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Chesapeake Western
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The Chesapeake Western lines celebrated their centennial in 1995. The company has continued to survive as a separate operational unit and a subsidiary of the Norfolk Southern Corporation and today its lines are operated under the auspices of the Virginia Division. The "Crooked and Weedy" has persisted despite several grave threats to its existence including mismanagement by absentee owners, disastrous floods, and nearly being sold for scrap in the late 1930s.

The line began as an attempt to provide alternate transportation of goods from the Central Valley. After the Civil War the B&O had a stranglehold on rail traffic in the region, through its control of the Manassas Gap Railroad between Strasburg and Harrisonburg. The B&O also operated over its own line between Harrisonburg and Lexington. This latter line, the B&O's great southern extension, was constructed between 1872 and 1883, with the intention of reaching Salem. These plans never reached fruition, for the line never went beyond Lexington. The B&O's rival, the Pennsylvania, underwrote the construction the parallel Shenandoah Valley Railroad and won the race to Southwestern Virginia, reaching "Big Lick," now Roanoke, in 1881. The Shenandoah Valley became part of the N&W and was to serve as the Chesapeake Western's principal connection. The B&O lost its lease on the Southern line between Strasburg and Harrisonburg in 1896 and the Lexington line became a costly appendage.

The Chesapeake Western began with similar grand intentions. The railroad was to be a great east-west trunk connecting the coal fields of central West Virginia with the C&O at Gordonsville, Va. The passage through the Allegheny Mountains was to have been achieved at North River Gap, just west of Harrisonburg. The original part of the route, completed in 1896, connected the south end of the town of Harrisonburg with Elkton on the Norfolk and Western. This routing included a hefty five-mile segment of 2% grade coming west out of Elkton at the foot of Massanutten Mountain. Another stretch of 1.8%, Keezletown Hill, also lies between Elkton and Harrisonburg. Shop facilities were constructed at Elkton. The line also extended west from Harrisonburg to Dayton and Bridgewater.

The company reorganized and took the name Chesapeake Western Railway in 1901 and began the so-called "Western Extension," the long-awaited connection across the mountains into West Virginia. At the same time an eastward extension through the Blue Ridge at Powell's Gap was planned. The western segment reached Stokesville, at North River Gap, in 1901. From here the railroad served a cluster of narrow-gauge logging roads which hauled out timber from the mountains. The area's coal proved to be of no commercial value. Despite its lack of a western connection, the little line was not beyond pretension. In 1913, having been excluded from the new "Union Station" which served the trains of the B&O and Southern, the road built an elaborate new station and offices in Harrisonburg, on Bruce Street.

The Western Extension became a financial liability and was abandoned in two stages. The segment between Mt. Solon and Stokesville was torn up in 1930 and three years later the line was trimmed back to Bridgewater. In 1938 the absentee owners of the railroad were approached with an offer by Japanese interests to sell the line for scrap. At that time, the long-time General Manager of the line, Don Thomas, stepped forward to purchase the line. His acquisition was underwritten by the Norfolk and Western, which realized the importance of the C.W. Rwy. as a feeder connection. Four years later the line expanded, by assuming the ownership of the B&O line from Harrisonburg to Lexington. The Staunton-Lexington portion was promptly pulled up and the C.W. operated only to Staunton. In 1946 the line dieselized with the purchase of three 660 hp units from Baldwin.

In 1954 the N&W assumed direct ownership of the line, buying out Mr. Thomas. Yet, the line continued to be operated as a separate entity with offices in Harrisonburg. Gradually, over the years the line began to lose its identity. The Baldwins were scrapped in 1964, replaced by three Alco T-6's. Those were subsequently retired in 1985 and now NS diesels ply the rails of the Chesapeake Western. The Chesapeake Western name still appears in the Virginia Division Timetable and operations have expanded to include the ex-Southern Manassas Gap branch as far north as Bowman.

Norfolk Southern has continually invested in the physical plant, installing continuous welded rail over much of the route and replacing the bridge at Elkton which was destroyed by flood in 1985. The shops at Elkton were razed in 1989 and Chesapeake Western trains now run through to Shenandoah Yard. The original line between Pleasant Hill and Bridgewater was pulled up in 1987 and the old B&O south of Pleasant Valley was embargoed in 1985. This line has since been sold to local interests and is now operated by the Buckingham Branch Railroad. The Chesapeake Western lines continue to enjoy substantial traffic, owing in large part to the strength of the poultry industry in the Harrisonburg area.


Price, Charles Grattan. "The Crooked and Weedy:" Virginia's Chesapeake Western Railway. Waynesville, NC: 1992.

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Page last updated August 17, 1996.
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