The Norfolk & Western Railway was a major force in opening the coalfields of southern West Virginia. The N&W was the result of an 1881 merger between the Atlantic, Mississippi & Ohio Railroad, running from Norfolk to Bristol, Virginia-Tennessee, and the Shenandoah Valley Railroad. Interested in the coal deposits in the Flat Top Mountain area on both sides of the Virginia-West Virginia state line, the new N&W constructed the 75-mile New River Extension northwest from Radford, Virginia, to Pocahontas, Virginia, just west of Bluefield. The Pocahontas name soon applied to an entire new coalfield, which lay mostly within West Virginia. On March 17, 1883, the first carload of Pocahontas coal arrived in Norfolk. From the earliest days, Bluefield was a major location on the N&W, first as the western terminal and then as a major division point.
Although West Virginia passed a law in 1895 preventing railroads from engaging in the business of buying and selling coal, efforts to break the linkage between railroads and mine owners were seldom effective. In order to develop the coalfields further, the Philadelphia bankers behind the N&W formed the Flat Top Coal Land Association, which acquired and developed many coal mines in the area. This association eventually became a subsidiary of the N&W known as the Pocahontas Coal & Coke Company.
While the N&W built spurs to newly opened mines, expansion westward from Bluefield toward the Ohio River had to wait until the completion of Elkhorn Tunnel through Flat Top Mountain in 1888. Then the N&W built across McDowell, Mingo, and Wayne counties, reaching the Ohio at Kenova, west of Huntington. During construction the N&W found itself in the middle of the Hatfield-McCoy Feud at the Hatfield Bend of Tug Fork, according to the correspondence of President Frederick J. Kimball. In 1890, the N&W acquired the Scioto Valley Railway, an isolated 126-mile line that ran from a small town near Columbus to Coal Grove, Ohio, located across the river from Kenova.
Rapid expansion across southern West Virginia and into Ohio and southwest Virginia, the development of coal loading docks in Norfolk, major improvements in equipment and facilities, and the assumption of a $6.5 million debt of the Shenandoah Valley Railroad were too much of a financial challenge. Like many other railroads, the Norfolk & Western in 1895–96 went through bankruptcy and reorganization. In 1900, as the N&W was beginning to recover from its financial difficulties, the Pennsylvania Railroad began purchasing its stock. Although never able to gain more than 39 percent of the stock, the Pennsy remained the major stockholder in the N&W for the next 60 years.
In 1901, the N&W acquired the Cincinnati, Portsmouth & Virginia, gaining access to Cincinnati. Shortly thereafter the N&W connected with the Pennsylvania in Columbus, and the basic Norfolk & Western system was complete, with the exception of improvements to the main line and several additional branch lines to tap coal resources. The most important of the main line improvements was the 59-mile Big Sandy Extension through Wayne and Mingo counties, which replaced the original, inefficient Twelvepole Creek route to the Ohio.
Through World War I, the Great Depression and World War II, the N&W remained one of the most successful railroads in the nation and a major factor in the economy of West Virginia. It remained primarily a coal-hauling railroad, and for most of its history relied on coal-powered trains. It developed a fleet of outstanding steam locomotives, many of them constructed in the company shops at Roanoke, Virginia. Many of them operated well into the 1950s. The N&W was the last major railroad to give up steam power.
About the time steam locomotives disappeared from the N&W tracks, the corporation began to expand by acquiring other railroads. In 1959, it acquired the Virginian, essentially a redundant system from the West Virginia coalfields to the Virginia docks. The Atlantic & Danville, running from Norfolk to Danville, Virginia, was purchased three years later. Challenged in part by the C&O acquisition of the Baltimore & Ohio, in 1964 the N&W acquired the Nickel Plate in a merger that included the Wabash Railroad, the Akron, Canton & Youngstown, and the Pittsburgh & West Virginia. As a condition of this merger the N&W temporarily assumed control of the Erie Lackawanna, but that eventually became part of Conrail.
Finally, in 1982, two giants of the region merged as the N&W and the Southern Railway System became the Norfolk Southern Corporation. Today the NS is one of the major railroad systems in the nation with 15,000 route miles of track, 23,000 employees, and annual operating revenues in excess of $4 billion.
This Article was written by Robert L. Frey
Last Revised on October 21, 2010
Lambie, Joseph T. From Mine to Market: The History of Coal Transportation on the Norfolk & Western Railway. New York: New York University Press, 1954.
Striplin, E. F. Pat. The Norfolk & Western: A History. Roanoke: Norfolk & Western Railway, 1981.