History of the C&O Railway:
The Chesapeake & Ohio Railway traces its origin to the Louisa Railroad of Louisa County, Virginia, begun in 1836, and the James River & Kanawha Canal Company begun 1785, also in Virginia. The C&O of the 1950s and 1960s at its height before the first modern merger, was the product of about 150 smaller lines that had been incorporated into the system over time.
By 1850 the Louisa Railroad had been built east to Richmond and west to Charlottesville, and in keeping with its new and larger vision, was renamed Virginia Central. The Commonwealth of Virginia, always keen to help with “internal improvements” not only owned a portion of Virginia Central stock, but incorporated and financed the Blue Ridge Railroad to accomplish the hard and expensive task of crossing the first mountain barrier to the west. Under the leadership of the great early civil engineer Claudius Crozet, the Blue Ridge Railroad built over the mountain, using four tunnels, including the 4,263-foot Blue Ridge Tunnel at the top of the mountain, then one of the longest tunnels in the world.
While the Blue Ridge Railroad attacked the mountains, Virginia Central was building westward from the west foot of the mountains. It crossed the Great Valley of Virginia, The Shenandoah, and the Shenandoah range Great North Mountain, reaching a point known as Jackson’s River Station at the foot of Alleghany Mountain in 1856. This is the site that would later be called Clifton Forge.
To finish its line across the mountainous territory of the Alleghany Plateau known in old Virginia as the “Transmountaine”, the Commonwealth again chartered a state-subsidized railroad called the Covington & Ohio. This company completed important grading work on the Alleghany grade and did considerable work on numerous tunnels over the mountain and westward. It also did a good deal of roadbed work around Charleston on the Kanawha River. Then the War Between the States intervened, and work was stopped on the westward expansion.
During the Civil War the Virginia Central was one of the Confederacy’s most important lines, carrying food from the Shenandoah region to Richmond, and ferrying troops and supplies back and forth as the campaigns frequently surrounded its tracks. On more than one occasion it was used in actual tactical operations, transporting troops directly to the battlefield. But, it was a prime target for Federal armies, and by the end of the war had only about five miles of track still in operation, and $40 in gold in its treasury.
Following the war, Virginia Central officials realized that they would have to get capital to rebuild from outside the economically devastated South and attempted to attract British interests, without success. Finally, they succeeded in getting Collis P. Huntington of New York interested in the line. He is, of course, the same Huntington that was one of the “big Four” involved in building the Central Pacific portion of the Transcontinental Railroad, which was at this time just reaching completion. Huntington had a vision of a true transcontinental that would go from sea to sea under one operating management, and decided that the Virginia Central might be the eastern link to this system.
Huntington supplied the Virginians with the money needed to complete the line to the Ohio River, through what was now the new state of West Virginia. The old Covington & Ohio’s properties were conveyed to the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad in keeping with its new mission of linking the Tidewater coast of Virginia with the “Western Waters” of the Ohio River. This was the old dream of the “Great Connection” which had been current in Virginia since Colonial times.
On July 1, 1867 the C&O was completed nine miles from Jackson’s River Station to the town of Covington, seat of Alleghany County, Virginia. By 1869, it had crossed Alleghany Mountain, using much of the tunneling and roadway work done by the Covington & Ohio before the war, and was running to the great mineral springs resort at White Sulphur Springs, now in Greenbrier County, West Virginia. Here stagecoach connections were made for Charleston and the navigation on the Kanawha River and thus water transportation on the whole Ohio/Mississippi system.
During 1869-1873 the hard work of building through West Virginia was done with large crews working from the new city of Huntington on the Ohio River and White Sulphur much as the UP and CP had done in the transcontinental work, and the line was joined at Hawks Nest, WV on January 28, 1873.
Collis Huntington intended to connect the C&O with his Western and Mid-Western holdings, but had much other railroad construction to finance and he stopped the line at the Ohio River. Over the next few years he did little to improve its rough construction or develop traffic. The only connection to the West was by packet boats operating on the Ohio River. Because the great mineral resources of the region hadn’t been fully realized yet, the C&O suffered through the bad times brought on by the financial panic Depression of 1873, and went into receivership in 1878. When reorganized it was renamed The Chesapeake & Ohio Railway Company.
During the ten years 1878-1888 C&O’s coal resources began to be developed and shipped eastward. In 1881 the Peninsula Subdivision was completed from Richmond to the new city of Newport News located on Hampton Roads, the East’s largest ice-free port. Transportation of coal to Newport News where it was loaded on coastwise shipping and transported to the Northeast became a staple of the C&O’s business at this time.
In 1888 Huntington lost control of the C&O. A reorganization without foreclosure resulted in his losing his majority interest to the Morgan and Vanderbilt interests, which installed Melville E. Ingalls as President. Ingalls was, at the time, President of the Vanderbilt’s Chicago, Cleveland, Cincinnati & Louisville, The “Big Four System”, and held both presidencies concurrently for the next decade. Ingalls installed George W. Stevens as general manager and effective head of the C&O.
In 1889 the Richmond & Alleghany Railroad, which had been built along the tow-path of the defunct James River & Kanawha Canal, was merged into the C&O, giving it a down grade “water level” line from Clifton Forge to Richmond, avoiding the heavy grades of North Mountain and the Blue Ridge on the original Virginia Central route. This “James River Line” remains the principal artery of coal transportation to the present day.
Ingalls and Stevens completely rebuilt the C&O to “modern” standards with ballasted roadbed, enlarged and lined tunnels, steel bridges, and heavier steel rails, as well as new, larger cars and locomotives.
In 1888 the C&O built the Cincinnati Division from Huntington down the South bank of the Ohio River and across the river at Cincinnati, connecting with the “Big Four” and other Midwestern Railroads.
From 1900 to 1920 most of the C&O’s line tapping the rich bituminous coal fields of southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky were built, and the C&O as it was known throughout the rest of the 20th Century was essentially in place.
In 1910 C&O merged the Chicago, Cincinnati & Louisville Railroad into its system. This line had been built diagonally across the state of Indiana from Cincinnati to Hammond in the preceding decade. This gave the C&O a direct line from Cincinnati to the great railroad hub of Chicago.
Also in 1910 C&O interests bought control of the Kanawha & Michigan and Hocking valley lines in Ohio, with a view to connecting with the Great Lakes through Columbus. Eventually Anti-trust laws forced C&O to abandon its K&M interests, but it was allowed to retain the Hocking valley, which operated about 350 miles in Ohio, including a direct line from Columbus to the port of Toledo, and numerous branches southeast of Columbus in the Hocking Coal Fields. But there was no direct connection with the C&O’s mainline, now hauling previously undreamed-of quantities of coal. To get its coal up to Toledo and into Great Lakes shipping, C&O contracted with its rival Norfolk & Western to haul trains from Kenova, WV to Columbus. N&W, however, limited this business and the arrangement was never satisfactory.
C&O gained access to the Hocking Valley by building a new line directly from a point a few miles from its huge and growing terminal at Russell, KY to Columbus between 1917 and 1926. It crossed the Ohio River at Limeville, KY. to Sciotoville, Ohio, on the great Limeville or Sciotoville bridge which remains today the mightiest bridge every built from point of view of its load capacity. Truly a monument to engineering, but seldom commented on outside engineering circles because of its relatively remote location.
With the connection at Columbus complete, C&O soon was sending more of its high quality metallurgical and steam coal west than East, and in 1930 it merged the Hocking Valley into its system.
The next great change for C&O came in 1923 when the great Cleveland financiers, the brother 0. P. and M. J. Van Sweringen, bought controlling interest in the line as part of their expansion of the Nickel Plate Road NKP system. Eventually they controlled the NKP, C&O, Pere Marquette Railway in Michigan and Ontario, and Erie Railroads. They managed to control this huge system by a maze of holding companies and interlocking directorships. This house of cards tumbled when the Great Depression began and the Van Sweringen companies collapsed. But the C&O was a strong line and despite the fact that in the early 1930s over 50% of American railroads went into receivership, it not only avoided bankruptcy, but took the occasion of cheap labor and materials to again completely rebuild itself.
During the early 1930s when it seemed the whole country was retrenching, C&O was boring new tunnels, adding double track, rebuilding bridges, upgrading the weight of its rail, and rebuilding its roadbed, all with money from its principal commodity of haulage: Coal. Even in the hard years of the Depression coal was something that had to be used everywhere, and C&O was sitting astride the best bituminous seams in the country.
Because of this great upgrading and building program, C&O was in prime condition to carry the monumental loads needed during World War II. During the War it transported men and materiel in unimagined quantities as the United States used the Hampton Roads Port of Embarkation as a principal departure point for the European Theater. The invasion of North Africa was loaded here. Of course coal was needed in ever increasing quantities by war industries, and C&O was ready with a powerful, well organized, well maintained railway powered by the largest and most modern locomotives.
By the end of the war C&O was poised to help America during its great growth during the decades following, and at mid-century was truly a line of national importance. It became more so, at least in the public’s eye through Robert R. Young, its mercurial Chairman.
Young got control of the C&O through the remnants of the Van Sweringen companies in 1942, and for the next decade he became “the gadfly of the rails,” as he challenged old methods of financing and operating railroads, and inaugurated many forward looking advances in technology that have ramifications to the present. He changed the C&O’s herald or logo to “C&O for Progress” to embody his ideas that C&O would lead the industry to a new day. He installed a well-staffed research and development department that came up with ideas for passenger service that are thought to be futuristic even now, and for freight service that would challenge the growth of trucking. Young eventually gave up his C&O position to become Chairman of the New York Central before his untimely death in 1958.
During the Young era and following, C&O was headed by Walter J. Tuohy, under whose control the “For Progress” theme continued, though in a more muted way after the departure of Young. During this time C&O installed the first large computer system in railroading, developed larger and better freight cars of all types, switched reluctantly from steam to diesel motive power, and diversified its traffic, which had already occurred in 1947 when it merged into the system the old Pere Marquette Railway of Michigan and Ontario which had been controlled since Van Sweringen days. The PM’s huge automotive industry traffic, taking raw materials in and finished vehicles out, gave C&O some protection from the swings in the coal trade, putting merchandise traffic at 50% of the company’s haulage.
C&O continued to be one of the most profitable and financially sound railways in America, and in 1963 started the modern merger era by “affiliating” with the ancient modern of railroads, the hoary Baltimore & Ohio. Avoiding a mistake that would become endemic to later mergers among other lines, a gradual amalgamation of the two lines’ services, personnel, motive power and rolling stock, and facilities built a new and stronger system, which was ready for a new name in 1972. Under the leadership of the visionary Hays T. Watkins, the C&O, B&O and Western Maryland became Chessie System, taking on the name officially that had been used colloquially for so long for the C&O, after the mascot kitten used in ads since 1934.
Under Watkins’ careful and visionary leadership Chessie System then merged with Seaboard System, itself a combination of great railroads of the Southeast including Seaboard Air Line Railway, Atlantic Coast Line, Louisville & Nashville, Clinchfield, and others, to form a new mega-railroad: CSX.
Today, CSX, after taking on 43% of Conrail, is one of four major railroad systems left in the country. It is still an innovative leader, true to its roots in Robert Young and “For Progress,” the Van Sweringens and their quest for efficiency and standardization, to George Stevens and his dedication to operating efficiency and safety awareness, back to Collis Huntington and his dreams of a transportation empire, and even back to those long forgotten Virginians who started it all to carry their farm produce to market in the 1830’s in a different world, the world before the Railroad.