The Chesapeake and Ohio Railway, George Washington's Railroad


The Chesapeake and Ohio Railway was one of several Appalachian coal haulers and is perhaps best remembered for its buyout of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad in the early 1960s and its excellent management through much of the second-half of the 20th century, which earned the company substantial profits, especially during the waning years of the railroad industry in the 1960s and 1970s. It thrived on West Virginia and Kentucky coal and was a gateway between Chicago and the ports of Virginia. More so than its ownership of the B&O the C&O is best remembered for the legendary publicity campaign it created in the early 1930s; Chessie the sleeping kitten. An icon even outside the rail industry, many people today still recognize the kitten and its association with railroading in some way.

A set of C&O GP35s, #3569 and #3536, lead freight DT-41 northbound at North Tonawanda, New York on October 30, 1977.

The Chesapeake and Ohio Railway had its beginnings in the mid-1830s when the Louisa Railroad was chartered to connect Virginia’s larger cities. In 1850 the company was renamed the Virginia Central because it operated through much of the state’s central regions, west and north of Richmond. By the late 1860s the railroad was again reorganized, this time as the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad when Virginia Central management decided to push the railroad to the Ohio River, eventually reaching Huntington, West Virginia during the winter of 1873 after building a main line through the Alleghenies and the tight confines of the Kanawha River valley (which is such a beautiful route that today it hosts the famous New River Train each fall).

Although the company fell into receivership in the mid-1870s and was reorganized as the C&O during the latter years of the decade it continued to grow and expand. By the early 20th century it had acquired many smaller roads and gained access into Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, and even Chicago. Perhaps the railroad’s most influential years were in the mid-1920s when it came under the ownership of the Van Sweringen brothers of Cleveland, Ohio who expanded the railroad all over Michigan, even reaching Buffalo and Niagara Falls via Ontario, Canada (much of this came about via control of the Pere Marquette just before the depression years).

Following the Great Depression (which was not as terrible for the C&O as most other railroads) the railroad really began to take off and it was during the early 1930s that Chessie was born. The creator of the sleeping kitten image was an artist by the name of Guido Grenewald but Chessie is credited to Lionel Probert, who was an assistant to the C&O president.  Probert, once he had permission to use the image, added to it “Sleep Like a Kitten” and within just a few years of its debut in 1933 Chessie had earned nearly legendary status!

The advertising campaign remains one of the most successful of all time and even today the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway Historical Society continues to sell calendars and other memorabilia featuring Chessie (when the kitten debuted demand was so high that the C&O could not keep enough merchandise in stock). Of course, Chessie’s celebrity status did not end with merchandise and an advertising campaign, the kitten became synonymous with the C&O and she became famous all over again in the early 1970s when the Chessie System, a holding company for the C&O, B&O, and WM, overlaid the kitten’s silhouette in the Chessie System “C” adorning the railroads new vermilion, yellow, and blue livery.

Throughout the rest of the C&O’s life it would earn healthy profits (much of it due to the rich coal fields it served in West Virginia and Kentucky) and in the early 1960s won a bidding war with the New York Central for control of its much larger northern neighbor, the B&O. However, rather than merge the B&O out of existence the railroad chose to gradually combine the two railroads, slowly merging departments and other management areas. This was done for several reasons but two of the most important was to not upset the extremely loyal B&O employees (which would not take outright control and dissolution easily) and to retain the tax exemption status the B&O held in the State of Maryland.

A trio of C&O Geeps led by GP30 #3008 roll past SW7 #5218 and its caboose at the 75th & Campbell Street Yards in Chicago on December 31, 1964.

In 1972 came the largest change for three railroads when a new holding company was created, the Chessie System. Its new livery with the Chess-“C” was an instant hit and remains today as one of the most colorful, popular, and dynamic railroad liveries to ever grace a locomotive. The new Chessie System would become quite a juggernaut, earning substantial profits throughout the 1970s, one of only a handful of railroads to do so during a time when the industry was in a downward spiral and scores of Class I railroads would file for bankruptcy during the decade, most notably in the Northeast.

The Chessie System, however, would last a mere eight years as an independent company itself as in 1980 it would merge with Seaboard Coast Line Industries (which was a holding company for a number of southeastern railroads including the Seaboard Coast Line and Louisville & Nashville) to form CSX Transportation in 1987. The creation of CSX, however, entered the Chesapeake & Ohio into its final days. As with the other companies it controlled, the C&O also would be gone in only seven more years, being the last railroad merged into CSX in May of 1987, a month after the B&O was merged out of existence. For all of the C&O and Chessie System’s success, CSX for many years was not managed nearly as well.

The railroad’s management had been questionable as it had consistently held one of the highest operating ratios in the industry, and always earns far less net profits than its eastern rival, Norfolk Southern, despite having a larger system. However, in the past few years things have begun to change as today CSX is seeing record low operating ratios and record high overall profits. In any event, the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway will always be remembered for the excellent railroad it operated throughout much of the 20th century and Chessie the kitten remains beloved by millions, decades since the railroad has disappeared.

Diesel Locomotive Roster

The American Locomotive Company

Model Type Road Number Date Built Quantity
C6302100-210319674
S25000-50571946-195058
S45100-5113195314
RS15114-511519532
RS25500-550119492
RSD55570-55951952-195326
RS35600-560119552
RSD76800-6811195612
RSD126700-6709195610

The Baldwin Locomotive Works

Model Type Road Number Date Built Quantity
AS6165528-5529, 5533-55691950-195339
DRS-6-6-15005530-553219493

The Electro-Motive Corporation/Electro-Motive Division

Model Type Road Number Date Built Quantity
BL280-85, 1840-18471948-194914
E7A95-9819484
GP15T1500-1524198225
SD181800-1818196319
NW21850-1856, 5200-5213, 5060-50791948-194941
GP303000-30471962-196348
GP353045, 3047, 3520-3539, 3560-3575196438
GP403780-3794, 4065-4099197150
GP383850-3899, 4820-48291967-197060
GP393900-3919196920
E8A4000-40301951-195331
GP40-24165-4184, 4262-4286, 4372-44211972-198095
SW75214-5239195026
SW95080-5099, 5245-5265, 5090-50931951-195345
GP75700-5719, 5739-5797, 5800-5855, 5860-59001950-1953176
GP95901-62631954-1957363
TR46000A, 6000B (Calf), 6001A, 6001B (Calf)19504
TR36500A-6501A, 6500C, 6500B (Calf), 6501C, 6501B (Calf)19496
F7A7000-70851950-195286
SD357420-7431196412
SD407450-7469, 7475-7481, 7501-75361966-197163
FP78000-8015195216
SD508553-8575, 8624-86431984-198543

General Electric

Model Type Road Number Date Built Quantity
U23B2300-2339196910
U25B2500-25371963-196438
U30C3300-33121967-196813
U30B8200-82341972-197435

One of the C&O's Class J-2 4-8-2 Mountains, #544, which is normal power for the George Washington rests at the Ivy City Yard in Washington, D.C. on June 3, 1940.

Steam Locomotive Roster

Class Type Wheel Arrangement
A-16Atlantic4-4-2
B-2, B-3Santa Fe2-10-2
C (Various)Switcher0-8-0, 0-6-0, 0-10-0
C-9Shay0-4-4-4-4-0T
F-15 Through F-20Pacific4-6-2
G (Various)Consolidation2-8-0
H-2 Through H-6Articulated2-6-6-2
H-7Articulated2-8-8-2
J-1, J-2Mountain4-8-2
J-3Greenbrier4-8-4
K-1 Through K-3Mikado2-8-2
L-1, L-2Hudson4-6-4
M-1Turbine2-C1+2-C1-B
T-1Texas2-10-4

Several C&O Geeps can be seen here at the Richmond, Virginia yard as they layover under the now-abandoned coaling tower awaiting their next assignment on September 15, 1968.

Notable Passenger Trains

George Washington

Fast Flying Virginian

Sportsman

Pere Marquette: (Detroit-Grand Rapids, Chicago Grand Rapids/Muskegon, and Detroit-Saginaw)

Resort Special: Originally served Chicago and Petoskey but later connected Washington with White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia.


Four E units, each of different heritage (including C&O E8A #4026 to the far left), rest at the Ivy City engine terminal in Washington, D.C. on April 29, 1970.

For an excellent pictorial history (all in color) of the C&O please consider Chesapeake and Ohio Railway in the Coal Fields of West Virginia and Kentucky: Mines-Towns-Trains from Thomas Dixon, Jr. The book highlights the C&O's operations through the heart of Appalachia and its coalfield operations. Anyone interested in the C&O or Appalachian railroading in general will very much enjoy it.  Also consider The Chesapeake & Ohio Railway at Mid-Century, also by author Tom Dixon, which explores the operations of the famed coal hauler during its transition from steam to diesel locomotives. It provides an great look at an interesting time in the industry in general with all types of locomotives (steam and diesel) in operation and includes more than 170 pages of photos and information. If you're interested in perhaps purchasing either (or both) of these books please visit the links below which will take you to ordering information through Amazon.com, the trusted online shopping network.

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