The Norfolk and Western’s merger with the Southern in 1982 was fitting for two railroads which spent most of the 20th century as efficient, profitable operations. From a history tracing back to the 1830s the N&W did not blossom into a great American success story until after 1900. It acted a conveyor belt of coal moving black diamonds from mines located in southern West Virginia and southwestern Virginia to Norfolk/Newport News. Before expanding rapidly after the late 1950's its original network contained only slightly more than 2,000 route miles connecting Norfolk with Cincinnati and Columbus.
Historically, the railroad is remembered for many things ranging from its staunch support of the steam locomotive to legendary photographer O. Winston Link who captured its final days of steam in stunning black and white photography. His work is now considered all but priceless works of art. Today, the N&W's principal lines remain in use under successor Norfolk Southern. Its once lucrative coal business is not the juggernaut of yore but still sustains the "Thoroughbred Route" through modern times.
The origins of the mighty Norfolk & Western begin quite humbly in far eastern Virginia when the General Assembly chartered the City Point Railroad during early 1836. The early industry was still learning its trade and steam power was rudimentary. However, railroads were proving their worth up and down the east coast from the South Carolina Canal & Rail Road Company serving Charleston, South Carolina to the Baltimore & Ohio linking Baltimore, Maryland. The City Point opened on September 7, 1838 between its hometown (now known as Hopewell) on the James River to nearby Petersburg, a distance of 9 miles. During a period in which efficient transportation was limited primarily to slow-moving waterways the new railroad could move freight and passengers at unheard of speeds. In 1847 the City Point was reorganized as the Appomattox Railroad and acquired by the Southside Railroad (SRR) in 1854. The latter carrier had been chartered in 1846, initially to build from Petersburg to what is now Blackstone. According to C. Nelson Harris’s book, “Norfolk & Western Railway Stations And Depots,” the Southside was given its name because its right-of-way traveled south of the James River.
It began construction in 1849 and by 1852 had reached Burkeville, providing an interchange there with the Richmond & Danville (later, Southern Railway). As the Southside continued westward, intent on reaching Lynchburg, it was faced with a choice of grading a southerly route with easier grades or follow a more circuitous and rugged northerly extension. In another case of money dictating logic the latter corridor was ultimately chosen. The reasoning was not entirely without merit; the railroad needed funding and the northerly route was enticing because the town of Farmville offered financial incentives to connect their town (common in those times when communities recognized the economic opportunities a railroad brought). The line was forced to cross the wide Appomattox River, which required a massive span. The High Bridge, completed in 1852, was 2,440 feet in length and rose 125 feet above the water line (today it is part of the High Bridge Trail between Burkeville and Pamplin). The Southside would finish its line to Lynchburg two years later in 1854.
Two other noteworthy components included the Norfolk & Petersburg (opened between its namesake cities in 1858) and the Virginia & Tennessee (completed between Lynchburg and Bristol, Virginia in 1856). After recovering from damage caused during the "War Between The States" (the South's term for the Civil War) the N&P, V&T, and SRR merged in 1870 to form the 408-mile Atlantic, Mississippi & Ohio Railroad. This short-lived company struggled during the financial Panic of 1873 and was forced into bankruptcy. It was then reorganized as the Norfolk & Western Railroad during May of 1881. Another financial panic in 1893 thrust it into bankruptcy once more. After a final reorganization the Norfolk & Western Railway was born on September 24, 1896. Prior to this last reorganization coal was already proving its most valuable commodity. As Eric Grubb notes in his article, "Coal Supports The Norfolk & Western" from the November, 1947 issue of Trains Magazine, it all began in 1881 when vice-president of a young N&W, F.J. Kimball, firmly believed rich seams of bituminous were located in southwestern Virginia despite geologists proclaiming otherwise. Kimball went on to discover the rich Pocahontas #3 seam and the railroad quickly pushed into the region.
According to Jim Cox’s book, “Rails Across Dixie: A History Of Passenger Trains In The American South,” the N&W took ownership of the unfinished New River Railroad and shipped out the first loads of coal from Pocahontas, Virginia on March 12, 1883. The line, running via Bluefield, West Virginia and New River, Virginia officially opened a few months later on May 21st. Its first carloads totaled 54,500 tons that year but by 1887 had blossomed to roughly 1 million. In the coming years this number steadily rose as the road expanded. Throughout the end of the 19th century the N&W continued extending its reach. During 1896 it acquired the Lynchburg & Durham running between those two cities while the Roanoke & Southern allowed access to Winston-Salem via Roanoke. This latter city became N&W’s headquarters and primary terminal. Its storied shops here went on to produce some of the finest steam locomotives ever built. In 1901 the N&W expanded to Cincinnati by purchasing the Cincinnati, Portsmouth & Virginia. There were other important interchange points; two most noteworthy include Hagerstown, Maryland and Columbus, Ohio. The former offered connections with the Western Maryland, Pennsylvania and Baltimore & Ohio while the latter provided a link with the B&O, PRR, Chesapeake & Ohio and New York Central.
At the turn of the 20th century the N&W's modern system, prior to postwar mergers, was essentially in place. At its peak size it consisted of just over 2,100 route miles, relatively small for a Class I carrier even then. Its total trackage, as of 1947, consisted of 4,543 miles. It stretched from the tidewater port area of Norfolk/Portsmouth, Virginia to Cincinnati and Columbus, Ohio, which covered a distance of 663 miles. While the N&W did move a variety of freight ranging from agriculture to merchandise, black diamonds were its mainstay. While it is recognized for moving coal shipments predominantly eastbound from "Tipple to Tidewater" some of this traffic was also handled through its Midwestern gateway at Columbus. According to Mike Schafer’s book, “Classic American Railroads – Volume III,” even during the early 1980s, just prior to the merger with the Southern, coal still comprised over 60% of its annual tonnage. It was so wealthy the company had paid an annual dividend since 1901 and continued to do so for decades. Such prosperity was common through the 1920s but rare after the stock market crash in October of 1929. Many railroads struggled through the 1930s, but not the N&W.
The company's exemplary management wisely invested surplus income into the railroad's physical plant. Mr. Grubb notes that by the late 1940's, 72% of its network had been laid with heavy, 130-pound rail or greater. In addition, key corridors were double-tracked, terminals were modernized, classification yards expanded, new steam designs developed, and by 1958 it boasted 46.7% of its network protected by Centralized Traffic Control (CTC). The rest was guarded with automatic block signals according to Frank Shaffer's article, "Stuart Saunders And His Moneymaking Machine" from the February, 1963 issue of Trans Magazine. "Precision Transportation" was not just a slogan, the company lived by this creed on a daily basis. During 1959 the N&W began the first of several takeovers by acquiring the nearby Virginian Railway. This pesky little road was equally wealthy and electrified west of Roanoke. It competed for the same coal that also shipped eastward to Norfolk. In the 1960s its portfolio grew three-fold when it picked up the small Atlantic & Danville (1962), much larger Nickel Plate Road (1964) and Wabash (1964). Finally, former interurban Illinois Terminal was added in 1981.
Within the industry and among historians the N&W is widely recognized for its use of steam power. The company was arguably better at designing and building the locomotives than even noted manufacturers like Baldwin and the American Locomotive Company (Alco). The fabled Roanoke Shops rolled out hundreds over the years with such classic designs as the 4-8-4 "J," 2-6-6-4 "A," and 2-8-8-2 "Y." The railroad was relentless in its pursuit of power and efficiency, doing whatever it could to squeeze out further improvements. In the postwar years the Shops were still rolling out new units even as many counterparts retired theirs in favor of diesels. As the company perfected the technology new maintenance facilities were constructed to quickly overhaul locomotives (notorious for their maintenance-intensive nature). One of the most interesting was the "Lubritorium." Unique to the N&W these small structures swiftly serviced steamers for their next assignment. The railroad became so adept at the practice motive power could be turned and ready to go within an hour!
Steam remained in regular service until the mid-1950s, which signaled its technological peak. No other system operated such advanced designs as the Roanoke Road. Its locomotives carried such features as roller-bearings on all axles, high capacity boilers, superheaters, and automatic lubricators. The big 2-8-8-2 compounds (Y's) handled the heavy drag assignments, muscling over the mountainous territory on the Pocahontas Division while 2-6-6-4's (A's) could speed time freights up to 70 mph on gentler grades. These latter units could also work duel assignments in passenger service. Finally, the powerful 4-8-4's (J) and their smaller counterparts, 4-8-2's (K), generally handled the passenger trains although these locomotives could handle freight work as well. The N&W reluctantly began purchasing diesels in 1955 when the first GP9's arrived on the property (ironically, that same year the company unveiled its last new steamers when it outshopped a batch of 0-8-0 switchers). Despite president Robert H. Smith's love for the steamer and belief in the motive power it simply could not compete against the diesel's operational efficiency. In addition, rising labor costs factored in as did the difficulty in locating components and spare parts.
Stuart Saunders, who replaced Smith in 1958, saw no use for the steam locomotive as Rush Loving, Jr. notes in his book, "The Men Who Loved Trains." Among his other initiatives he quickly purchased diesels and had completed the switch within a few years. The N&W's late era steam fleet was memorialized and captured on film prior to its retirement by renowned photographer O. Winston Link. There have been many excellent and famous photographers throughout the years although Mr. Link is perhaps the most celebrated due to his subject matter and exquisite work. In addition to the mergers mentioned above, the N&W added the Delaware & Hudson and Erie Lackawanna on July 1, 1968 as part of an agreement which included them under the company name Dereco, Inc. The paper company was entirely a protective nature carried out by Roanoke to protect itself from the EL's fragile financial state. In a related corporate move the N&W had recently gained its independence when the Pennsylvania Railroad was forced to divest its holdings due to the impending merger with New York Central. Try as it might the EL, headed by N&W management, could not overcome its problems ranging from debt to a crumbling situation in the Northeast as Penn Central fell apart.
After Hurricane Agnes dealt heavy flooding to the region and forced EL into bankruptcy N&W sold off its interests in the railroad. For the Norfolk & Western its end began in 1980 when merger proceedings began with the nearby Southern Railway. They had been taken aback by the new CSX Corporation (of which the railroad arm became CSX Transportation) formed that year between Chessie System, Seaboard Coast Line, and several smaller carriers. Now dwarfed by the new conglomerate the two carriers realized their best chance for survival was through merger. The union was approved by the Interstate Commerce Commission in 1982. The newly created Norfolk Southern Corporation today carries on the fine traditions set forth by its predecessors. The company is still renowned for its sound management and business practices. It continually ranks at the top of the industry in annual revenue and a low operating ratio. During the 1990s another fight broke out between NS and CSX, this time for control of Conrail. In the end the two agreed to split Big Blue with NS gaining a 58% stake in the company.