On January 29, 1873, Chesapeake & Ohio (C&O) Railway officials drove a ceremonial spike at Hawks Nest, West Virginia, completing their new rail line from Richmond, Virginia, to Huntington, West Virginia. The railroad achieved George Washington’s century-old dream to connect the Atlantic Ocean and Ohio River through efficient transportation. The construction lasted more than 35 years, and the arduous work—completed primarily by recently enslaved men—killed untold workers on the job while giving rise to legendary tales, such as John Henry’s fabled victory over a steam-powered drill.
The C&O opened up southern West Virginia’s coalfields to the world which led to an economic boom and cultural transformation summarized in two words: King Coal. It was the first railroad to cut east-west through the heart of central Appalachia and some of the most beautiful scenery in the nation.
In 1878, five years after the railroad’s completion, the C&O published this travelogue of the route to promote commerce and tourism. While most people in the 19th century had little discretionary money for vacations and other frivolities, tourism would become a popular pastime for the Gilded Age’s upper crust. As the authors noted in the introduction, this book was a solution to “the problem important to so many households, ‘Where shall we spend the hot months of summer?’” Rather than “many households,” it more accurately could have read “families with more money than they know what to do with” because most families were tending their farms just to survive, not gallivanting at expensive resorts. Much wealth still existed in the south, though, even after the Civil War had depleted much of it, and the C&O itself would make millionaires out of a few ambitious coal operators who got in early. But even for those just struggling to scrape by, railroads would become a gateway to places previously inaccessible on foot or by horse or even imagination.
The prime audience for this book were the powerful and wealthy who wanted to escape sweltering eastern cities in summer for the cool mountain air of resorts served by the C&O. For those with little or no money, these types of publications came to be known as “wish books” because they opened people’s minds to a world just out of their reach. Just as George Bailey read travelogues and fantasized about traveling the world in It’s a Wonderful Life, everyday folks in Central Appalachia had their own dreams. Publications such as this were often as far as their empty wallets could take them, but at least for a few minutes, without stepping on a train, a book like this and a little imagination could open doors to unseen places they never knew existed.
The book begins with a brief timeline of the railroad’s construction, including its failed and semi-failed predecessor lines, starting with the Louisa Railroad in 1836. It brushes over the many engineering and financial letdowns, the destruction of rail lines during the Civil War that nearly ended the project, and various bankruptcies.
The tour starts in Richmond, only 13 years removed from the utter destruction left behind by the Civil War, with the Thomas Jefferson-designed capitol building of Virginia (and also that of the former Confederate States of America). Since the capitol was one of the few grand buildings in Richmond to escape the conflagration that leveled the city in 1865, much of this sight-seeing tour focuses on parks, cemeteries, and churches, including St. John’s, where Patrick Henry once decried Great Britain’s tyranny by declaring, “Give me liberty or give me death.” The most fascinating parts focus on daily life around the Richmond wharves and warehouses, the blue-collar heart of the city that would again transform Richmond into a mid-Atlantic commercial giant.
The book then becomes a westward-heading travel guide: “From the James River Wharves, the C&O passes westerly across Bloody Run and through the Church Hill Tunnel.” Each station stop on our journey includes a short history lesson. Bacon’s Rebellion (1676). Redcoats under the traitor Benedict Arnold chasing the Marquis de Lafayette across the commonwealth (1781). The recent bloody clash between North and South (1861-65).
On to Hanover, Tolersville, Gordonsville, and Charlottesville, where we visit Thomas Jefferson’s tomb and what he considered one of his two masterpieces: the University of Virginia. The book and all railroad life hinged on these station stops, a 19th-century ancestor of our modern interstate exits, and the small towns that blossomed wherever they were built. In this case, the C&O approximates the modern route of Interstate-64 in Virginia and U.S. Route 60 in West Virginia. As a result, the book is in many ways as relevant now as it was in the 1870s. Many interstate exits replicate the old C&O stations: Staunton, Lexington, Longsdale, Lowmoor, and Clifton Forge, which would become a major railroad maintenance center and is home to the C&O Historical Society. When passengers in 1878 emerged from the pitch-dark Alleghany Tunnel, they were greeted by the sometimes-sunny state of West Virginia, which had been part of Virginia until the Civil War divided the two only 15 years before this book was published.
On to White Sulphur Springs, Lewisburg, Alderson, and the 6,400-foot Great Bend Tunnel at Talcott. While folklore identifies this as the site of John Henry’s big contest, no mention is made here of the “steel-drivin’ man.” On to Sandstone Falls near Hinton and into the coalfields. The authors, and owners of the railroad, anticipated that the coal buried for millennia in West Virginia’s mountains would fuel the United States’ Industrial Revolution. Notably, the authors glossed over the inherent dangers involved with mining that coal, which would claim thousands of lives over the coming years. Instead, they promoted an implausible theory that “cheap and easy ventilation” would make accidents and explosions non-entities. On no other point is this book less accurate.
The book does, though, offer a sneak peak into the very birth of the southern West Virginia coal industry. It was one of the first to describe coal operations at places such as Quinnimont and Nuttallburg. Whitewater rafters and other tourists will recognize place names such as Fayette Station, which lies nearly directly below the New River Gorge Bridge, and picturesque wonders like Hawks Nest and Kanawha Falls.
Moving westward, the book highlights the Kanawha Valley’s once-mighty salt industry—struggling to survive after the Civil War—and West Virginia’s once-and-future capital city, Charleston. Our journey ends at the railroad’s western terminus, Huntington, built virtually overnight from the ground up and named for C&O President Collis P. Huntington.
After completing the 421-mile train trip, the book takes a closer look at why readers should vacation on the C&O: the climate, mineral resort springs such as Old White (future site of The Greenbrier), and scenic marvels such as Natural Bridge. Even the advertisements, which comprise the last half of the book, are nostalgically absorbing, offering a sense of that period’s commercial flare and reminding us of long-disappeared resorts, such as Red Sulphur Springs, West Virginia.
Perhaps most eye opening are the hand-drawn pictures throughout. Although photography was becoming more common by the late 1870s, large camera equipment and tripods were not easy to transport, and the unbearably long exposures made every good photo from this period posed in one way or another. The artists who drew these detailed pictures ranged from the famous (French painter Jules Tavernier) to the completely unknown. Thanks to their talent and attention to detail, we get rare views of railroad stations teaming with passengers, iron ore and coal mining, skilled boatsmen running the New River Gorge’s treacherous rapids on nothing but log rafts, timber drives down the Greenbrier River, the Kanawha Valley saltworks, and some of the best early views of Charleston and Huntington, burgeoning towns that would soon become West Virginia’s largest.
So, get ready to time-travel and catch a glimpse of life in central Virginia and West Virginia nearly 150 years ago. Imagine the beautiful sights all around you and of being a part of the history being made in 1878. How does the scenery look without the sounds of interstates, car horns, and the other cacophonies of modern times? As you flip from page to page, gaze out your own window. Bet you can almost hear the steam whistle and clickety-clack of train wheels taking you back to another time and to places beyond your own imaginations.
Stan Bumgardner, 2023