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.
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.
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.
Fast Flying Virginian/F.F.V.: (Washington/Newport News - Cincinnati/Louisville)
George Washington: (Washington/Newport News - Cincinnati/Louisville)
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.
Sportsman: (Washington/Newport News - Cincinnati/Detroit)
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.