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Rockingham Railroads

Rockingham Railroads: A 100 Year Review, November 2014 – August 2015

“In the latter [1860s] there was in evidence much organized agitation for the construction of a railroad . . .” – Historian John W. Wayland.

On December 11, 1868, the citizens of Rockingham County finally celebrated the arrival of the first railroad train to Harrisonburg: the Orange, Alexandria & Manassas Railroad that would serve passengers and freight going to the Virginia port of Alexandria. Five months later, on May 10, 1869, the “Golden Spike” was driven at Promontory Point, Utah, completing the United States Transcontinental Railroad connecting the Missouri River to the Pacific Coast at San Francisco.

The development of railroads in the Shenandoah Valley features the building of three major rail systems:  the Baltimore & Ohio, the Norfolk & Western, and the Chesapeake & Western.

Investors projected that traffic to Harrisonburg and other towns would be less profitable than the freight business from the iron furnaces and forges near the Town of Shenandoah and further south at Glasgow. Iron and copper deposits ran 300 miles in the spurs of the Blue Ridge Mountains, along with rich deposits of manganese. Local business interests were paramount in bringing the railroad to the east side of the Massanutten Mountain.

C. W. Clark & Co, Philadelphia financiers, created the Norfolk & Western Railroad (N&W) in 1873. When financial difficulties forced the Shenandoah Valley Railroad into receivership in 1885, the N&W came to the rescue in 1890. N&W paid $7,100,000 for 238 miles of track, 48 locomotives, 29 passenger cars, 961 freight cars, and the gateway to Philadelphia and New York.

Photo courtesy, Norfolk & Western Archives

On April 5, 1902, the Chesapeake Western Company completed a fourteen mile length of track between Bridgewater and Stokesville, named after its New York financier, W. E. D. Stokes. The railroad established its presence by building shops and sheds, rail sidings and switches, plus homes and a commissary for employees and their families.

Stokesville’s population rose to approximately 1,500. Before 1910, the C&W faced debt, the natural resources had been harvested to their limits, the mills and plants reduced or closed operations, and employees moved away. Years later, flood waters virtually erased all that was once the boom town of Stokesville.

Photo courtesy, Alan Cramer.

In 1870, the B&O built its own line from Winchester to meet the Manassas Gap line at Strasburg Junction. The newly consolidated Orange, Alexandria and Manassas Gap (OA&M) brought the train to Harrisonburg in 1868, which required building seven long and high bridges in Shenandoah County. Rockingham County, determined to establish the area as a railroad region, invested $150,000 to build the line from Strasburg to Harrisonburg.

In 1874, the Valley Rail Road (backed by the B&O) opened the line from Harrisonburg to Staunton.

The Chesapeake Western Railway purchased the B&O line between Harrisonburg and Lexington in 1943 for $150,000. The CW maintained the line as far as Staunton but eventually dismantled the line to Lexington.

HRHS Photo Archives image.