Last revised: February 24, 2023
If you are looking for a complete history of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway's famous Greenbrier Division between Ronceverte and Durbin, West Virginia than you need to pick up a copy of The Durbin Route by William McNeel.
Interestingly, the book was first printed in 1985 just five years after the line was formally abandoned by then Chessie System.
It has since been revised a few times, the last occurring in 2000 although I am unaware if it is still in print as of today. In any event, I would highly recommend it for any fan of the C&O or historian of West Virginia's history with trains and railroads.
Through eight chapters the author details how the line came into being and why the C&O decided to ultimately build it along with its daily operations for more than 80 years.
He also covers other topics in the book via separate chapters such as passenger services, accidents, other railroads connecting to the branch, and structures located along the line.The Durbin Route
begins with an opening chapter entitled, "Many Plans Are Made," a reference to the numerous railroad company names and routes contemplated during the latter 19th century after the Virginia Central Railroad reached West Virginia, an early predecessor to the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway (the VC was well known for its involvement in the Civil War conflict).
As the railroad expanded westward there was growing interest in the resources available in the Greenbrier River valley, namely its vast timber reserves, which ran much of the length of eastern West Virginia.
As the author notes in the book no fewer than two dozen names of railroad company names were proposed to extend into the region as early as the 1880s.
While rail service during those years was looked upon as the best and most technologically advanced mode of travel with every town both large and small wanting a line serving their area.
However, funding was even an issue in those days and as a result a route meandering along the Greenbrier River took years until actual construction began.
It was thanks to four men who ultimately pulled the right strings to lure the then C&O to build the branch, notably Johnson Camden, Henry Davis, Stephen Elkins, and John McGraw.
The author goes into detail regarding their efforts but in the interest of time we will omit that historical information here.
Essentially, by 1897 the C&O had created the Greenbrier Railway to begin construction of a line north of a junction along its main line at Ronceverte to follow the river.
Moving into chapter two of The Durbin Route you will read about the actual construction of the line beginning in 1899 after two years of further planning and surveying.
Through the chapter the author describes how segments of the line was constructed and opened in pieces, even going into detail of which companies did the actual contract work.
By May 26, 1902 the rest of the line was opened between Cass and Durbin where a connection was later achieved with the Coal & Iron Railway, an eventual predecessor of the Western Maryland Railway.
Other details covered in this section include where financing for the Greenbrier Branch was derived and what it was spent on (ties, land purchases, ballast, etc.) and construction accidents during building.
In chapter three Mr. McNeel looks at the Greenbrier Branch's peak years from its opening through roughly the late 1920s when the Great Depression hit.
With numerous logging and timber operations opening all along the Greenbrier River the line saw an explosion of traffic making it quite profitable for the C&O.
The route also moved other traffic such as hides and materials for tanneries, livestock, additional manifest freight, and of course passengers (considering there were few towns of any size located along the branch except for perhaps Durbin and Marlington passenger traffic was never significant and declined rapidly after World War II).
Once more the book provides great insight here as to daily train operations even offering profit numbers of annual profits for the line.
During chapter four of The Durbin Route you will read about the slow decline of the Greenbrier Division after the Great Depression and World War II.
Interestingly, despite its status as a branch the line found the C&O's largest power operating its rails including H Class 2-6-6-2 heavy articulated steam locomotives and K Class 2-8-2 Mikados and 2-8-4 Berkshires.
By the early 1960s most of the line's primary traffic had dried up, timber and lumber products as the last of the mills shutdown in the early part of that decade.
With little other online traffic available the C&O, and later Chessie began to drastically scale back operations and discontinue much of the maintenance.
By the late 1970s the company was still earning meager profits from the line but claimed that abandonment would save it from the needed $2+ million needed for major maintenance work to continue operations.
As a result, the Interstate Commerce Commission granted the Chessie's abandonment petition despite calls by the state of West Virginia, local United Transportation Union leaders, and remaining shippers to save the route. Could and should the line have been saved?
Perhaps, although it may been only delaying the inevitable as I am not sure there would still be enough shippers remaining today to continue to support the line's operations.
This chapter features some sobering images of the route as it was abandoned and torn up although from a historical perspective seeing images of the final train to ply the line was quite interesting.
Thankfully, the Greenbrier Branch was purchased by the state and today is a popular recreation area known as the Greenbrier Trail.
While chapter four ends the historical timeline of the line you can continue to read about additional aspects of the route including passenger services, rail accidents that occurred over the years, and structures/stations located across the route.
It has been asked many times if the route will ever see trains again due to its railbanked status and C&O's main line through Ronceverte remains in regular use by CSX today.
Perhaps, although it would require a major revenue potential to see either the state or CSX spend the millions needed to return rails to the Greenbrier River valley.
Today, a few segments of the line can still be found in use surprisingly; Cass Scenic Railroad uses a short stretch around Cass and at Durbin for the Durbin Rocket (they hope to eventually to restore the few miles down to Cass).