West Virginia has always been known as remote. In colonial times, what is now West Virginia was all part of Augusta County, Virginia, a vast tract of land stretching as far west as all known geography could reach—in theory, to the Pacific Ocean. Augusta County, and later Botetourt County which was formed from part of Augusta, were seen as far hinterlands to most Virginians. Even as settlers slowly came to the region, the mountains and dense forests made homesteading rough and travel even more difficult. The advent of the railroad was really what opened up West Virginia (and western Virginia) to trade and allowed coal mining, the state’s best-known industry, to flourish.
Agriculture, very essential to the southeastern portion of the state, also was predicated on the railroad. My cousin Hazel Shrader, who is now in her nineties, has often spoken of her parents driving their turkeys miles on the road to reach Ronceverte where they were put on stock cars and shipped by train to market. Cattle also went out this way, allowing rural Greenbrier and Monroe counties a mechanism for exporting the livestock raised there.
Today, while across the nation rail has less of a pride of place in passenger service, it is still vital for many industries, coal mining included, to transport cargo. In West Virginia it seems this role of the railroad is better-appreciated than in many places, probably because of people like Hazel who remember when whole towns were planned around the railroad and how crucial rail service was to everyone’s lives.
Cities near the state line in Virginia such as Covington, home of a major paper mill, and Clifton Forge, historically an important iron-working center, depended on the railroad to convey goods in and out of this region and towns like Clifton Forge and Caldwell, West Virginia, grew up around the economy of rail transport. The great Greenbrier Resort was only viable early in its history due to the railroad, as wealthy vacationers came from far and wide to this and other regional resorts such as Old Salt Sulphur Springs and the Homestead. Though visitors to the Greenbrier today can fly in by plane and cattle are sent out by trucks, coal, paper/pulp, and other heavy industries are predicated on the abilities of rail even now.
Hinton, West Virginia was built on its role as a railroad town and, unlike many such towns, has retained much of that role to this day via a continued rail presence plus an acute local appreciation of the historical legacy of rail. CSX still has freight trains coming through Hinton, and Amtrak’s Cardinal line train stops at Hinton’s station. In fact, when I was last in Hinton I met a large group of teenagers from a Catholic church in Chicago who had disembarked at Hinton on their way to a camp. They had about an hour to see the town and left their bags piled at the station awaiting a bus that would take them on to the camp itself.
Hinton has a railroad museum that is an increasingly popular tourist draw, and several businesses have railroad-related themes or use old rail-associated properties. The C & O Commissary Bed and Breakfast is a prime example: This 1898 property was a railroad commissary where train staff would come to buy necessary goods or spend the night, and now a young innkeeper has restored it to period authenticity and operates it as an inn. Nearby is the Chestnut Revival, a large historic home that also is a bed and breakfast and a coffee-shop now. This property is in the hands of a young couple who were attracted to the relative low cost of living and doing business in Hinton along with this romantic vision of history.
In Alderson and Ronceverte—towns to which an eastbound train from Hinton would eventually come—we find the material legacy of rail days in the stately homes and well-developed downtowns. Even Alderson, though small, has the evidence of bountiful fortune found in railroad towns: grand churches and impressive Victorian homes. In Ronceverte, the CSX freight trains still roar into their old depot and still have business to do here. As Ronceverte, once a proud regional center, fell into lesser fortunes as transport commerce moved away from trains and towards trucking and the interstate, the business district of the city fell on hard times but retained much of its period architecture. While in some ways bad for the city’s economics, it is also fascinating because you can see things like a drug store doorway that hasn’t changed for decades or the old Chessie System cat logo on the window at the train depot.
Between 1906 and 1931, a passenger train, the L & O Railroad, ran between Ronceverte up to the county seat of Lewisburg to the north. At that time such a train would have provided practical transportation for people to go to Lewisburg and conduct business at court or otherwise, demonstrating the crucial function of train travel even over relatively short distances. Today, even when trains no longer make as direct of an impact on the local economy as they once did, the necessary infrastructure to keep freight trains running still exists in places like Alderson and Ronceverte, still employs people, and still contributes locally. In a place like Covington, Virginia, this is even more acute in that freight trains are essential for bringing chemicals in for the local Mead-Westvaco paper mill and hauling out many of the finished products this mill manufactures.
Further down the track from Covington is Clifton Forge which probably can explain in a tangible manner better than most anywhere else the importance of rail to this region. As the local economy here turned from early days of iron forging at the onset of the 1800’s towards the application of iron in railroading, Clifton Forge over the years became a regional rail center. Today Clifton Forge hosts a great museum of all things rail, the C&O Railway Heritage Center. CSX still maintains a key fueling center here also for its locomotives. One of the smartest—and best—things the Railway Heritage Center has done was to obtain and archive thousands of engineering and architectural working drawings for all aspects of the C&O’s systems, allowing serious researchers the rare opportunity to view history which, as physical objects, may now be gone or hard to reach and examine. And the audience for such railroad history is legion: from professionals to vast ranks of train buffs who are greatly devoted to learning about and enjoying the history and lore of American railroads.
Though freight trains are still vital to this region, in some instances tracks simply no longer were needed for current rail activities, and, as with many other places in the nation, rails-to-trails programs have transformed old railroad right-of-ways into hiking trails. A prime example of this is the Greenbrier River Trail State Park which runs from Marlington south to Caldwell, tracing the Greenbrier River most of the way, following an old rail-bed. In all, it is a seventy-eight-mile journey, but the trail can be accessed at various points along the way for those who do not desire to take it all in at once. For those who do, there are camp sites and also some more formal lodgings (motels, bed and breakfasts) along the trail.
Though paved (as are most rails-to-trails projects) and appropriate for mountain biking as well as hiking, some of the areas near the river along the trail are rugged and, as I discovered running at the Caldwell portion of the trail on a very rainy November day in 2014, can be slippery and muddy. At some junctures, such as the small town of Renick, the trail opens up on a larger civic parkside right at the river, and in hot weather this is a fine place for swimming.
If you’re in Hinton or Covington for more than an hour’s time, you are almost sure to hear the lonesome sound of a train whistle or horn. Up near Marlington, the Cass Scenic Railroad still operates a working heritage train for tourism, offering visitors a real-life experience of what old-fashioned travel by train was all about. The railroad was central to the development of many parts of America between the 1880’s and the middle of the twentieth century, but in West Virginia and western Virginia this is especially clear to this day.
See More of Mike Walker’s Western Virginias’ Railroad Photos Here