Missing the train

Poor’s Manual of Railroads for 1891
Detail of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway Company’s final route from Crozet, not shown, but located a little to the west of Charlottesville, to Alexandria. Lease arrangements with another railroad from Gordonsville to Orange, and then trackage rights from Orange to Alexandria, with no stops, won out over a route along the Blue Ridge that would have passed through Rappahannock County. Poor’s Manual of Railroads for 1891

Rappahannock Railroad Attempts | 1890 to 1900

Rappahannock County failed to get a railroad link to the outside world six times in the 1870s and twice in the 1880s. Now, in the spring of 1890, the giant Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Railway Company was contemplating a railroad along the Blue Ridge that would pass through Rappahannock County. This line, from Crozet, ten miles west of Charlottesville, to Alexandria, just across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., was one of C&O’s three options to get to the nation’s capital.

The first was a route that had been surveyed from Crozet to a point near Culpeper, where the C&O might obtain trackage rights on the Virginia Midland Railway Company to Alexandria. This was a routine approach, still in use today — use someone else’s tracks. But this involved scheduling problems with Midland trains; shared repair, maintenance and associated labor costs; and complex liability issues.

The second option: the C&O might have its chief engineer, a Mr. Jackson, make a preliminary survey of a route from Crozet along the base of the Blue Ridge through Albemarle, Greene, Madison, Rappahannock, Culpeper, Fauquier, Prince William, Fairfax, and Alexandria counties (note: Alexandria County was renamed Arlington County in 1920). This would be a wholly owned C&O railroad line and theoretically an ideal solution.

Third, the C&O might use its own tracks from Crozet to Gordonsville and then lease Virginia Midland tracks from Gordonsville to Orange, plus obtain trackage rights from Midland for the Orange to Alexandria segment. Again, an approach routinely used by railroads, but one with scheduling problems and complex shared costs.

Actually, the second option could pay off big time. The C&O would be in complete control of the line. It could tap into the mineral, timber and other natural resources of counties along the Blue Ridge. And it could promote a new scenic travel route for its Fast Flying Virginian (F.F.V) train. C&O freight trains could stop at Sperryville, plus there was an outside chance the F.F.V. train might stop there as well. The F.F.V. train would certainly have stunned the people in Rappahannock County.

The Chesapeake and Ohio’s F.F.V. Train

Chesapeake and Ohio Historical Society
The dining car on the C&O’s Fast Flying Virginian (F.F.V.), showing the luxury of the train that might have stopped at Sperryville. Chesapeake and Ohio Historical Society

The C&O’s F.F.V. train was truly a luxury train that began running the year before, in May 1889. It was billed as a totally “vestibuled” train. Instead of being restricted to staying in one passenger car, passengers could walk between cars without stepping out onto shifting platforms between cars where there was no protection from being pitched overboard or exposed to foul weather, coal cinders, etc. A vestibuled train was like current passenger trains. You could walk the length of the train. It opened up easy access to elegant day coaches with smoking saloons, luxurious dining cars, lounge cars, sleepers and more.

In 1893, the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway Company’s Passenger Department even published a 64-page brochure entitled “Virginia in Black and White,” lauding the F.F.V. train and Virginia, the sights to be seen, and tours to be taken. The F.F.V. was described as “the best-known, the handsomest, the most complete, and the most popular train in America today…comprising combined car, day coach, through dining car and Pullman sleepers of latest design and exquisite furnishing, lighted by electricity, heated with steam and vestibuled throughout, it combines the luxury of modern travel with the comforts of home, while transporting the passenger through the most picturesque regions of America.” Some in Virginia even believed F.F.V. stood for First Families of Virginia.

The F.F.V. Train: Not Always That Great

Despite the material put out by the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway Company on its “F.F.V. Train,” there were also some published reality checks. One was an 1896 article by an Englishman, George H. Wells, in a British magazine called St. Martin’s-le-Grand that dealt with British postal and telegraphic matters. The article was called, “A Thousand Miles in the F.F.V.”

Some of the descriptions could have been applied to any C&O line built along the Blue Ridge. Wells was impressed by the luxury of the “solid vestibuled” train drawn by two powerful engines with three Pullman cars, a drawing room car, a sleeping car, a dining car, and having electric lights and steam heat. The train clung to the sides of mountains, crossed quivering trestle bridges, and rounded sharp curves such that you could see both ends of the train from a middle car. At one point, there was alarm about a landslide up ahead and there was a halt of two hours to clear it. There were also a number of other halts as overheated wheels had to be doused with cold water.

At another point, the F.F.V. train was shunted onto a siding and later had to be backed down a mountain for more than a hundred miles to be shifted onto the tracks of the Norfolk and Western Railroad. There were stops along the way because of engine failure, or they had to let other trains pass. Or the engine had to be replaced with a better engine.

The article ended with the sentence, “Thus the ‘Fast Flying Virginian’ had been turned, for once in its existence, into a genuine Virginian Creeper.”

Sperryville Welcomes The Chesapeake and Ohio’s Surveying Team

When the C&O’s Mr. Jackson and his surveying team arrived in Sperryville on Sunday, March 16, 1890, after running their latest survey line, which went from Peola Mills to Sperryville, they were greeted enthusiastically. A mass meeting had been held on the last court day and each magisterial district had appointed a committee to welcome the surveyors and persuade them to have the C&O pass through Rappahannock County. The line was then expected to go through Gaines’ X roads (Gainesville) on its way into Fauquier County. The railroad was the talk of the County and a subscription of $150,000 was mentioned as sweetening the pot. Fauquier was said to follow suit, and Madison and Greene counties might be willing to join in on the inducements.

Unfortunately, the C&O engineers had to explain to the Sperryville crowd that, at that point, the Culpeper route was eight miles shorter and two million dollars cheaper. Even later in the year, in November 1890, when it was reported that “a large and valuable mine of anthracite coal [had] been discovered on the farm of Mr. Richard Sweeney, near Warrenton, lying immediately on the proposed route of the projected line of the Chesapeake and Ohio from Crozet to Washington,” the C&O management would not change its mind.  

In the end, the Chesapeake and Ohio chose the third option. It leased the Midland railroad line from Gordonsville to Orange effective March 1, 1891, and obtained trackage rights on a Midland railroad line northward to get to Washington, D.C., effective April 1, 1891.

Two more attempts in the ’90s

It is a wonder that Rappahannock County became involved in two railroad ventures in the 1890s, particularly when a major depression began in the United States as a result of the Panic of 1893.

Yet, on March 3, 1894, a little after the Panic was underway, the Virginia General Assembly chartered the Culpeper, Rappahannock and Madison Railway Company. The charter’s verbiage was similar as that used in the charter for the failed Fauquier and Rappahannock Railroad of 1882. The railroad was to run from “within the corporate limits of the town of Culpeper, in Culpeper County, Virginia, and running thence to such points within Rappahannock and Madison counties, and by such routes as may be deemed suitable by the Board of Directors of said company.” The capital stock in the company was to be between $100,000 and $2,000,000, at $50 per share. Construction was to start within two years from the Act’s date of enactment, and the main line was to be completed within five years after construction started. As with some prior ventures, nothing more was ever heard from the company.

Another railroad, the Piedmont Railway Company came into being on March 1, 1898, with two Acts.  The first had the cumbersome title of, “An Act to authorize the supervisors of the counties of Rappahannock, Madison, Culpeper, Greene, Orange, Warren, and Spotsylvania, or any part of them, to aid in the construction of the Piedmont railway company.” Each county was to come up with $50,000, and bonds were to be sold as soon as 25 miles had been graded from an unnamed starting point. The Act’s statement on how to raise the money boggles the mind. The second Act, on the same day, March 1, 1898, incorporated the Piedmont Railway Company, and it was similarly complex since it involved the Southern Railroad. Later, a mention in “The Transit Journal” of May 1900, noted that the Piedmont Railway Company was going to construct a street railway in the town of Culpeper. What a comedown.  Again, as before, nothing happened.

As a last gasp, on March 7, 1900, the Virginia General Assembly approved an act to incorporate the Piedmont Railway Company once more, this time with some added clauses, such as allowing the company to change its name, dropping the capital stock from between $50,000 – $500,000 down to $10,000 – $50,000, plus adding detail on how counties would vote to subscribe up to $100,000 each and have an ensuing county tax.   

Once more, nothing. It might be noted that there was a Piedmont Railway Company in North Carolina and one in Oakland, California — and at least these two got off the ground.

Rappahannock’s tries for a railroad in the 1890s thus ended with three failures. The score since the 1870s? Eleven tries, eleven failures.

Why the C&O didn’t choose a Blue Ridge route

In the Chesapeake and Ohio’s Annual Report for 1891, President M. E. Ingalls discussed why the C&O selected the lease/trackage rights option to go from Crozet to Washington, D.C., instead of the other alternatives.

“Your directors have for some time felt the need of better facilities for reaching Washington and that the Chesapeake and Ohio should be able to control the making of its rates and the movement of its trains from that city, as the business to and from the capital of the country is increasing and promises in the future to be very large.

“In pursuance of these views, surveys were made to build into Washington, and good and cheap routes were found, but the Virginia Midland Railway Company met this Company fairly and proposed to give it substantially what was wanted on reasonable terms.

“Under these circumstances it seemed better to arrange for trackage over the Virginia Midland and its connections than to build an additional line; and, therefore, during the year contracts were closed with the Virginia Midland and with the Washington Southern and Baltimore and Potomac companies securing to the Chesapeake and Ohio the right to run its own trains in and out of Washington and manage its own business with that city.”

For readers who love arcane detail, these terms, as described in Poor’s Manual of Railroads in 1895, were as follows (note: some of the original railroad parties had been taken over by other railroads by 1895):

With Southern Railway Company, lease for 99 years and one month from March 1, 1891, of the line from Gordonsville, VA, to Orange, VA, nine miles, at a rate to $6,000 per year, and with the same company, for 99 years from April 1, 1891, for use of tracks from Orange to Alexandria, 77.8 miles, the C&O to pay its proportion, based upon car and engine wheelage, of $125,000 (being interest at 5% upon valuation of said 77.8 miles of road and appurtenances), provided that proportion shall not in any year be less than $31,250, and of the further payment of its proportion upon the same basis of the cost and maintenance of said 77.8 miles and salaries of employees; with the Washington Southern Railway Company securing right to run trains for 25 years from June 13, 1891, from Alexandria to Long Bridge, in consideration of its proportion, upon car and engine wheelage, of cost of maintenance and salaries of employees, and interest at 5% upon $250,000 valuation of track; with Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Company, securing right to run trains from south end of Long Bridge to depot in Washington, for 10 years from June 30, 1891, in consideration of payment of proportion, based upon car and engine wheelage, of cost of maintenance of track and wages of employees.

Don Audette
About Don Audette 28 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.