The Original Norfolk Southern Railway, "East Carolina Dispatch"

Long before there was today's well known Class I carrier there was another Norfolk Southern Railway.  This historic road literally had to be dissolved so the merging Norfolk & Western and Southern could use the name. The original NS dated to the post-Civil War period as a small line intent on connecting northeastern North Carolina with the Norfolk, Virginia area.  In the proceeding years it slowly expanded south through the Tarheel State before proceeding westward through the Piedmont.  It stretched as far as Charlotte, via Raleigh, with a peak network of nearly 1,000 miles.  Throughout the 20th century NS was more or less a profitable railroad and operated independently for nearly 70 years  The NS as we now know it today continues operating small sections of its predecessor.  However, most of the system still in use is now owned by short lines such as the Chesapeake & Albemarle (a Genesee & Wyoming property), which utilizes much of the trackage in northeastern North Carolina.  And, thanks to NS the history of this classic carrier is kept alive through a heritage unit that proudly wears its venerable livery.  

The original Norfolk Southern Railway carries an important place within the industry's history.  It was a Class I carrier, the principal carrier in northeastern North Carolina and, of course, formed part of present-day NS.  Despite this very little has ever been written about the company and no known books highlighting its history have ever been published.  In his article, "Norfolk Southern" from the January, 1951 issue of Trains Magazine, H.A. McBride made similar comments.  The company's corporate heritage presented here is largely thanks to his piece as well as information gleaned from the Norfolk & Southern Historical Society.  The history of the original NS begins on January 20, 1870 when the Elizabeth City & Norfolk Railroad was chartered to complete a line running from Berkley, Virginia (present-day Norfolk) to Edenton, North Carolina via Elizabeth City (a distance of about 83 miles).  It took 11 years to acquire funding and begin construction but the initial 55-mile line from Norfolk to Elizabeth City opened in 1881.  Thanks to the region's relatively flat, table-top profile that same year 28 miles were added to Edenton along Albemarle Sound.

Two years later during 1883 the railroad had changed its name to the Norfolk Southern Railroad to better reflect the railroad’s intentions.  The connection to Edenton enabled the railroad to later begin car ferry operations across the sound at Mackey's Ferry where a connection was made with a private narrow-gauge (3-foot) railroad.  According to Dr. George Hilton's book, "American Narrow Gauge Railroads," between 1888 and 1889 the Roanoke Railroad & Lumber Company constructed a private line from Plymouth to Washington (33 miles) along the western tip of Pamlico Sound.  The region was rich in soft pine and caught the attention of many lumber producers.  Wood products were an important freight commodity for the early Norfolk Southern and remained so until its merger with the Southern.  In 1901 the lumber company's narrow-gauge line was sold to private interests which established the common carrier, Washington & Plymouth Railroad.  There was initially intentions to push service southward to New Bern along the Neuse River but these plans were later dropped. 

After only a few years of operation the W&P was sold to Norfolk Southern on January 15, 1904 which utilized its main line as part of its route striking westward for Raleigh.  In 1905 the property was converted to standard-gauge (4 feet, 8 1/2 inches).  As with most railroads of the day, the NS grew predominantly through expansion.  Its more notable acquisitions include the Albemarle & Pantego Railroad (extending it further south into North Carolina); the Norfolk, Virginia Beach & Southern Railroad picked up in 1899 (reaching both Norfolk and Virginia Beach); and the Chesapeake Transit Company in 1904.  These latter two systems, totaling about 18 miles), provided a direct access to the resort coastal towns of Virginia Beach and Cape Henry.  At the time they proved a successful venture handling heavy commuter traffic to these areas.  However, as highways and automobiles ate away revenues NS opted to replace trains with gasoline rail buses.  These continued to operate until 1947 when the company abandoned all service east of Norfolk.   A year later passenger service across its entire network ceased (mail and express trains did continue running for several years).

On November 24, 1906 the Norfolk & Southern Railway was created when the Norfolk Southern Railroad and Raleigh & Pamlico Sound Railroad (whose main line stretched from Washington, North Carolina west to Raleigh) merged, along with several other small companies. These other railroads included the Virginia and Carolina Coast Railroad; the Pamlico, Oriental & Western Railway; the Atlantic & North Carolina Railroad; and the Beaufort & Western Railroad.  In 1910 the new railroad went through another name change, back to the Norfolk Southern Railroad following receivership in 1908.  More growth followed in 1914 when NS added more than 156 miles to its network when it built from Varina to Charlotte, reaching the latter city in 1916.  This would be the extent of the road's main line, which stretched 383.3 miles from Norfolk to Charlotte.  However, there was some additional expansion to the system after this time, most notably the Durham & South Carolina Railroad acquired on May 27, 1920, which gave NS another 40.5 miles.

This branch ran from the main line at Duncan and extended northward to Durham where additional connections were made with the Norfolk & Western, Southern, Durham & Southern, and Seaboard Air Line (later Seaboard Coast Line).  Other notable secondary lines included a 17.1-mile branch between Norfolk and Virginia Beach; a 17.0-mile branch between Pinetown and Belhaven; a 10.4-mile branch between Norfolk and Shelton (Little Creek); a 31.1-mile branch between Chocowinity and New Bern (added in 1906); a 31.5-mile branch between Phosphate Junction and Lee Creek; a 16.5-mile branch between New Bern and Bayboro; a 42.9-mile branch between Varina and Fayetteville; a 33.3-mile branch between Star and Aberdeen; and finally the aforementioned Durham line.  In 1910 it finally managed to eliminate car ferry across Ablemarle Sound when it opened a 5.8 mile trestle from just east of Edenton at Hornblower Point to Mackey's Ferry. At its peak, following the opening to Charlotte NS maintained a network of 907 miles.  By 1951 this number had dropped to 870 miles and was down to 623 miles by 1969.

Times were not always good, however.  The company had trouble between the 1930s and 1940s including receivership during the Great Depression (where it defaulted on its lease to the Atlantic & North Carolina Railroad).  NS again fell into bankruptcy during World War II when it was reorganized (for a final time) in early 1942 as the now well-known, original Norfolk Southern Railway.  It had rebounded nicely after World War II.  As Vice President J.R. Pritchard noted in 1951, "We're getting the road in fairly good shape now but it certainly has gone through its ups and downs and weird adventures.  In 1949 its traffic base had diversified far beyond wood products and totaled more than $8.7 million that year.  Its freight consisted of everything from agricultural products (peanuts, potatoes, fruit, etc.) and catfish to petroleum products and heating coal.  It even ran time freights!  The company was an extremely important transportation artery for the heavy concentration of farms located in eastern North Carolina, which is still the case today under the Chesapeake & Albemarle.



Norfolk Southern remained relatively profitable through the postwar period, carrying on for the next three decades until the Southern Railway purchased it on the first day of 1974 and merged the Carolina & Northwestern Railway into its new subsidiary. Interestingly, when the Southern and Norfolk & Western proposed to merge they needed the NS name. To accomplish this the Southern renamed its Norfolk Southern Railway as the Carolina & Northwestern Railway (the very railroad it had just a few years earlier merged into the NS!).  Per capita NS had perhaps the largest roster of Baldwin diesel locomotives, mostly operating its AS416 model. Even more interesting is that the Baldwins remained in use all of the way until the Southern Railway merger of the mid-1970s, long after other railroads had sold, traded in, or scrapped theirs due to reliability issues. Following the end of World War II NS began purchasing its first diesels (Baldwins) and had entirely replaced steam during early 1954.  

Diesel Locomotive Roster

Road Number Manufacturer Model Type Date Built Other Notes
1-17EMDGP189-10/63Entered the Southern roster with new high, short hood.
661-663BaldwinDS4-4-6601-5/47Retired in the 1960s.
701-703GE70-Tonner6/48Retired by Southern in 1978 save for 702, sold to Montpelier & Barre Railroad in June, 1967.
1001-1002BaldwinDS4-4-10001/46Retired in the 1960s.
1501-1510BaldwinDRS6-4-150010/47-3/48Retired in the 1960s.
1601-1605BaldwinAS4165-7/51Retired in the 1960s.
1606-1617BaldwinAS4169/52-12/55Retired by Southern following merger.
2001-2007EMDGP386/66-6/67Entered the Southern roster with new high, short hood.

Steam Locomotive Roster

The NS only operated a small contingent of steam locomotives, mostly 4-6-0 Ten-wheelers and 2-8-0 Consolidations. However, it also rostered a small fleet of 2-8-4 Berkshires.

Class Type Wheel Arrangement
2Switcher0-4-0
7Switcher0-6-0
9, 10, 16Mogul2-6-0
31, 38, B-5American4-4-0
100Ten-Wheeler4-6-0
E-3Ten-Wheeler2-8-0
F-1Berkshire2-8-4


According to the Norfolk Southern Railway Company Historical Society the final revenue run under steam occurred on January 12th that year when 2-8-0 #538 completed its switching assignments at Glenwood Yard in Raleigh.  A few weeks later on January 29th the last steam locomotive was retired, marking the end of an era.  While Baldwins dominated the NS roster they were not the only such diesels the road owned.  Aside from a small fleet of General Electric 70-ton switchers it also purchased a crop of eight Electro-Motive GP38's between 1966 and 1967 numbered 2001-2007.  They would prove to be the final new power it ever acquired.  In the spring of 2012 current Norfolk Southern announced intentions to honor several predecessor companies comprising its current system by painting a series of new locomotives in their authentic corporate liveries.  The original NS was included within this fleet and its red/orange scheme with yellow and black trim was adorned on ES44AC #8114.  Today, the General Electric unit regularly roams the NS system.

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