There had been attempts to bring a railroad to Southwest Virginia since the 1830s. On March 24, 1848, the city of Lynchburg incorporated the Lynchburg and Tennessee Railroad Company, renamed the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad a year later, to promote “Agriculture & Commerce” in the region. Construction began in January 1850. The line ran west from Lynchburg through a gap in the Blue Ridge Mountains near Big Lick (present-day Roanoke), where it continued along the Great Valley to Bristol, Tennessee. Construction was completed in 1856. The mountainous terrain and numerous waterways of Southwest Virginia provided significant engineering challenges to construction. The completed railroad was 204 miles long plus a nine and one-half mile long spur leading to the saltworks at Saltville. It had five tunnels and 233 bridges, including a 700-foot covered wooden bridge at the center of the line crossing the New River at the aptly named town of Central Depot (present-day Radford).
The Virginia and Tennessee was an engineering marvel and one of the country’s best-built railroads. While many rail lines of the time were built by placing wooden ties and rails directly on the ground, the Virginia and Tennessee used gravel ballast to support and stabilize the track. At a cost of $84,000 per mile, it was one of the most expensive lines in America. It was built by Irish laborers and enslaved workers hired from their enslavers. In 1856, the railroad had a total of 435 enslaved laborers working on construction.
The new railroad revolutionized transportation in Southwest Virginia and, as predicted, stimulated economic development. At Lynchburg, the line met with the Orange and Alexandria Railroad and the, opening the markets of eastern and northern Virginia. At Bristol, it met the East Tennessee and Virginia Railroad, connecting Southwest Virginia to the deep South. With access to new markets, Southwest Virginia’s agricultural production greatly increased in the 1850s. Reduced transportation costs also made mining profitable, and the region’s saltworks and lead mines prospered. The percentage of non-agricultural jobs increased, new towns developed, and the area’s population increased. Economic development also increased the number of enslaved laborers in the region, cementing its ties to the institution of slavery.
The Railroad during the Civil War
At the start of the Civil War, the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad was a major link in a rail system stretching from northern Virginia to Alabama, allowing the movement of Confederate troops between Virginia and the rest of the South. In addition to facilitating troop movement, the railroad was critical to supplying thewith food and other essential supplies. The saltworks at Saltville was the largest producer of salt in the South, producing two thirds of the Confederacy’s supply, which was an essential ingredient for preserving meat. The lead mines in Austinville produced one third of the South’s lead. Union tacticians soon realized the importance of the railroad. Future president and Union general Rutherford B. Hayes called it the “jugular vein” of the Confederacy. Federal troops attacked the rail line throughout the war in an attempt to cut service. In 1864, the Virginia and Tennessee reported that six raids had destroyed most depots and bridges and eighteen miles of track, but most of the track damage was repaired. The weak link in the system was the 700-foot bridge over the New River. The span was burned and destroyed in a May 1864 raid led by Union general George Crook after the defeat of Confederate forces at the Battle of Cloyd’s Mountain, the largest Civil War battle in Southwest Virginia. Union forces could not destroy the stone piers supporting the bridge, however, and the span was rebuilt in five weeks.
The following April, Union general George Stoneman led a cavalry raid from Knoxville, Tennessee, into Southwest Virginia with orders to destroy the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad. Stoneman’s raiders destroyed the tracks, bridges, railroad depot, and lead mines at Wytheville, burned the bridges over the Big Otter and Little Otter rivers, burned the railroad depot near Christiansburg, destroyed bridges at Big Lick, and attempted to destroy the New River Bridge once again, but the wood in the bridge was so green it wouldn’t burn. All told, more than 150 miles of Virginia and Tennessee Railroad track and key bridges were destroyed, cutting one of the Confederacy’s last remaining supply lines and links to.
The Creation of West VirginiaVirginia Secession Convention of 1861, the counties of Southwestern Virginia along the route of the Virginia and Tennessee sided with the eastern portion of the state, leaving the breakaway western counties to form West Virginia.
After the War
After the war, the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad was repaired. Former Confederate general William Mahone became its president in 1867 and in 1870 consolidated the line into his Atlantic, Mississippi, and Ohio Railroad empire. When that enterprise went bankrupt after the Panic of 1873, it was purchased by Northern interests and renamed the Norfolk and Western Railway. Mahone arranged for a portion of the proceeds to go toward the creation of the Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute (later Virginia State College), the state’s first higher education institution for African Americans. In 1980, the Norfolk and Western Railway merged with the Southern Railway to create Norfolk Southern Railway.