Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad Hawks Nest Subdivision

The Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad Hawks Nest Subdivision is an abandoned 3.4-mile branch from Hawks Nest Station to Ansted, West Virginia. It was originally conceived as a narrow-gauge line alongside Mill Creek.

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. 1 4 Ansted was brought to the region by former Confederate Colonel George W. Imboden, a lawyer who had been speculating in coal lands in the region after the Civil War. Together, they purchased over 1,000 acres of land, representing the English-owned Gauley and Kanawha Coal Company that was formed in 1872. 4 5

Ansted hired Messrs. H.P. Mason and Brother to begin construction of a 30-inch narrow gauge railroad 4 5 along Mill Creek after the C&O voted against constructing a branch up the creek, citing steep grades. 3 By 1875, much of the capital had been expended building the Hawks Nest Railroad with few other structures completed. 4 A small mine was located 1,000 feet above the New River and 300 feet below the summit of Gauley Mountain. 5

The railroad was operated with a saddleback locomotive due to grades of up to 4.2% 1 3 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  wooden truss over Mill Creek.

The British-owned Hawks Nest Coal Company was organized in 1875 5 and by 1877, nearly all of their capital was expended in building facilities, including a tipple and two coke ovens at Hawks Nest. But with no capital to work with, Hawks Nest leased the property to the National Cooperative Mining, Manufacturing and Colonization Association, which represented a group of 200 miners from Pennsylvania. The association raised $40,000 in working capital to start mining operations and contracted with the C&O for 85 cents per ton. 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. He was also the founder of mines at Fire Creek and Echo. 4 With some new capital, the Hawks Nest Coal Company was reorganized and Captain William N. Page, an American, was appointed the 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.3 The riders were ferried in the small coal cars which were cleaned as best as possible, and as such, the train was nicknamed the “Pig Pen Special.” 4

In the same year, one-hundred beehive coke ovens were built in Ansted which hummed with activity, bringing the company good profits. Between 1884 and 1888, serious financial losses were sustained that resulted in the coal company being liquidated. The state of West Virginia could not lease the property at a fair price and instead leased the property with the right to buy to the Gauley Mountain Coal Company for just $125,000. Page was one of the new owners of Gauley Mountain, and with a new influx of capital, opened up the second mine at Ansted. 4

One of those mines extended under Gauley Mountain to Jodie which was located along the Gauley River. 4 Because there was no rail line at the time along the Gauley River, the coal was shipped via the Hawks Nest Railroad. By 1892, coal production reached 500 tons daily. Another smaller 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. 5 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 gauge, which was completed on August 20, 1890, 4 6 at a cost of $35,038.44. 5 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. 4

The C&O did not initially want to transport passengers on the short branch line but was required to do so following a decision of the United States Supreme Court in Chesapeake & Ohio Railway Company v. Public Service Commission of State of West Virginia, 242 U.S. 603 (1917). Four round trips a day were made until passenger service was discontinued in August 1939. 4 Ansted, the main station, was discontinued as an agency in 1959 and the shelter was demolished at a point after 1963. Hawks Nest had a standard C&O depot and tower that was erected in 1894 and replaced with a shelter station in 1940. 5 6 The station rotted and was pushed into the New River in 1980. 5

The Hawks Nest branch continued to serve the mines above Ansted until 1965, although the line was not formally abandoned until May 17, 1972. 5 6



  1. “Ansted, West Virginia.” WMTH. N.d. Web. 3 June 2013. Article.
  2. “The Kanawha Series.” West Virginia Geological Survey. Comp. I.C. White. Vol. 2. Morgantown: Morgantown Post Company, 1903. 534. Print.
  3. Huddleston, Eugene, John Joseph, and Everett Young. “The New River Field.” Chesapeake & Ohio, Coal, and Color. Marceline, Mo.: Walsworth, 1997. 7-8. Print.
  4. Fenstermacher, Todd. “Hawks Nest Subdivision Revisited.” Chesapeake & Ohio Historical Magazine Oct. 1991: 3-7. Print.
    1. Peters, J.T. and H.B. Carden. History of Fayette County, West Virginia. 275, 287, 488-493.
    2. West Virqinia History. Vol. 46. 7.
    3. Liqht Iron Short Ties. Three Rivers Narrow Gauge Historical Society. Vol. 6.3.
    4. Long, Roy C. “Railroad Recollections,” Hinton News. 12 June 1990, n.p. Print.
    5. Cox, William E. Life on the New River. 1-2.
    6. Huddleston, Eugene L. Riding that New River Train. 73.
    7. Charlottesville Chronicle. Vol . 18.30. 23 July 1886.
  5. Dixon Jr., Thomas W. “The Chesapeake & Ohio Railway at Hawks Nest, West Virginia.” Chesapeake & Ohio Historical Magazine Feb. 2000: 1-24. Print.
  6. “The Hawks Nest Subdivision.” Chesapeake & Ohio Historical Magazine Mar. 2007: 14-15. Print.

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