The Valley Railroad is a partly abandoned rail line between Harrisonburg and Lexington in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.
In the mid-1800s, the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad (B&O) had plans to establish a railroad line throughout the Shenandoah Valley to form a trunk line carrying southern cotton and other agricultural products north, and manufactured goods from factories in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic south. 1 3 Additionally, the railroad aimed to reach the emerging coal fields in southwest Virginia, southern West Virginia, and Kentucky, and connect cities such as Harrisonburg, Lexington, and Salem to railroads at Staunton and Salem. Their expansion east of the Blue Ridge Mountains was hindered by their competitor, the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) which had also wanted to expand their lines through the area. 2 3
In the aftermath of the Civil War, as the economy began to recover, the Valley Railroad (VRR) came into existence. Chartered on February 23, 1866, the VRR set out to build a 113-mile track from Harrisonburg to the Virginia & Tennessee Railroad at Salem. 1 2 3 By April, key stakeholders convened, and during this meeting, Staunton-native Col. Michael G. Harman, formerly the commanding officer of the 52nd Virginia Infantry, was named the president of the VRR.
The B&O, which had become a primary backer of the VRR, faced challenges with this new charter. North of Harrisonburg, two railroads – the Strasburg & Harrisonburg Railroad and the Manasses Gap Railroad – were already in operation. This presented a problem as there wasn’t a direct link to the B&O-controlled Winchester & Potomac Railroad, which ran between Winchester and the B&O mainline at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. 2
Following discussions with the Virginia General Assembly, the charter for the VRR was revised to permit the company to buy, negotiate, and manage the two existing railroads operating between Harrisonburg and Winchester. 2 This amendment aimed to create a direct connection between the VRR and the B&O mainline. In 1866, instead of VRR pursuing the purchase, the B&O took the initiative to lease these two railroads. This eliminated the need for VRR to buy any tracks, allowing them to focus solely on building their mainline from Harrisonburg to Salem. To aid this effort, at President Harman’s behest, the B&O dispatched a civil engineer to carry out an initial survey for the proposed Harrisonburg to Salem route.
Although the B&O had pledged financial support to the VRR, local communities through which the VRR was slated to pass were less enthusiastic. 2 Disheartened by these financial challenges, Harman resigned as president on July 25, 1870. He was succeeded by Robert E. Lee, who, at that moment, was also serving as the president of Washington College in Lexington. 1 However, Lee’s tenure was short-lived; he passed away in October 1870. Subsequently, Robert Garrett, from the family that had overseen the B&O from 1858 to 1887, took over the reins.
Construction began on the Harrisonburg to Staunton segment of the VRR in 1872.
The first signs of trouble for the VRR came in 1873 when the projected costs for constructing the mainline had surged to over $5 million. 2 Despite this, the railroad sought to heavily mortgage their assets. However, financial support wavered when Rockingham and Augusta counties withdrew their funding for the line which left the B&O responsible for the expenses of the segment between Harrisonburg and Staunton. The part from Staunton to Salem was projected to cost $3 million, and the VRR hoped to cover it with a $3 million mortgage if they could find a willing lender. Their aspirations were hindered by the economic panic of 1873, which left the VRR with a meager $6,700 in reserves and no prospects for their desired mortgage.
By 1874, the VRR’s new track between Harrisonburg and Staunton was operational, and B&O trains started serving Staunton. 2 Even with ongoing disputes over payment with contractors, work continued on the Staunton to Lexington section. However, by the end of that year, the VRR’s financial situation had become so dire that they had only $270 left. A committee reviewing the VRR’s finances advised halting the construction on the Staunton to Lexington section by December 1 at the latest. Come 1875, the VRR halted operations and leased its Harrisonburg to Staunton section to the B&O. Garrett stepped down from the VRR and assumed the presidency of the B&O, with P.P. Pendleton, formerly the B&O’s vice president, succeeding him.
In 1876, the Valley Railroad (VRR) explored options to continue the construction from Staunton to Salem. 2 They received a lease offer from the Shenandoah Valley Railroad (SVRR) which proposed a monthly rent of $2,000 for 15 years, including manpower and equipment. Another proposition came from the National Security Iron, Coal & Improvement Company, suggesting a more cost-effective completion of the same segment. The B&O evaluated these options and favored the SVRR proposal.
However, this lease was terminated in 1877 due to differing interpretations of the project scope. While the SVRR aimed to extend the line all the way to Salem, the VRR chose to limit it to Lexington. When the B&O resumed control, they pondered using convict labor to cut construction costs. Yet, by November 1877, a decision was made against extending the VRR’s line south of Staunton. Further complicating matters was the B&O’s financial strain, resulting from a rate war with the PRR.
Following Pendleton’s death in 1878, William Keyser became the VRR’s president in 1879. 2 By then, the B&O had invested $2.1 million in the project, contrasted with a mere $538,000 from local communities. Keyser faced resistance from locals skeptical of the VRR’s B&O ties and from officials who were growing tired of the delays in construction. The Virginia General Assembly then proposed deadlines for completing the VRR to Lexington by April 1, 1881, to Buchanan by April 1, 1882, and to Salem by April 1, 1883, threatening to withdraw county contributions if not met. However, this legislation was repealed in 1880.
A strategy emerged: if the VRR could connect to the under-construction Richmond & Allegheny Railroad (R&A) along the James River, they might secure the necessary loan to finalize the Staunton to Lexington stretch. 2 This connection promised valuable trading opportunities with northern customers via the B&O.
By April 1881, this potential became tangible as the VRR secured a $1 million loan to finish the Staunton to Lexington portion. 2 Construction rebooted in July, and the board resolved to halt any plans to extend beyond Lexington to Salem. While there was an offer from Rockbridge County to transfer rights for the extension to the SVRR, no formal decision was made. An August meeting addressed some administrative concerns regarding the loan and a potential sale of unfinished sections, but no buyers came forward. This symbolized the end of the original vision for a 113-mile line from Harrisonburg to Salem.
Come October 1881, the R&A line reached Lexington, and the VRR’s Staunton to Lexington segment concluded its construction by the end of 1883. 2 Although there was a fleeting attempt in 1890 to finalize the Lexington to Salem stretch through a traffic agreement with the B&O and the Roanoke & Southern Railway (R&S), it was derailed when the R&S opted to lease to the Norfolk & Western Railway.
The completed 62-mile stretch of the Valley Railroad (VRR) between Harrisonburg and Lexington struggled to attract significant traffic, even after establishing a connection with the Richmond & Allegheny Railroad (R&A) at Lexington. 2 In 1882, the Shenandoah Valley Railroad (SVRR) connected with the newly formed Norfolk & Western Railway at Roanoke, diminishing the prospects of the VRR’s southern extension to Salem. By 1896, the B&O sold the VRR’s northern connection via the Strasburg & Harrisonburg Railroad. This sale forced the VRR to negotiate interchange rates to transfer goods and passengers from its line to the Strasburg & Harrisonburg so that it could connect to the B&O-controlled Winchester & Potomac Railroad.
In 1942, the Chesapeake & Western Railroad (C&W) acquired the VRR segment from Harrisonburg to Staunton. 2 Concurrently, the Staunton to Lexington section was abandoned, with its rails being salvaged to support the World War II effort. By the end of that year, on December 29, the C&W procured the VRR’s remaining assets related to incomplete construction and rights-of-way. These properties were then sold to neighboring landowners.