Durbin’s C&O centennial
May 26, 2002, marks 100 years since the C&O arrived in Durbin, West Virginia
At noon on May 26, 1902, the first train steamed into the town of Durbin, West Virginia, at the forks of the Greenbrier River, inaugurating service on the Greenbrier Division of the C&O Railway, later to be known as the “Durbin Route.” This event marked the long-awaited opening up of northern Pocahontas County, W Va., to industrial development.
The upper Greenbrier Valley was the last area of West Virginia to be reached by railroads. The region and its resources were well known, but the high cost of building track in the mountains posed a major financial barrier.
Dreams of a railroad in Pocahontas County date back at least as far as 1850, when the County Court authorized an election to be held on the question of subscribing to the capital stock of the Virginia Central Railroad, the predecessor of the t&O. In 1868 county voters approved a measure calling for the purchase of $50,000 worth of C&O stock by a count of 143 to 81, but there is no record as to whether the purchase was completed.
At least 20 other railroad plans for Pocahontas were put forward in the decades after the Civil War, but things began to get serious in 1890 when former U.S. Senator Johnson N. Camden incorporated the West Virginia & Pittsburgh Railroad with the idea of developing iron ore deposits near Covington, Virginia. The line was to run up the Williams River and meet an extension of the C&O’s Hot Springs branch near the newly established town of Marlinton. On the strength of these prospects, the voters of Pocahontas County voted on December 8, 1891, by a margin of 940 to 475, to move the courthouse from Huntersville to the new would-be railroad town. As the people of Pocahontas County learned, however, there is a major difference between planning a railroad and building one. The nationwide financial panic of 1893 put an end to Senator Camden’s big plans. The West Virginia & Pittsburgh eventually was incorporated into the B&O, but never got closer to Pocahontas County than Richwood, Nicholas County, which it reached in 1899.
The C&O was, of course, the logical line to build into Pocahontas County due to its geographical advantage over any other railroad. Competitors would have to cross a mountain to tap into the resources of the county, whereas the C&O had a choice of two “water level” routes-either up the Greenbrier River itself from Ronceverte, or leaving the main line at White Sulphur Springs and going up Anthonys Creek and then down Knapps Creek. A survey team was busy on the latter route early in 1896, and in 1897 a line was surveyed from the Forks of the Greenbrier (Durbin) down to Marlinton.
Late that year, the C&O took another step forward by incorporating a subsidiary, the Greenbrier Railway Company. In March 1898 two C&O engineers made a four-day float trip down the Greenbrier from Marlinton to Caldwell to evaluate an all-river route. The actual survey was completed by October of that year.
This growth of interest by the C&O was due in large part to the actions of the West Virginia Pulp & Paper Company, which was considering building a large new paper mill in the area. The choice of a mill site was between Caldwell, in Greenbrier County, and Covington; the latter was selected in April 1899, and that same month the Board of Directors of the Greenbrier Railway approved the all-river route. In 1899 West Virginia Pulp & Paper also bought a vast acreage of land on Cheat Mountain in Randolph and Pocahontas Counties.
Considering the long wait the people of the Greenbrier Valley had experienced for a railroad to arrive, the speed with which the Greenbrier Railway was built must have amazed them. Construction in Pocahontas County began August 5, 1899, at Burnside, (at the southern end of the county), and by August 28 work had reached Marlinton. By September it was estimated that 1500 men were at work on the line, with camps stretching from Caldwell in Greenbrier County to Hosterman, north of Cass. Track laying began in late 1899, and by July 1900 the Knapps Creek Bridge at Marlinton was completed and the track had reached four miles north of Renick in northern Greenbrier County. By the end of September track was being laid at the rate of a mile a day, and on October 26, 1900, the people of Marlinton officially celebrated the opening of the line to their town.
Meanwhile, in late June 1900, the West Virginia Pulp & Paper Company had begun laying the groundwork for the construction of their big sawmill at the mouth of Leatherbark Creek. By Christmas of that year the Greenbrier Railway had reached its major objective-the new town of Cass and the beginnings of what was to become one of the largest lumbering operations in West Virginia.
The West Virginia Pulp & Paper Co. had been hard at work on the grade for their own railroad up Cheat Mountain to their timber holdings (the route of today’s Cass Scenic Railroad). The first shipment of pulpwood to the paper mill at Covington was made on January 28, 1901. The big sawmill at Cass was under construction throughout 1901 and began producing lumber in January 1902.
Having reached its major objective at Cass, the C&O proceeded at a more leisurely pace with construction of the line on to the new town of Durbin, which was not reached until May 1902, more than a year later, thus opening upper Pocahontas County to industry. Sawmills and a major tannery were developed there within the next few years.
The year 1902 closed with Pocahontas County’s version of a “railroad war,” involving a narrow part of the valley of the East Fork of the Greenbrier just east of Durbin where only one railroad could be built at a reasonable expense. John T. McGraw, the promoter of Marlinton and the river route in the 1890s, incorporated the Greenbrier, Monongahela & Pittsburgh Railroad to build a line from Durbin to Point Marion Pa., to serve the planned tannery. In September the GM&P filed a plat at the Pocahontas Courthouse detailing their route from Durbin to Bartow, and deeds were recorded for the right-of-way through the narrows.
At this point the C&O seems to have noticed it might lose the tannery business and access to timber developments on the East Fork and sprang into action. On Saturday night, October 4, the C&O moved a crew of 150 men into Durbin. On the Sabbath they laid a half-mile of track in the narrows and anchored a car at the end of the track, thus staking their claim to the right-of-way Both sides got injunctions against the other and a courtroom battle ensued, culminating in July 1903 settlement whereby the GM&P deeded its right-of-way over to the C&O and passed quietly from the scene.
While the final portions of the C&O’s “Durbin Route” were being built, another railroad of importance to Pocahontas County was under construction. Former Senator Henry Gassaway Davis chartered the Coal & Iron Railroad in December 1899 to connect Durbin and Elkins. Construction began in 1900, but progress was not as rapid as on the C&O Greenbrier Division, as this line had to cross two mountains to finally reach the West Fork of the Greenbrier River. The track to Durbin, and the connection with the C&O, was finally completed in late July 1903. The Coal & Iron Railroad became a part of the Western Maryland in November 1905.
Although C&O. service on this line ended on December 28, 1978, the Durbin & Greenbrier Valley Railroad (DGVRR) carries on the tradition today with a variety of excursion trains.
The Durbin & Greenbrier Valley, formed in 1996, has a number of operations harking back to the golden days of railroading in eastern West Virginia. These include a trip down the Greenbrier on the old C&O line, this year featuring a newly. acquired Climax locomotive; the Cheat Mountain Salamander, a self-propelled railcar that runs on the old West Virginia Pulp & Paper railroad line atop Cheat Mountain (Greenbrier Cheat & Elk-later Western Maryland), and the New Tygart Flyer, a 1940s-era streamline passenger train. In addition, the Durbin & Greenbrier Valley has a freight operation on the State-owned %est Virginia Central Railroad, the former WM line from Tygart Junction to Bergoo.
A Railfan’s Dream Come True
As a child in Philadelphia, John Smith was fascinated with trains, although no one in his family had any experience with railroading. At a young age he acquired an American Flyer S-gauge outfit, and expanded into an HO layout by age 12. That same year he heard about a new historic steam excursion railroad at Cass, WV, and talked his parents into traveling down south to ride the train during its first year of operation.
Although he did not return to Cass on a regular basis, the town-and the trains– stayed with him. At age 19 he dropped out of college, bought an old Ryder cab-over, and began a career in the trucking business. Trains were always in the back of his mind, but his only direct involvement was with a three-foot gauge railroad as part of a sawmill operation in Alleghany, Pa., which just ran from the mill to the yard.
Smith operated a variety of businesses, but was always involved in trucking. He got out of that industry in 1988, and moved to Cass, where he operated a basket shop. “Honestly I don’t know why I moved to Cass. I guess I just liked to hear the whistle blow.” Economics forced a return to long– distance hauling in 1992, now based out of Durbin, 15 miles north of Cass, at the upper end of the former Greenbrier Division of the C&O.
In 1996, however, this owner-operator, along with his wife and partner Kathy, decided to turn his railfan enthusiasm into their way of life. They sold the rig and sank their entire life savings into starting a new, privately owned excursion railroad based in Durbin.
The State of West Virginia is home to hundreds of miles of abandoned rail lines. Rather than have these footprints of America’s industrial heritage fade from our national consciousness, this state has been at the center of scenic railroad preservation and rails-to-trails movements. Much of this activity has been on former trackage of the C&O’s Greenbrier Division.
For years the West Virginia State Park system has operated the Cass Scenic Railroad in Pocahontas County. The railroad runs daily excursions from Memorial Day through Labor Day with special Fall Foliage schedules in September and October. These trips take their passengers on an eight-mile ride to Whitaker Station or a 22-mile ride to Bald Knob, one of the highest summits in West Virginia. The train is powered by some of the last operating Shay and Heisler steam logging locomotives in the world. The town of Cass also offers visitors the unique opportunity to stay in original company town housing dating from its timber boom days.
Cass is also the northern terminus of the Greenbrier River Trail, created in 1981. This 75-mile rail-conversion trail starts at Caldwell in Greenbrier County, continuing along the former C&O Greenbrier Division right-of-way up the river to Watoga State Park-with its CCC log cabins-and through the Pocahontas county seat of Marlinton. Rated one of the top ten hiking trails in the U.S. by Backpacker Magazine, the Greenbrier River Trail crosses 35 bridges and runs through two tunnels in some of the most beautiful country in the eastern United States.
This rail trail was developed after Chessie System abandoned the line in 1978; the rails were removed in 1979 to a point just below Cass. The line from Cass upriver to Durbin remained in place, and for a few summers was used by the scenic railroad for upriver excursions, but the unprecedented Greenbrier River flood of 1985 damaged it badly and put any future prospects on ice.
In 1996, after a second devastating Greenbrier river flood that inflicted more damage to the tracks, a new player appeared on the railroad scene in Pocahontas County -John and Kathy Smith’s Durbin & Greenbrier Valley Railroad.
The Smiths were inspired to start the DGVRR at a meeting held to protest a proposal to take up the 15 miles of flood-damaged track from Cass to Durbin and convert the right-of-way into a continuation of the Greenbrier River Trail. The property, owned by the West Virginia State Rail Authority, was in real danger of being scrapped, as there were no known funding sources available for repair to the tracks. According to the Smiths, the Rail Authority representative at the meeting said, “No railroad man in the country would want this flooded-out piece of track.”
The Smiths weren’t railroaders yet, but they decided to give it a try. Although the DGVRR was an unproved, fledging outfit, their enthusiasm convinced the state to give them a shot at restoring and utilizing the 15 miles of track.
In July of 1996 the DGVRR was awarded a contract to repair and operate the line with the condition that no State funds would be forthcoming; private money and private effort would have to do the entire job. John and Kathy sold their semi-rig on August 20, and on the same day purchased a 20-ton Whitcomb industrial switch engine. Interestingly, the first station on the Greenbrier Division was named Whitcomb as well. The engine was named Little LeRoi (pronounced “Leroy”), because it is powered by a 1940s LeRoi gas engine, manufactured by the Waukesha Motor Company of Wisconsin.
Work restoring the track began in the spring of 1997, and with the aid of area residents, railfan volunteers, and contractors, a major washout was repaired and excursion service begun on the first 2.2 miles south from the Victorian-era depot in Durbin in time for the annual “Durbin Days” celebration on July 17, 1997.
Over the ensuing four years the line was extended to a scenic picnic spot on the Greenbrier River, 5.2 miles from Durbin. Railfan volunteers, who have flocked to the DGVRR in ever growing numbers, have done much track work, and another group of volunteers has helped keep the rolling stock operational. It is hoped eventually to restore rail access all the way to Cass.
Meanwhile, in 1997, the State of West Virginia purchased the abandoned Western Maryland rail line running from Tygart Junction to Bergoo, West Virginia, a 132-mile long track that passes through Belington and Elkins. In mid-1998 the DGVRR became the successful bidder for the contract to operate the line, and service commenced on November 11, 1998, on the first 28 miles from Elkins to Tygart Junction, West Virginia. Over the next three years, the DGVRR steadily increased in service and mileage, and now offers three different excursions, along with freight operations, on over 100 miles of highly scenic trackage through some of the most remote territory in the eastern U.S.
Passengers may choose the stylish New Tygart Flyer for a 102-mile round trip along two rivers that includes boring underneath lofty Cheat Mountain in a long S-curve tunnel. The Flyer features numerous creature comforts not usually found on the average tourist train.
The more adventurous may want to sample the most unique train-the Cheat Mountain Salamander railbus-for an 80-mile odyssey across the top of the Cheat Mountain range. Both of these trains converge from opposite directions for a stop at the secluded “High Falls of the Cheat River”-allowing visitors time to experience this cherished scenic area. Over in Durbin, the flagship train, the Durbin Rocket, is now powered by a beautiful 1910 Climax steam locomotive for the 10.5-mile round trip into the heart of the Greenbrier River wilderness. Little LeRoi, still in good shape, has been relegated to back-up status.
The DGVRR is also tied into the rail– trail movement. Through the diligent efforts of Frank Proud, proprietor of Durbin Outfitters, many miles of abandoned line surrounding Durbin-the junction between the Chesapeake & Ohio and the Western Maryland railroads-have been made accessible to hikers, equestrians, and mountain bikers. This includes the West Fork Rail Trail, a converted Western Maryland roadbed which offers access to a more remote section of the Greenbrier watershed. This quiet 26-mile stretch provides an excellent backcountry experience. The trail parallels the West Fork of the Greenbrier River almost its entire length. Trail users can watch the river grow from a small trickle at the Lynn Divide, fish in cool summer shadows, and swim in sunny pools. Loop opportunities off Burner and Allegheny Mountains offer two-day hikes and all-day bike riding. Mr. Proud is currently working on a plan to extend direct trail access from Cass to Durbin parallel to the railroad, thus potentially re-linking the entire upper Greenbrier River system.
Through cooperation with the Durbin & Greenbrier Valley Railroad, the visitor to Durbin has the option of combining the rail and trail experiences by traveling on this new scenic railroad to remote camping, picnicking, or trailhead sites.
A Birthday Invitation
This year the DGVRR, the Town of Durbin, the Pocahontas County Historical Society, and the Pocahontas County Convention and Visitors Bureau are sponsoring a 100th Anniversary celebration on Sunday, May 26, 2002. The day will feature a speech by Senator Jay Rockefeller, a member of the Senate Commerce Committee. It will also include railroad songs and stories, an exhibit of historic photos and railroad artifacts, and the official dedication of the newly restored Durbin depot and the DGVRR’s “new” locomotive, the previously mentioned 50-ton Climax geared steamer built in 1910 for the Moore-Keppel Company of Ellamore, West Virginia. The C&O Historical Society will also be participating in the event.
Information on the DGVRR is available through 1-877-MTN-RAIL or on their web site at www.mountainrail.com.
Background information on Durbin can be found at www.destinationdurbin.com or by calling (304) 456-5469, and general tourist information on Pocahontas County is available through the Pocahontas County Convention and Visitors Bureau at www.ocahontascountywv.com or by calling 1-800-336-7009.
Historical data on the C&O Railways Greenbrier Division is available from the C&OHS Archives in Clifton Forge.
Historical material has been adapted, with permission, from the work of William P McNeel, author of The Durbin Route, a history of the Greenbrier Division of the C&O, available from the author (810 2nd Ave, Marlinton, WV.TV 24954) or from the C&O Historical Society.
Thanks go to Gregg Wingo and John Smith for their contributions on the background and present-day operations of the Durbin & Greenbrier Valley Railroad.
Copyright Chesapeake and Ohio Historical Society, Inc. Mar 2002
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