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Chesapeake & Ohio Railway - Early History

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Prior to the beginning of the Civil War efforts had been made to fund the building of a railroad line connecting the western region of Virginia (now West Virginia) to the eastern cities of Virginia. In 1853 the State of Virginia authorized the building a railroad line from Covington, Virginia, through the New River Gorge to the Ohio River, bys the Covington & Ohio Railroad. With the onset of the Civil War in 1861 the railroad expansion project was seriously hampered.

Although some construction was completed during the first year of the war, the increase in hostilities within the area soon caused the construction project to be completely stopped. At this point in time, the State of Virginia spent about $3,000,000 on the project which had only been completed as far west as Clifton Forge, Virginia.

Almost immediately after the end of the war efforts to bring about the building a railroad line were renewed. In 1865, the governments of Virginia and West Virginia united their efforts to promote the building of the western railroad expansion. In August of that year a contract was made with the Virginia Central Railway Company to undertake the construction of the line. In 1868 the merger of the Virginia Central and the Covington & Ohio railroads created a new railroad called the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad Company (C&O).

Greatly in need of financial support for the new road, the C&O's President, William C. Wickham, managed to interest Collis P. Huntington, a member of the so called "Big Four", in the C&O expansion project. With the financial backing of Huntington and his associates secured, the construction of the C&O's extension through West Virginia began in 1869.

The construction of a railroad through the rugged terrain of the area during the era of the mid-1800's proved to be a difficult task. In the years before the invention of the steam shovel, jack hammers and other modern construction tools, the construction of the many fills, cuts and tunnels the route required was performed by men using picks and shovels, supplemented by mules and wagons.

The majority of the laborers hired for the job were said to be newly freed black slaves from Virginia, while many of workers on the Engineering Corps were retired officers from the Union and Confederate forces. One of the C&O's major construction projects during the course of building the rail line was the construction of the Bend Tunnel near Talcott, WV. This mile and half long tunnel was the site where the legendary John Henry is said to have engaged in a contest against a steam-powered drill.

On January 29, 1873, following four years of ponderous work, the railroad construction crews working eastward met with their counterparts that had been building westward at a point about three-fourths of a mile east of Fayette Station on the north side of the Gorge. The formidable task of completing the rail line was at last achieved.

Later that day, a special train loaded with distinguished guests and officials of the C&O, that had left Richmond, Va. on January 23, 1873, arrived at the Hawk's Nest railroad bridge, where a ceremonial observance of the driving of the last spike took place to officially dedicate the completion of the rail line. The train continued on after the ceremony, reaching Huntington later the same day, where a gala celebration was planned.

Although many contemporary historians have written about the great ceremony that took place in Huntington that night, the Huntington Herald Dispatch reported a very different story. According to the newspaper's account, a failure occurred along the route of the telegraph wires, and word of the train expected arrival time did not reach the City of Huntington in time. When the special train arrived at the Huntington Station, a very small number of people were on hand to greet the train and its guests, on that very cold and damp night in January.

The C&O's westward expansion was completed at a cost of $23,394,263.69, a enormous amount of money for that period of time. The railroad line was not open to freight traffic until March of 1873 with passenger service being started on April 1st of that year. However, it was not until June that trains could run with regularity. The completion of the line had been somewhat rushed. In places along the route temporary or makeshift methods of construction had been utilized. Following the official opening of the line several sections of track had to be relaid. Many permanent fills and retaining walls were not constructed until after the rail line was completed.

During these early years of operation the C&O experienced constant problems with rock slides blocking it's tracks. A huge rock slide that occurred in 1875 that blocked all rail traffic for three weeks. For many years, the line was not very profitable. Although a good amount of freight was being hauled by the railroad operational problems and costs cut into the company's profits. Adding to the company long list of problems was the fact that the even the most "modern" locomotives in use during this early period were tiny and not very powerful. In 1878 the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad was sold under foreclosure and reorganized as the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway Company, with Collis P. Huntington assuming the office of President of the reorganized road.

Despite all of the difficulties experienced by the railroad, the completion of the line had allowed the development of the coal industry in the New River Gorge to begin. The first shipment of coal via the railroad was made by the New River Coal Company from it's Quinnimont mine in September of 1873. By the end of the century, coal would become the commodity of greatest importance to the C&O, a great portion of which was being produced by mines located in the newly opened New River Coalfield.