plant at Luke, Maryland. 6 The Westvaco pulp yard at Durbin reduced the number of shipments by rail, claiming that the reductions in service and increased rates made truck service more feasible. The Howes Leather Company’s tannery was the only other customer of any significance on the line, which consisted of inbound loads of hides and an occasional car of chemicals, and an occasional outbound car of leather.
In June 1983, the WM, C&O, and the B&O (Chessie) applied with the ICC to abandon the WM between the Greenbrier Junction and Durbin and the C&O between Durbin to Bartow, citing the need to rehabilitate the Glady Tunnel at the cost of $565,000, renovate the line with new ties and surface at the cost of $575,000, and unprofitable operations. 3 6
During abandonment proceedings, Chessie offered to sell the WM line from Greenbrier Junction to Durbin to the state for $300,000, which was about half the estimated scrap value of the track material. 6 The company also offered to donate to the state sufficient track material from the Durbin line for the rebuilding of the former railroad link between Old Spruce and Spruce on Cheat Mountain that would connect the Cass Railroad with the WM Elkins to Webster Springs line. Under both offers, the state would be responsible for providing service to Howes Leather and Westvaco in Durbin.
The state made no official response to Chessie’s offers, although, with the urging of State Senator Jae Spears and other legislators, the Department of Natural Resources agreed in March 1984 to receive track material for the Spruce and Old Spruce connection from the Durbin to Bartow portion of the Greenbrier Division. 6 Even still, the Department of Natural Resources did not plan to handle modern freight equipment on the Cass Scenic Railroad because of the difficulties in handling heavy cars on the steep grades, especially in the winter. Discussions were held between Chessie and Howes Leather to provide railroad freight service at Cheat Bridge, with goods shipped to and between Cheat Bridge and the tannery via truck.
The ICC approved Chessie to abandon the Greenbrier Division on December 6, 1983, and service on the line to Durbin was discontinued on February 15, 1984. 6 However, no trains had operated over the line since November 1983.
A severe flood along the Greenbrier River in 1985 damaged the Cass to Durbin segment of the former Greenbrier Division, leaving Durbin stranded with no rail connections. Reconstruction of the affected segment began by the Durbin & Greenbrier Valley Railroad (D&GV) in the 2010s. As of 2020, 7 miles of the line have been restored from Cass north to the south end of the Trout Run bridge and from the north end of the Trout Run bridge to Housterman. 7 The rebuilt segments have been raised several feet higher than the original line, and the curves have been expanded to expand the distance between the right-of-way and the river.
Once reconstruction is complete between Cass and Durbin, the D&GV will be able to provide excursions between the two communities. Discussions are ongoing regarding the rebuilding of the former WM line between Durbin and Cheat Junction which would provide the potential for lengthy excursions from Elkins to Cass.
Greenbrier River Trail
The West Virginia Railroad Maintenance Authority (WVRMA) was formed in 1975 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. 4 One of its first tasks by the WVRMA was to conduct a feasibility study of the Greenbrier Division to see if it was viable for the state to maintain as a short line, but it concluded that the proposed line would have too few customers to operate profitably.
The C&O’s successor, Chessie, donated 92 miles of the Greenbrier Division to the WVRMA for reuse for a multi-purpose trail, which included the Marlinton and Durbin depots. 3 Chessie also sold to the WVRMA its track between Cass and Durbin for the net salvage value of $598,730 so that the state could maintain railroad access to the Cass Scenic Railroad and for potential industrial developments. Chessie began track removal from North Caldwell in July 1979 and proceeded northward to Cass by mid-1980, with the Greenbrier Division’s right-of-way transferred to WVRMA on June 20.
WVRMA’s development of the multi-purpose trail, the Greenbrier River Trail, was slow as portions were damaged in a flood in 1985. 3 Federal Emergency Management funds were awarded in 1992 to repair the damaged sections, and the Greenbrier River Trail between North Caldwell to Cass opened in 1994.
- McNeel, William Price. “Many Plans are Made.” The Durbin Route. Charleston: Pictorial Histories Publishing, 1985. 1-12. Print.
- “The Chesapeake & Ohio Builds a Branch Line.” 13-34.
- “Depression and the Final years.” 57-84.
- “State Rail Authority.” West Virginia Department of Transportation. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Jan. 2014. Article.
- Pudup, Mary Beth, Dwight B. Billings and Altina L. Waller. “Railroads, Deforestation, and the Transformation of Agriculture in the West Virginia Back Counties, 1880-1920.” Appalachia in the Making: The Mountain South in the Nineteenth Century. University of North Carolina Press, 1995. 307-316. Print.
- McNeel, William Price. The Durbin Route. Charleston: Pictorial Histories Publishing, 1985. Print.
- “Durbin & Cass Connection.” Durbin & Greenbrier Railway, 2022.
- Bridge plaque.