Thursday, August 17, 2017  

The Railroad that Never Was: Railroad Proposals for Eastern Virginia


The Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula in the second half of the 19th century was a remote area. Bounded on the north by the broad Potomac River, on the south by the Chickahominy River, and dissected by the Rappahannock, Mattaponi and Pamunkey Rivers, it was a large geographical area with but few methods to travel. West of the Pamunkey was a large, flat plain and the swamps of the Chickahominy. This story is about the planned railroad connections from Fredericksburg down the Northern Neck and from Tappahannock west to Richmond. The Northern Neck caper was referred to as “The Railroad That Never Was”. The same could be said about efforts on the Middle Peninsula. However, a rail head was established from Doswell 
to West Point that serviced the area between the Mattaponi and the 
Pamunkey Rivers.
As far back as the late 1860s, there was talk of a railroad serving eastern Virginia. During the War Between the States, both North and South discovered how difficult it was to move troops and supplies east of Richmond. There were limited roads and connections for commerce and travel. Steamboats were the primary means of transporting goods on the Potomac and Rappahannock with some connections on the upper Mattaponi and Pamunkey. A spur rail that ran southeast through Hanover and New Kent Counties to White House on the west side of the Pamunkey about 15 miles northwest of West Point provided the only rail connection. No other rail service was available.
As noted before, with the abundance of water routes and deep water ports, steamboats became the travel and shipping method of choice. From the beginning, these ships carried the commercial business as well as long distance travel. Ports such as Norfolk, Baltimore and Fredericksburg were destinations for travelers, shoppers and businessmen from the Northern Neck. In the early 1900s, a study was done and it was determined that about 30,000 – 40,000 people and 700 country stores were located behind these eastern rivers and no land travel option existed to get out of the area. Demographics such as these were quite attractive to metropolitan merchants and fueled efforts for the railroad’s development.
For the “Railroad That Never Was”, merchants in Fredericksburg, Richmond and points north understood how the potential land route to the Northern Neck could increase their profits. Numbers such as noted above could only represent increased business if they could get the customers to their markets. Representatives from the menhaden fish industry, agricultural products, passengers and tourism began discussing how to implement the railroad. The Fredericksburg Free Lance Star noted that the booming fish oil and fertilizer business in Reedville and tourist destinations such as Colonial Beach, the Potomac riverside resort, and other quaint, beautiful villages, would attract many visitors.
Fresh oysters, canned vegetables and seasonal fruit also needed a way to reach markets more quickly. Therefore, in the late 1890s, a railroad was proposed to the voters in the Northern Neck. The idea was overwhelmingly accepted. The rail would begin in Fredericksburg and go through King George. In King George, a spur would extend to the approximate location of today’s Potomac River Bridge and a proposed connection to the railroads in southern Maryland. A bit further down, another extension would connect to Colonial Beach. The main line would proceed around Montross and separate at the small village of Rainswood. This would offer a connection into the fishing port of Reedville and the main line continued to the very end of the peninsula in Kilmarnock and White Stone. This was a distance of about 95 miles. According to the proposal, stops or stations would be constructed about every 10 miles to pick up freight and passengers.
This project dragged on for over 10 years. Investors at first embraced the plan and the cost, but as the economy weakened and in-fighting among opposing ideas increased, the money seemed to stop flowing. The war with Spain and the onset of World War I occupied investor thoughts. Other concerns included competition from the established steamboat industry. Many people in the Northern Neck had extensive interests in the steamboats and a competitive method of moving people and freight would be costly. Vegetable canning, fresh seafood, lumber and agricultural products had a known cost to get them to 
market. To most investors, additional risk seemed unnecessary.
In 1927, the first permanent bridge, the Thomas Downing Bridge in Tappahannock, linked Richmond County with Essex County. Dreams of a bridge spanning the lower Rappahannock River had been in the minds of Northern Neck and lower Middle Peninsula folks for generations, but in the late 1940s there was a strong feeling this dream could become reality. Dedicated in August 1957, the Robert O. Norris Bridge, linking White Stone to Middlesex County, proved to be the beginning of the end for railroads. Also better roads and more efficient transportation equipment made land travel by truck competitive with the steamboats and the proposed rails. As the steamboats disappeared from the rivers, dreams of the railroad did also.
On the other side of the Rappahannock another railroad was proposed. The Richmond – Tidewater Railroad would connect to the existing Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac railroad at Doswell and run south and east through Caroline, King William, King and Queen, Essex, Middlesex, Mathews and Gloucester. Reasons for building this railroad were just about the same as in the Northern Neck. Retail customers for Richmond and markets for the lumber, farm products and seafood would add to the coffers of businessmen in both areas. At first, there were discussions of building a bridge that would cross the Rappahannock at Tappahannock and connect rail service to the proposed Northern Neck Railroad east of Warsaw. Engineering studies deemed the construction cost for the mile and a quarter bridge to be prohibitive and the idea was dropped. There were land connections available, but as noted earlier, three rivers and a major swamp were obstacles that challenged developers. Other than the areas noted, research has not turned up any definitive routing maps of this proposed railroad. Squabbles between towns in the Essex area involving bridge location was another reason the plan fell through. Ware’s Wharf and Bowler’s Wharf in Essex and Urbanna in Middlesex all lobbied hard for the bridge to cross at their location. The opening of the Downing Bridge eliminated the need for the river crossing. Economic stagnation and fiscal recession finally killed the idea.
Since none of these proposed railroads were built, there are no pictures showing the Middle Peninsula railroad. However, a group of retired model railroad enthusiasts have constructed a scale model depicting their perception of towns and villages on the Northern Neck and how they might have looked had the railroad been constructed. The group is associated with the Reedville Fisherman’s Museum and is located in a building on the museum’s campus behind the administration office. In that building, there is a delightful exhibit showing what might have been if the railroad had been completed. Depictions of freight and passengers being loaded on and off at many of the crossroads in the Northern Neck is currently there and open for public viewing. These men, mostly former professional workers and military retirees, meet weekly to maintain “their railroad” exhibit and discuss what options could be added in the future.
One member of this group, Dennis Spillane, a retired administrator of a California insurance based organization, has also developed a program he presents to organizations and historical societies about the railroads that almost made it to the area. “There were a total of five planned railroads in this area,” said Spillane. “In addition to the projects on the east and west sides of the Rappahannock River, there were others coming in from the north and west. Alexandria, Washington and Fredericksburg were not going to miss out on the business,” he smiled.
Every member of the Reedville Fishermen’s Museum Model Builders’ Club has a specific specialty. Some build the scale model buildings, trees and other physical additions to the railroads’ layout. Others are ‘engineers’ that rebuild aging train motors and models. While others lay track and some paint and maintain buildings. It is a sight to behold. Without the efforts of these gentlemen, there would be no visual records of this venture. Maps, construction plans and pictures of equipment of the day line the walls. Executive Director of the museum, Shawn R. Hall, himself a transplanted Nevadan, is correct when he says that viewing the work of these men is a trip back in time. “If you ever want to see a depiction of what might have been, these guys built it,” Hall adds.
As far as the idea of what might have been, there are two competing lines of thought as to the results if it had been completed. The progressive side says, “Wow, just think what might have been with rail service to the entire Northern Neck. Industry, tourism, growth and economic development could have been the results”. The conservative rebuttal is, “Who knows what may have happened to our little slice heaven if all that had been built here in the early 1900s”. As it is now, the area has maintained its historical values and been open to moderate development. Building and not building the railroads would have had their benefits. Ponder what could have been if the railroads were built and be thankful for the preservation of our area.