West Virginia Northern Railroad (WVN)

Last revised: February 19, 2022

By: Adam Burns

The West Virginia Northern Railroad was a fabled Class III short line operating for 115 years and based in the northern regions of the state.

While a relatively small operation it became quite famous, particularly to railfans, for hauling large amounts of coal out of Preston County and to a connection with the Baltimore & Ohio at Tunnelton.

Unfortunately, its dependence on coal ultimately was its downfall as a recession of the coal industry in the 1980s saw virtually all of the mines it served either close or halt production. 

The WVN gained a second life as a tourist operation but mounting debt forced it into bankruptcy and the railroad was abandoned in 1999. Today, virtually nothing remains of the line except for empty field where the yard at Kingwood was once located.  

West Virginia Northern's primary power is seen here at the railroad's base of operations in Kingwood, West Virginia on June 22, 1984. Warren Calloway photo.

The WVN's earliest beginnings date back as the narrow-gauge Kingwood Railway Company, an operation which began in 1884. The railroad began operations three years later in 1887 when it complete about a half-mile of line between Kingwood and Kingwood Junction.

Soon after this the railroad was renamed the Tunnelton, Kingwood & Fairchance although this reorganization did little to see the company reaching much further past Kingwood.

In 1894 the railroad was brought up to standard gauge and five years later the company was renamed the West Virginia Northern in 1899.

Not long after the new owners took over the operation they began building the railroad southward to tap Preston County's rich coal reserves. It finally did reach Tunnelton, 11 miles away and a connection with the large Class I, the Baltimore & Ohio. 

Along the way the railroad began to move massive amounts of coal from the more than the dozen mines that popped up along its route.

Along with the coal mines that were served directly on its main line it also operated seven spurs to serve nearby mines including (from north to south); Miller Mine #1, Miller Mine #3, B&C #5, Mary Lee #1, Ream #1, Brooke #10, and Bellfield.

During the passenger era the West Virginia Northern served eleven stops along its route (all of which were merely small hamlets) including Kingwood Junction, Snider, Irona, Mattingly, Howesville, Mountain View, Jessop, Towson, Marion, and finally Tunnelton where the railroad operated a small staging yard with the B&O to transfer its coal traffic and take back empties.

For power, during the steam locomotive era the railroad mostly used a small fleet of 2-8-0 Consolidations. As diesels came of age it primarily used EMD switchers, particularly NW2s and SW1200s, which worked well given the tonnage levels the railroad experienced.

West Virginia Northern SW1200 #52, and NW2's #50 and #51 (also purchased new, between 1946 and 1947), pull loads of coal near Howeville, West Virginia and towards the B&O interchange at Tunnelton on June 22, 1984. Warren Calloway photo.

Over the years the system's annual profits and traffic patterns ebbed and flowed as coal demand did likewise. Unfortunately, this total dependence on coal ultimately was the railroad's downfall.

As the recession of the 1980s dragged on it particularly hit the coal industry hard and the WVN saw its traffic slowly dry up. By 1991 it was no longer profitable for the railroad to remain in business and it shuttered operations that year.

Three years later a group of rail enthusiasts who wished to see the railroad preserved and known as Kingwood Northern, Inc. reopened the operation as a tourist/excursion train using EMD diesels #50 and #52 for power, along with a small fleet of equipment to host passengers.

The "new" West Virginia Northern Railroad became quite successful in this capacity and continued to see increasing ridership year after year. Ironically, however, mounting debt unforeseen to the public just could not be overcome.

With no other alternative and facing more than $1 million of red ink (part of which was the result of a legal battle with the city of Kingwood) Kingwood Northern, Inc. was also forced to shutdown.

West Virginia Northern SW1200 #52 and its NW2 counterparts pull loads at Howesville on June 22, 1984. It stopped freight operations in 1991 but spent a few years as a tourist attraction before shutting down entirely in 1999. Today, little remains of the WVN. Warren Calloway photo.

To pay off its debt the organization sold the remaining railroad equipment on the property and sold the rails for scrap. Three years later in 2002 scrappers removed the remaining rails and today nothing remains of the railroad. 

On a happier note, however, two its former 2-8-0 Consolidation steam locomotives, #8 and #9, were saved from the Pennsylvania woods and purchased by the West Virginia Railroad Museum.

The museum eventually hopes to return one to a fully operational status if funds can be secured and operated on the West Virginia Central based in Elkins, West Virginia. 

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