West Virginia Railroads And Railfanning In "The Mountain State"

West Virginia railroads perhaps best define Appalachian railroading itself; rolling green mountains, trains fighting stiff grades, and plenty of coal. However, while the dominant source of traffic and identity of the state, coal is not the only commodity derived from the Mountain State. Along the Ohio River and around Charleston CSX serves several chemical plants, and in the much flatter Eastern Panhandle the state-owned South Branch Valley Railroad moves a moderate amount of grain. Lastly, Norfolk Southern’s former Norfolk & Western double-track main line through southern West Virginia sees plenty of stack trains to and from the port of Newport News/Norfolk, Virginia, which significantly increased after the multi-million dollar Heartland Corridor opened. Couple all of this with the Mountain State's wildly popular Cass Scenic Railroad and West Virginia offers an Appalachian railroading experience that is something to behold!

West Virginia railroads date back to before the Mountain State was even born (in June of 1863). In January of 1837 the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad arrived in Harpers Ferry, Virginia and continued to push west reaching the Ohio River (its ultimate original destination) at Wheeling in 1852. While other railroads would push into West Virginia to tap its rich reserves of coal and timber (and oil/natural gas along the Ohio River although this had mostly dried up as a source of rail traffic by the early 20th century), it was the B&O that would come to symbolize railroading in the Mountain State. After reaching Grafton in 1852 and opening its main line to Wheeling that same year the B&O began pushing west from Grafton, eventually reaching the Ohio River again at Parkersburg through Clarksburg, a distance of 103 miles in May of 1857. This line would eventually become part of the B&O’s principle main line to St. Louis with the line between Parkersburg and Clarksburg known as the Parkersburg Branch.  

The B&O also would lease Ohio River Rail Road in September of 1901 (and directly purchase it in 1912) giving it direct access to cities up and down the Ohio River between Wheeling and Huntington. Known as the railroad’s Ohio River Subdivision it continues to be a source of chemical traffic for successor CSX today, as well as a through route for coal movements and merchandise.  With two lines branching to the west from Grafton and a spider web of coal branches radiating out from the city it is no wonder that it became a major division point on the system with a large yard, service tracks and repair facility on site (while the yard has been reduced in size and importance today it still serves a vital need under CSX). Grafton essentially became the heart of the B&O’s coal operations in West Virginia.

While the B&O originated most of the coal in northern West Virginia, the state’s southern half was a battle between the Norfolk & Western, Chesapeake & Ohio and Virginian Railways. Even though the C&O and N&W were the first, and biggest, players in southern West Virginia the later-built Virginian Railway was much more efficient, had a main line built with easier grades and used electric power to move coal from tipple to tidewater. While the much smaller Virginian Railway would eventually become part of the N&W system it was so well built that its original main continues to remain in constant use today under successor Norfolk Southern Railway.

The C&O’s most endearing legacy in the Mountain State was perhaps its Greenbrier Division, a very long branch that extended north from Ronceverte to Bartow, West Virginia (just above Durbin). The line was predominantly built to serve the growing timber industry in the Greenbrier and Pocahontas County regions. This area was also where the state’s celebrated logging railroads were located with names like the Meadow River Lumber Company and Mower River Lumber Company (the operation that is now Cass Scenic Railroad). Although abandoned in the early 1970s due to ever-decreasing traffic volumes most the entire route south of Cass remains intact today as the popular Greenbrier Trail.  While the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad’s St. Louis main line no longer carriers on as a through route (with the Parkersburg Branch one casualty of the abandonment), the Western Maryland Railway’s main line through central West Virginia is almost entirely gone north of Elkins and a large amount of excess branch lines have been abandoned, CSX and Norfolk Southern still move tons of coal from the state’s rich deposits in the Appalachians. 

And NS, of course, is making its ex-N&W main line through southern West Virginia a major corridor, as the Heartland Corridor project is now under way with a planned intermodal facility to be built in Prichard (the railroad already has major facilities in Williamson).  Aside from the operations of NS and CSX, shortline railroads include the SBVRR; the Appalachian & Ohio Railroad (which operates CSX’s Cowen Subdivision); the Durbin & Greenbrier Valley Railroad (which operates West Virginia Central Railroad over former WM-trackage in the Elkins region); and the West Virginia, an RJ Corman operation that operates a revived C&O branch near Thurmond.  Today, West Virginia's railroads operate over 2,200 route miles, which is about 57% of its one-time total of nearly 4,000 miles in the 1920s. Much of the state's loss of trackage has been the abandonment of coal branches and unprofitable secondary lines (like the C&O's Greenbrier Branch). For more information on West Virginia railroads in terms of mileage over the years please refer to the chart below.

West Virginia railroads may no longer be home to the B&O’s National Limited, Cincinnatian or the C&O’s George Washington but Amtrak continues to operate the tri-weekly Cardinal between Washington, D.C. and Chicago via the ex-C&O main line. Along with its history of coal perhaps what West Virginia railroads is most popular for these days is tourist railroads, like Cass and the recently started West Virginia Central. Nothing quite compares to watching these historic Shays double-head up the mountain to Bald Knob.  However, the increasingly popular WVC with its climate-controlled cars which travels along the scenic Tygrat River (aboard the New Tygrat Flyer) is another ride you may want to consider (and, it also calls to historic Elkins Station in the former WM Elkins Yard after service was restored following the rebuilding of the railroad bridge in the spring of 2007).

Lastly, located in Petersburg, a ride on board the Potomac Eagle will afford unique views of our nation’s symbol, the Bald Eagle. For more information about West Virginia railroads please click here to visit my good friend Dan Robie's personal website about trains in the Mountain State. The site is still a lengthy work in progress so please be patient as more material is added.  In all, West Virginia railroads offer incredible views of Appalachia at its finest with operations ranging from passenger trains and main line freights to local shortlines and popular tourist trains. While awfully proud of my home state (for much more than just railroads) and not trying, or attempting to sound biased, I think I can safely say that what West Virginia has to offer is well worth the trip to see!

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