The 1870s: Proposed but never built — Rappahannock’s railroads

On Jan. 26, 1870, five years after the Civil War was over, Virginia was finally admitted back into the United States. Quickly, there was a great need for the commonwealth to catch up with the rest of the then-burgeoning U.S. economy. One way was to build railroads.

Virginia’s basic transportation concept at the time was to link the midwest, particularly Cincinnati, Ohio, or St. Louis, Mo., with ports on the Potomac River or on the Chesapeake Bay. East-west trade, travelers and the exploitation of resources along such railroads were of primary interest. Plus, there was the shipping trade, coastwise and with Europe, from such Virginia ports to consider as well.

Piedmont and Potomac RR of 1870: Thornton’s Gap

Only a few months after statehood was regained, the Piedmont and Potomac Railroad [described in the Rappahannock News in an article that appeared July 21, 2011] was chartered by the Virginia General Assembly on June 28, 1870. That railroad was to connect, say, the port of Georgetown on the Potomac River to Cincinnati, Ohio, using the shortest route possible, which happened to be through Rappahannock County. Prominent Rappahannock County citizen were involved in that venture, but the railroad failed, along with thousands of other businesses, in the Panic of 1873.

Potomac and Valley RR of 1870: Thornton’s Gap II

Another railroad with the same intent was the Potomac and Valley Railroad, incorporated by the Virginia General Assembly five months later, on Nov. 5, 1870. It was to run from a town called Carrborough [Quantico] on the Potomac River in Prince William County, through the counties of Prince William, Stafford, Fauquier, Rappahannock, Page, and Rockingham, to link up with the Valley railroad there. Again, notables from Rappahannock County were named to open books and take subscriptions — five individuals at Laurel Mills, and five individuals in Sperryville. This railroad also never got off the ground.

Gordonsville and Chester’s Gap RR of 1871: Chester Gap

On March 15, 1871, the General Assembly of Virginia incorporated the Gordonsville to Chester’s Gap Railroad Company to “locate, construct, and maintain a railroad, beginning at Gordonsville, or the most eligible point on the Chesapeake and Ohio railroad, in the county of Orange, and to run thence by the most direct route through the counties of Madison and Rappahannock, as near the villages of Madison, in Madison county, and Washington, in Rappahannock county, as is practicable, through or by Chester’s gap, in the Blue Ridge mountains, to some point in connection with the Shenandoah valley railroad, as near the town of Front Royal as may be practicable . . .” Again, notables from Rappahannock County were named to open books for subscriptions for this venture. This railroad became yet another failure.

Washington, Cincinnati, and St. Louis RR of 1872: Beahm’s Gap?

The projected route of 1872′s proposed narrow gauge Washington, Cincinnati & St. Louis Railroad, shown passing through Warrenton, Washington and Luray on its way westward. From “American Narrow Gauge Railroads” by George Hilton (1990). Courtesy of Google Books.
The projected route of 1872′s proposed narrow gauge Washington, Cincinnati & St. Louis Railroad, shown passing through Warrenton, Washington and Luray on its way westward. From “American Narrow Gauge Railroads” by George Hilton (1990). Courtesy of Google Books.

Now we come to the Washington, Cincinnati, and St. Louis railroad, incorporated by the Virginia General Assembly a year later, on March 15, 1872. This received quite a bit of publicity as it was a narrow-gauge railroad and the individual leading the project was P. B. Borst, a local boy from Luray. But evidently, Rappahannock County had had enough. In an Act of the General Assembly of Jan. 11, 1877, it was stated “That any county, city or town by, near, or through which the line of said Washington, Cincinnati and St. Louis railroad, or any of its branches, may run, except the county of Rappahannock, is hereby authorized to the subscribe to the capital stock of said company . . .”

But before 1877, the plan went ahead, and a map in the book, “American Narrow Gauge Railroads,” shows the route starting from Alexandria and passing through Warrenton, Washington, and Luray on its way westward. In Rappahannock County, it was to pass over Beahm’s Gap in the Blue Ridge to get to Luray. An engineer that Borst had hired said he “could traverse the Blue Ridge Mountains with grades no worse than 60 feet per mile without a tunnel” (a little over a one-percent grade). As noted above, Rappahannock County bailed out.

Fredericksburg, Culpeper, and Rappahannock RR of 1872: No mountains?

A few days after the Virginia General Assembly incorporated the above-described Washington, Cincinnati, and St. Louis Railroad, it incorporated the Fredericksburg, Culpeper, and Rappahannock Railroad Company on March 22, 1872. The purpose was to construct “a railroad from Fredericksburg, through the county of Culpeper, to Sperryville, or such other point as may be selected, in the county of Rappahannock . . . .” The corporation was to commence the road in two years and finish it in 10. The railroad also never got off the ground.

Potomac and Ohio RR of 1874: Back to Thornton’s Gap

The last gasp for Rappahannock County was the Potomac and Ohio Railroad. This was part of a government feasibility study done by the Engineer Corps of the U.S. Army, requested on July 18, 1874. The study was to assess the “availability of the belt of country lying between the Baltimore and Ohio and Chesapeake and Ohio Railroads for the construction of an intermediate ‘freight-railway’ from the navigable waters of the Ohio and Kanawha Rivers through the territories of West and Old Virginia to the tide-waters of the Potomac River . . .”

Included in the report was an assessment of the projected railway of the Potomac and Ohio Railroad Company, which had submitted its own report to a U.S. Senate committee on Jan. 24, 1874. Although that report described the Potomac and Ohio Railroad as passing through the Blue Ridge Mountains at Swift Run Gap, the president of the Potomac and Ohio Railroad, Mr. Anson Bangs, requested that the Corps of Engineers’ reconnaissance be made by way of Thornton’s Gap in Rappahannock County.

This reconnaissance was made in August and September of 1874. It started from the Potomac River near the mouth of Quantico Creek in Prince William County and passed through parts of Stafford, Fauquier, Culpeper, and Rappahannock to the summit of the Blue Ridge, then down the other side. Although the route was feasible, another railroad, the Washington and Ohio Railroad Company, had found a better route, according to the Engineer Corps. Another failure.

And so closed Rappahannock County’s window of opportunity for a slice of the railroad bonanza of the 1870s. One gets the impression the county leaders back then had an incredible desire to be connected to any railroad coming from any direction, just so long as the county got a piece of the action.

What would have happened if Rappahannock County had succeeded in getting a railroad? Possibly a mix of the following: First, the county’s timber and mineral resources would have been exploited to the hilt by the syndicates and trusts of the Gilded Age of the late 1800s. There would have been local corruption.

Sparks and hot cinders from the railroad would have started destructive forest fires in the Blue Ridge. Horrendous train wrecks would occur on the 10-mile incline on the eastern side of the Blue Ridge. Day laborers would leave the county en masse for a better life in D.C., or the West. Sky-high real estate prices would result, with the county becoming the Washington, D.C., equivalent of the Adirondacks and Berkshires, which served as vacation havens for the rich of New York City. And there would be a layer of soot everywhere.

Actually, Rappahannock County took three more shots at a railroad, around the early 1900s. More on that at a future date.

Don Audette
About Don Audette 27 Articles
Don Audette has a place in Sperryville, is a longtime member of the Rappahannock Lions and writes about local history in his "Yesterdays" column for the Rappahannock News.