Thanks, Aubrey


The Augmented Virginian Railway




A Sidetrack Look at the Railroad's Footprints in History





Table of Contents:


  • Bottlenecks to Railroad Construction Completion: Tola, Bold Branch and Rich Creek. 


  • Buffalo Bill Cody: His famous ride on the Virginian was indeed not his last.


  • The Blue and White Streamliner on the Virginian in 1936.


  • The Longest Yard: An Odd Answer to a Need!


  • Suggested Links

*  Virginian's People : Former Employees -

*  Railfaning the Virginian's old Norfolk Division, Second Sub-division - (Victoria to Roanoke, Va.)

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Above:  At least three rows, each of about 30 yards length, contain graves of Italian and Russian immigrant workers killed in the  June 1907 explosion. 











































































Teenager Stanley B. Brinkley was working on the wreck train crew in 1916 when the train of Miller Brothers and Buffalo Bill's Show wrecked near Milepost 141. Brinkley is the lad on the left with his arms folded and Cody is on the right wearing the western hat. The picture is from the colection of his grandson Kent Brinkley who remembers hearing the elder Brinkley describe the tragic scene of the wreck.  

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This May 2007 picture was made at Virginian milepost 140.7  looking west. Shorter's Switch spur went off the mainline to the right.

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This first generation Virginian milepost 141 was probably the one standing as Cody's train passed in 1916.

























Right: NYC 2873 leads the 12 car Rexall Train westbound over the C&O near Charlottesville, Virginia in September 1936.


 This 1936 train order was issued the night before the running of the Rexall Train on the Virginian. -collection of Jack Feller, courtesy Tom Marshall. 



 A sister to the Rexall pilot engine 437, the 460 is shown taking sand at Norfolk. - John Zuro Collection.


The sleek Rexall Train is shown in Canada during its eight month tour. 
















Above: The west end of N&W's single track "yard" was the Abilene connection. It is situated where the word "and" is on this vintage topo map. The VGN trackage to the east became the "yard."


 Above: This archival topo map shows Virso, the east end of N&W's "Yard" of the 1960's. Looking from top to bottom, we see N&W, Virginian, route 360, Southern's Richmond to Danville, Va. line. 

Right: A 2007 picture looking west at the Abilene Connection. The N&W mainline is the track on the right and the track on the left is from the old Virginian.



Several websites exist that contain varying amounts of information on the Virginian Railway Company, ranging from its earliest corporate history to personal accounts by former employees. With this site, I wish to share material  I have personally collected  through extensive research.  Please write to me with your suggestions and/or reactions.


Bottlenecks to Construction Completion

The legal battles to the building of the Virginian Railway's predecessor railroads, the Tidewater and the Deepwater, by William Nelson Page and Henry Huddleston Rogers are well covered in many sources already. These following examples of hiccups in the smooth building of the railroad that I include here are lesser known, maybe even unknown, but  certainly interesting.

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        Virginian  Railway  Company                 Explosion at Tola, Va., June 25, 1907             by Aubrey Wiley


Along the surveyed route for the Virginian Railway Company in 1907, several construction companies had crews working simultaneously to construct the rights of way for railroad.   In the area of Tola, (Charlotte County) Virginia, milepost 160, McDermott Company of Chicago, Illinois had the contract and it was working eastward from Brookneal, Va. The crew of over 500, mostly Italian but with some Russian men, was using a dinky and a steam powered shovel to move earth and blast rocks  from a cut when tragedy struck.  Midday, June 25, 1907 a fifty pound box of dynamite was exploded prematurely killing many men. Body parts were hurled over several acres, some imploded into the ground. The number of those killed outright varies among the different accounts, however examination of the graveyard suggests between 25 and 40. Accounts of the accident published at the time describe how the bodies of American supervisors were shipped to their homes over a nearby branch of the Norfolk & Western railroad. The individual graves are marked by small granite stones and arranged in three or four rows running north – south.  Beside one row is an iron cross made of railroad iron with the following words cut into the cross; “ITALIANE MORTI  AL 25 JUNE 1907.”

Looking west from a highway bridge over Tola Cut.  The site of the graveyard is right of the curve.Standing beside the iron cross are Robert and Joe Seamster.

ABOVE:  Sunken areas indicate individual graves for many of those killed outright in the explosion. L-R: Joe Seamster, Greg Elam, Robert Seamster. The Seamster brothers are land owners while Elam is a Virginian rail historian from Victoria, Va.



·          Much appreciation goes to Bobby Dudley, Lynchburg, Va.,  for his     sleuthing out  and sharing of information.

·          Ginther, Herman, “Captain Staunton’s River,” published 1968

·          Charlotte Gazette, June 1907, “Tola Explosion.”

·          Lynchburg (Va) News, June 27, 1907 

·          Lynchburg ( Va) News, June 29, 1907

*       Seamester, Robert. Interview Phenix, Va., April 2, 2007 by  Aubrey Wiley,            written notes.   

*       Baxter Parris , of Appomattox, Va., is  also researching this incident,


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 Completing the Line

at  Bold Branch and the New River

 by Aubrey Wiley

      January 1909 was cold!  In an article datelined Roanoke, Virginia, the Richmond Times Dispatch newspaper described the weather as "cold enough to freeze an Eskimo!"  But work to complete the remaining gaps of the Virginian Railway Company continued and by month's end,  it was open from Deepwater in the mountains of West Virginia on the western end to  the eastern terminus of Norfolk on the Atlantic.

      The first train to reach Roanoke from Norfolk happened in the afternoon of January 5, according to a newspaper story, when a train from the east arrived. The article described how the final gap on the Norfolk Division had been bridged by a trestle, some twenty seven miles east of Roanoke. That would be at milepost 216 and the eleven span trestle crossed Bold Branch of the Roanoke River. 

According to that article, that left  the  crossing of the New River,  east of Princeton at milepost 323.5, as the remaining  gap of the 435 mile long main line.  Two weeks was the target to have that final portion finished and it nearly happened!  Accounts put the final completion at January 29.  The Richmond Times Dispatch describes the overall Virginian as being unique in the world by having a ruling grade of only 2/10 of one percent!  In layman's wording, it credits the Virginian as being so "gentle of grade that one locomotive could haul eighty, fifty-ton loaded coal cars to the sea!"

      Perhaps Eskimos did freeze that January 1909 but nonetheless, Page and Rogers had done the unthinkable: Their railroad was complete!  And they had beaten out the nay-sayers, the N&W and C&O railroads.


Richmond Times Dispatch, Richmond, Va., January 1, 1909 through February 2, 1909.

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Buffalo Bill Cody: His Famous Ride On The Virginian Was Indeed Not His Last.

by Aubrey Wiley

America in 1916 was on the verge of historic happenings; namely English and American ships were being sunk in the north Atlantic by German submarines called U-boats. The country was on the verge of a war which President Woodrow Wilson had been avoiding.  World War I was coming.

Nonetheless, life in America continued on and changes were happening in many realms of daily life.  In the second week of October of that year, the Virginia State Fair was in full swing with featured acts that reflected the public’s latest interests and fascinations.  One such draw for the public was the state fair show performed by nineteen year old Katherine Stinson of Alabama.  Her appeal was that she was an “aviation sensation!”  Indeed, she was the fourth woman to obtain a pilot’s license in the United States and certainly the youngest.  The Richmond (Virginia) Times Dispatch newspaper described her act has demonstrating the “Loop the Loop’ at night with illumination!” A photograph showed what visitors to the fair could expect to see. They were not disappointed.  The performance was clearly the cutting edge of entertainment.


Meanwhile, seventy year old William Cody, “Buffalo Bill,” was plying the railroad rails of north central North Caroline and south eastern Virginia trying to survive and attract audiences for his fading “Wild West Show.”  For decades he had tromped, ridden, roped and exhibited his show’s attractions all across America.  But in 1916, the public had grown disinterested in his show. Cody had survived train wrecks and endured personal financial difficulties. In a 1901 wreck on the Southern railroad near Lexington, NC, many of his show hands were injured including Annie Oakley, who was left partially paralyzed.  She left his show after this wreck. To stay afloat, Cody first joined up with the act of “Pawnee Bill” in 1909.  In October, 1916 Cody  was now touring with the Miller Brothers Circus and they called themselves the Wild West Alliance.  The equipment was tired and worn, just like the performers.  Audiences became smaller and increasingly harder to attract.  While the public was awed by such new acts as the aviation sensations, Cody soldiered on among the smaller towns and communities such as Danville, Burlington, Henderson, Wilson, Greenville and Plymouth. The future for the show was clear.


In October 1916, en route to Norfolk, Va. and competing head to head with advance promotions for the Virginia State Fair’s aviation acts, Buffalo Bill’s train derailed!  During the early morning hours of Oct. 2, Cody’s show train was passing milepost 141 on the Virginian Railway when it wrecked at Shorter’s Switch, near Abilene. (On the map. the wreck happened on the rail line below the N&W route and about where the two railroads are the closest.) The surviving animals and injured show hands and performers were gathered up by the railroad and taken on to Norfolk.  The parade in Norfolk was canceled but the show did go on!  Cody and his show continued to tour the towns of south side Virginia and north east North Carolina for the next five weeks until November 11.  Buffalo Bill left after performing in Portsmouth, Va. because of being ill with a cold.  


Defeated by progress, the changing interests of the public and age, Cody headed home to Wyoming. Along the way. he decided to stop in Denver to visit his sister and this is where he died on January 10, 1917. He had reached his 71st birthday.


Five months later, a Lincoln, Nebraska resident, Jess Willard, announced that he planned to continue Cody’s show with a new touring show to be called “The Jess Willard-Buffalo Bill Show.”  It didn’t happen. The time of America’s fascination with the wild west was over.

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Richmond Times Dispatch, Richmond, Va., Oct. 1, through Oct. 9, 1916.

Buffalo Bill Museum and Research Center, Cody, Wyoming.

Internet Sources:


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The Blue and White Streamliner on the Virginian in 1936


In the dark hours after midnight on Wednesday, Oct. 14, 1936, a most unusual eastbound train was waiting to depart Mullens, West Virginia.  It was led by a streamlined, oil burning steam locomotive from the New York Central Railroad!  Orders from the dispatcher were given that the special train would make the 131 mile run from Gulf Junction (2/10 of a mile east of Mullens) to Roanoke in just a few minutes shy of five hours. The circumstances leading to this unusual train being on the Virginian started many months before.


The United Drug Company, manufacturers of Rexall products, decided to run a special train in 1936 to show off its wares instead of hosting the customary national and state conventions for druggists. Pullman Company outfitted a twelve car blue and white train with a black roof. The train of 1,088 feet consisted of an engine, a power car, four cars for exhibition, two cars for the company representatives to call home,  a buffet style diner, two cars set up for lectures but which could be cleared for dancing and entertaining in the evening, a lounge car for fraternization and a private car. For the engine, the company asked New York Central for power. And NYC pulled all the stops, rebuilding and streamlining one of its famous L-2c Mohawks, number 2873, which was converted to burn oil for this train. Maybe the thinking was that oil would be cleaner. It was unveiled in early 1936.  When built by Alco in 1929, this class of 4-8-2 engines had 69 inch drivers and was primarily used in freight service.

Leaving Boston on July 8. 1936 and starting its excursion of 29,000 miles in eight months, the Rexall Train played host to over 10,000 druggists and 20,000 Rexall representatives during its tour to 200 cities in 47 states and parts of Canada.


But on this October 1936 morning, the train would have a pilot engine up front as it traveled over the Virginian.  A typical VGN steamer would be in the lead for this special train, a 2-8-2, class MB, number 437. With her squat, 56 inch drivers, this Baldwin built freighter of 1909 would represent the working man’s steam locomotive on the point of this grand streamlined train!  Sometime prior to 3:00 am, a coupler pocket in the sleek pilot of the NYC streamliner was swung open so the 437 could couple ahead.  Trains on the Virginian could be only so fancy.

- Aubrey Wiley 2007 


More Classic Trains by Dubin, 1974

New York Central’s later Power by Staufer and May, 1981


Appreciation for assistance is extended to: Tom Marshall; Jay Delehanty; David C. Freed, MSG, US Army (Ret).


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~    The Longest Yard    ~


Within a couple of years of the Virginian - N&W merger in 1959, N&W was experiencing a severe shortage of yard tracks for coal storage at Norfolk and at Crewe, about 120 miles to the west. 

At Abilene, Va., west of Crewe and Victoria, the two roads were parallel for a number of miles. N&W's soluntion was to take the Virginian mainline out of service between the Abilene connection (milepost 143.4) and the Virso connection (milepost 134.2). All trains from the old Virginian would switch over to the N&W between those two points! The old Virginian mianline was now out of service!

The N&W saw this as their problem now solved!  Now with the old VGN mainline out of service, they had a single track yard, 9.2 miles long! Yard crews were sent out from Crewe to pick out and sort specific grades of coal according to the needs of Norfolk! This arrangement was very time consuming and disruptive to traffic flow. Often yard crews were "hog lawed" but the railroad continued doing it until about *****.


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Sources / Acknowledgements:

Interviews: Harry Bundy and Landon Gregory (both retired railroad men).


N&W Norfolk Division Track Charts. Brian Trent Collection

N&W Employee Timetables for Norfolk Division: February and October, 1961. A. Wiley Collection.