Special Collections. Corp of Cadets from Imagebase image number t15-079

Manuscript Sources for Railroad History

Virginia Tech's Special Collections is a significant source of railroad history through the more-than-200 cu. ft. of business records and drawings, photographs, personal papers and publications relating to various regional railroads from the 1840s to the 1980s acquired through other donations and purchases. More than 12,000 scanned images are available through the VT ImageBase, one of our most popular online resources. Permission to publish Norfolk Southern images must be obtained from NSCorp, via jennifer.mcdaid@nscorp.com.

Norfolk-Southern Engine 597
Class E Steam Engine 597. This image, URN ns900 is part of the Norfolk and Western Historical Photograph Collection, Ms88-120.

The Norfolk and Western Railroad was organized in 1881 from the Atlantic, Mississippi and Ohio Railroad, which had been sold to the Philadelphia investment banking firm of E.W.Clark and Company. The Atlantic, Mississippi and Ohio, in turn, had been created in 1870 by the merger of three Virginia railroads with antebellum origins: the Norfolk and Petersburg (connecting these two cities), the Southside (running from Petersburg to Lynchburg), and the Virginia and Tennessee (running from Lynchburg to Bristol on the Tennessee border).

Primarily a line carrying agricultural products at its inception, the Norfolk and Western rapidly became associated with the mineral development of the southwestern part of Virginia and West Virginia. In mid-1881 it acquired the franchises to four other lines: the New River Railroad, the New River Railroad, Mining and Manufacturing Company, the Bluestone Railroad, and the East River Railroad. These became the basis for Norfolk and Western's New River Division, which ran to the coalfields to the west.

Much of the early history of the Norfolk and Western Railroad can be seen as expansion and consolidation with other lines. In 1890, it acquired the Shenandoah Valley Railroad, which ran from Roanoke, Virginia, to Hagerstown, Maryland. By 1891, an Ohio extension was well underway, giving the railroad access to the industrial Midwest. In 1892, Norfolk and Western leased the Roanoke and Southern Railroad, connecting Roanoke with Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and in 1893 it leased the Lynchburg and Durham, connecting Lynchburg with Durham, North Carolina. But this program of expansion, coupled with the economic depression of the 1890s, forced the railroad into receivership in 1895. It emerged as the reorganized Norfolk and Western Railway the next year.

The Southern Railway was created in 1894 through the reorganization of the Richmond and Danville Railroad-Richmond and West Point Terminal Railway and Warehouse Company complex. Southern's origins, however, can be dated to 1827, when the earliest of its antecedents, the South Carolina Canal and Railroad Company, was chartered. This line, which ran 136 miles from Charleston to Hamburg, South Carolina, was for a time in the 1830s the longest railroad in the world. Other antebellum predecessors of the Southern Railway system include the Hiwassee Railroad incorporated in Tennessee in 1836 and the forerunner of the East Tennessee, Virginia and Georgia Railroad system) and the Memphis and Charleston Railroad, chartered in 1846.

Southern's direct predecessor, the Richmond and Danville Railroad, was incorporated in Virginia in 1847; its main line, connecting Richmond and Danville, was opened in 1856. The Richmond and Danville's early acquisitions included the Piedmont Railroad (1866), the North Carolina Railroad (1871), and the Charlotte, Columbia and Augusta Railroad (1878). Because its charter prohibited the acquisition of any but connecting lines, the Richmond and Danville created the Richmond and West Point Terminal Railway and Warehouse Company in 1880 to acquire properties not directly connected with it. The Richmond Terminal Company quickly gained control of hundreds of miles of completed railroads and franchises for prospective railroads such as the Georgia Pacific, which ran from Atlanta, Georgia, to Greenville, Mississippi.

Like the Norfolk and Western Railroad, both the Richmond and Danville Railroad and the Richmond Terminal Company went into receivership in the mid-1890s. Reorganized by the New York banking firm of Drexel, Morgan and Company, they emerged in 1894 as the Southern Railway Company, which controlled over 4,000 miles of line at its inception. Samuel Spencer, Southern's first president, cemented together a railroad network that is the basis of the Southern Railway of today.

Two studies of the Norfolk and Western Railway and Southern Railway systems provide detailed information on their history. They are: E. F. Pat Striplin, The Norfolk And Western: A History (Roanoke, Va.: The Norfolk and Western Railway Co., 1981) and Burke Davis, The Southern Railway: Road Of The Innovators (Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1985).

For some of the railroads whose records are described below, only the most basic records--stockholders' and directors' minutes--are available. For others, however, the documentation available to researchers is much greater, both in terms of the variety and the extent of the records that have survived. In such cases, minute books may be supplemented by correspondence and reports, financial and construction records, and information on stockholders and employees. Railroads for which such extensive documentation exists include the Norfolk and Western and its direct predecessors, the Atlantic, Mississippi and Ohio, the Norfolk and Petersburg, the Southside, and the Virginia and Tennessee; the Shenandoah Valley; and the Georgia Pacific. It should be remembered, too, that before the 1880s minute books usually included information in addition to minutes--copies of correspondence, reports, and financial accounts, for example. In cases where minute books alone are available, therefore, the documentation may be greater than it appears.

See http://spec.lib.vt.edu/specgen.html for general information about Special Collections including driving directions, hours, and duplication policies and fees. Send questions and comments (about the collections in the University Libraries of Virginia Tech only, please) to: specref@vt.edu.

Guide to the Railroad History research materials
Additional Sources for Railroad Historical Records

Browse the VT ImageBase for many of the photographic materials from the Norfolk & Western Historic Photograph Collection. Permission to publish Norfolk Southern images must be obtained from NSCorp, via jennifer.mcdaid@nscorp.com.

Additional information is available from other repositories.

Send questions or comments to:

Special Collections,
University Libraries (0434)
Virginia Tech
560 Drillfield Drive
Blacksburg, VA 24061

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URL: http://spec .lib.vt.edu/railroad/rrintro.htm
Last Modified on: Monday, 18-Oct-2010 14:03:41 EDT