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Chesapeake Bay & Western
Chesapeake Bay & Western
 Chesapeake Bay Railroaders, Inc | 110F Dare Road | Yorktown, VA 23692-2882 | Phone: (757) 898-0717 | Contact Us 
Page Last Updated
August 25th, 2006

The History of the Chesapeake Bay & Western

In 1884, Col. Wendell J Davis, a wealthy logging tycoon, built the Davis Timber Company Railway. This three foot narrow gauge railroad was built to haul cut timber from his large land holdings on Davis Mountain near the town of Davis, Virginia to the sprawling saw mill at Keezletown, Virginia. This little narrow gauge line would eventually grow into the Chesapeake Bay and Western Railroad.

The new railroad proved to be a very profitable operation in more ways than one. In July 1886 the brakes failed on a loaded log train coming down the famous Nose Bleed grade. The entire train jumped the track and the locomotive dug a four foot deep furrow into the mountainside. The locomotive and six cars were a total loss, but the Colonel wasn't about to abandon the locomotive without first pulling it out of the dirt and making a personal examination to satisfy himself that it couldn't be repaired. After extracting what remained of the locomotive out of the ground, workers discovered the locomotive had laid bare a vein of coal. The Colonel, knowing that the day would come when all the timber he owned would be cut, seized this opportunity and began mining his new found black gold.

His nearest market for the coal was the large forge at Columbia Furnace, Virginia. To reach this customer the Colonel hauled coal on his narrow gauge railroad to Keezletown where it was off loaded onto standard gauge cars of the Keezletown, Columbia Furnace & Washington Railroad (CF&W) and shipped to Columbia Furnace. Colonel Davis found new markets for his coal in the northern industrial centers and it became obvious that the narrow gauge railroad was not going to be able to handle the increased traffic. The standard gauge conversion was completed in November 1890. This included bypassing the Nose Bleed grade, making the ruling grade 3.0%. Col. Davis, quickly began buying as much mineral rights to all the surrounding land as he could finance. He had a vision of a large coal empire that included a railroad to haul coal to a sea port on the Atlantic where it could then be shipped up or down the East Coast. In spite of his successes, he was stretched to his financial limit, so to get his coal to the coast he tried to negotiate a merger with the CF&W. The CF&W owners refused all his offers, forcing him to look at other plans.

Through the influence of a brother-in-law who was a member of the Virginia Senate, he obtained a grant from the Commonwealth of Virginia to run a railroad from the port of Phoebus, westward to Rapidan, where he would interchange with the CF&W. After getting the grant he persuaded some Phoebus bankers to finance 25% of the railroad. His brother-in-law hung an amendment on a tobacco tax bill that obligated the Commonwealth to 24%. The Colonel put together a complex financing structure for the remaining 51%, Colonel Davis being the owner of record of that 51% block of stock. Construction of the Phoebus & Western Virginia Railway (P&WV Rwy.) was completed on April 16, 1898. Obviously from the new railroad's name, the Colonel's ultimate plan was to run the railroad all the way to his mines. On April 17 the railroad held a large celebration on the docks at Phoebus to celebrate the arrival of the first coal train. The p rimary refreshment served was "coal miners punch". The main ingredients, according to legend, was dynamite, coal dust and Davis Mountain Moonshine. The Colonel consumed more than the other guests and as the train pulled into the siding he stumbled off the pier into the water and drowned.

The whole financial structure he had built unraveled with his untimely death, and the railroad went into the hands of receivers after only one week of operation. The CF&W had, in spite of it's name, never been able to get clearance from the Commonwealth of Virginia to run trackage beyond Culpeper, Virginia. The owners saw the Colonel's death as a way to extend their line to an east coast port. They quickly formed a partnership of the CF&W and three local mine owners, raising sufficient capital to bid on the P&W V Rwy. Being the first and only group with cash in hand, they bought the Colonel's 51% at bargain basement prices and resumed operations under the name Chesapeake Bay and Western Railway Company. The first train to operate under the CB&W name was an eastbound coal train from the town of Davis to Phoebus on October 3rd 1898.

Over the next several years the railroad began it's westward expansion, increasing the number of coal fields served. By 1910 it hauled coal from fields in Kentucky, West Virginia and Virginia to the Atlantic coast. The railroad's management saw the limitations and vulnerabilities of being a one commodity railroad so plans began to expand west to St. Louis. World War I meant putting expansion plans on hold. The railroad prospered during the war and by the signing of the armistice in 1918, the railroad had almost doubled the tonnage it moved annually. During this period the railroad bought back the stock held by the Commonwealth of Virginia.

A major strike in 1919 hit the railroad. Operations ceased for five months, putting the railroad on the brink of bankruptcy. To remain in business, the old coal mines originally owned by Colonel Davis were sold, since the current owners were railroad men not coal miners. Creditors demanded more, and late that year the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, who was interested in some of the CB&W routes bought a 15% share of the railroad. The relationship between the two companies was contentious with the CB&W management wanting to expand to St. Louis and the B&O people vetoing the plan. In 1927 the CB&W purchased back from the B&O the 15% share, with the B&O taking the branch from Rapidan to Culpeper. This cleared the way for expansion to St. Louis.

The railroad prospered and added new customers daily. The company purchased land for the right of way to St. Louis; however, before any track could be laid, nation was hit with the Great Depression. Some of the railroad's oldest customers \went out of business and those that remained were either late paying their bills or didn't pay them at all. The CB&W management cut the labor force to the bone; locomotives and rolling stock were put in storage, and several branch lines were closed.

The harsh economic measures saved the company, and when World War II began, the railroad was positioned to support the war effort. All the locomotives and rolling stock available were pressed into service. Because of the Country's need for another route from St. Louis to the Atlantic coast, the federal government gave the CB&W special permission to complete the mainline to St. Louis. During the war the company set new records in passengers and freight tonnage moved. These records however, put a severe strain on the railroad and by 1945 the CB&W badly needed to modernize it's roster.

The transition from steam to diesel locomotives began in March 1946 with the purchase of three FA-1 and FB-1 Alco locomotive sets. This modernization continued and on May 16, 1959 an era ended: The road's last steam train ran between Keezletown and Davis on the Davis Branch. To finance the modernization, the railroad went public in 1946, being listed on the New York stock exchange (symbol CBW).

The 1950's saw a decline in passenger traffic. Passenger service had started in 1899 with biweekly passenger trains between Keezletown and Phoebus. It gradually increased and when the line was completed to St. Louis the CB&W began two daily trains, one east bound and one west bound. At the start of WW II, passenger service between Phoebus and St. Louis had increased to four trains each day. There were also numerous locals along the line. The passenger traffic peaked in 1945. By the 1960's passenger service was unprofitable and the CB&W stopped passenger service on September 3, 1970. Amtrak began daily service on CB&W track between Phoebus and St. Louis in 1972 with a train called "The Mountaineer".

Freight traffic decreased in the 50's and 60's with coal representing 35% of the tonnage moved. The bankrupt Kentucky Central Railroad was acquired in 1967. 190 miles of their trackage was abandoned leaving 370 miles of track to18 mines plus several successful railroad dependent industries. When the energy crisis of late 70's hit, the company met the increased demand for coal, and the commodity accounted for over 60% of the railroads total tonnage. Because of a decrease in traffic in the 80's, the CB&W abandoned several spurs to coal mines and closed the classification yard at Widen, West Virginia. Harking back to it's early days, the railroad recognized the need to become less dependent on coal, so the railroad focused on increasing it's container capability during the late 80's and early 90's. It built four intermodal yards and completed the container port at Arsenal Virginia in 1994. Gandy Dancers adjusted clearances on the mainline and on January 18, 1996 the first double stack container train ran between St. Louis and Phoebus. In 1996, coal represented 38% of the annual tonnage and containers 32%.

The Chesapeake Bay and Western Railroad moves into a new millennium, positioned to capitalize on it's link between America's heartland and the Atlantic. The equipment is modern, the people are well trained, the operations are fully automated and the mainline has clearance for double stack container trains from St. Louis to Arsenal.