Born as the result of post-Civil War economic recovery, the Valley Railroad, as it came to be known, had its charter approved by the Virginia General Assembly on February 23, 1866. In April 1866, a meeting was held in Staunton, Virginia, with individuals from the counties of Augusta, Rockingham, Rockbridge, Botetourt and Roanoke; also included were the cities of Harrisonburg, Staunton and Lexington. They discussed the benefits to each of the localities serviced by the up and coming VRR and the finances required to construct a 113-mile railroad line from Harrisonburg, VA, almost to the town of Salem, VA. There it was to connect with the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad. With the close of this meeting, Staunton native Col. Michael G. Harman was appointed president along with the board of directors.
Following the Civil War, the Shenandoah Valley's economy was in shambles and the massive undertaking that the VRR had planned was remarkable to say the least. However there was competition just to the east of its proposed right-of-way that would ultimately stop the VRR's southward march in the town of Lexington VA. The SVRR (Shenandoah Valley Railroad), with the backing of the powerful Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR), completed the connection to the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad at the town of Big Lick, which came to be known as the city of Roanoke. This transaction occurred with the "generous donation" from the residents of the town Big Lick in 1881 and arrival of the first train from Hagerstown, Maryland to Big Lick, VA, on June 19, 1882. This would prove to be two of several factors enhancing the downfall of the VRR
The B&O wanted a connection with southern markets and its option to build east of the Blue Ridge Mountains was severely limited by its long time bitter rival, the PRR The B&O saw the VRR as the key link to its southward expansion and became a key supporter of the VRR However, VRR's charter only allowed it to construct a railroad from Harrisonburg to Salem. Two other small lines operated north of Harrisonburg and this was a problem for the VRR to connect to the B&O mainline at Harpers Ferry, WV, via the B&O-controlled Winchester & Potomac Railroad. After a meeting with the Virginia General Assembly, the VRR's charter was amended to allow them to purchase, negotiate, manage and work with these two railroads to achieve a connection to the B&O mainline. However, the B&O and the VRR shared the same vision to connect Harrisonburg to Winchester and in 1866 to advance their interests, the B&O leased the two roads operating between Harrisonburg and Winchester eliminating the need for the VRR to acquire any rails north of Harrisonburg. This allowed the VRR to concentrate on the 113-mile segment between Harrisonburg and Salem. The VRR received financial support, personnel, equipment, and engineering assistance from the B&O. At president Harman's request, the B&O sent a civil engineer to conduct an initial location survey for the Harrisonburg to Salem segment.
With the vision of a north south connection via the VRR becoming a reality, the need for additional funding beyond that promised by the B&O was crucial to the VRR's survival. However, the communities, which the VRR would service, were hard pressed to support their goals. This was to be the beginning of the end of the VRR Dejected over the financial situation, president Harman stepped down on July 25, 1870. However, Harman remained a driving force in the VRR and would continue to raise support for the VRR Harman convinced Civil War General Robert E. Lee to take the reins. Harman felt that Lee would provide confidence, reputation and credibility to make the VRR a rail giant of its time. But president Lee died in October of 1870 and his successor was Robert Garrett. Garrett whose family controlled the B&O from 1858 till 1887 had little experience in railroad operations. Stuck in a period of financial hardship, the B&O increased its funding for construction on the VRR line. This maneuver effectively made VRR property of the B&O. By 1872 despite the inadequate financing, construction from Harrisonburg to Staunton was moving along and construction from Staunton to Lexington was in the works. Some of the communities along the proposed route were unwilling to contribute any money until the entire 113-mile line from Harrisonburg to Salem was under contract and progress was being made.
By 1873 estimates for construction of the Harrisonburg to Salem segment was in excess of five million dollars. Undeterred by this insurmountable figure, the VRR attempted to take excessive mortgages against their company. To rub salt in the wound, Rockingham and Augusta counties bowed out in the financing and left the B&O to foot the bill for construction from Harrisonburg to Staunton. With costs for the Staunton to Salem line running close to three million dollars, the VRR became dependant upon a three million dollar mortgage if they could find a creditor. The depression of 1873 left the VRR with only 6,700 dollars in their coffers and no creditor for the three million dollar mortgage. This depression was the key reason for the downfall of the VRR It made financing for railroads of any name to receive financing for any purpose.
The following year 1874 started off on a good note for the VRR By early March B&O trains were arriving in Staunton. However, things were not good for the Staunton to Lexington segment. Construction continued despite contractor troubles over money and a depression in the latter half of 1873 began to show up in the day-to-day activities of the VRR In late 1874 the VRR was debt riddled and the board of directors were advised of the financial situation and learned that the company only had 270 dollars to its name. Furthermore, the VRR was severely in debt to the B&O. A special committee was appointed to review the VRR finances and recommended suspension of work on the Staunton to Lexington segment no later than December 1,1874. This suspension would end up being permanent unless additional funds could be allocated.
During 1875 the only things working for the VRR were the trains between Harrisonburg and Staunton. More emphasis had been put into financing, and location of the line south of Lexington instead of traffic negotiations with connecting railroads. The trains operating were generating some revenue but nowhere near the amounts needed to repay the B&O and continue construction. Suffering from massive financial loss, the VRR ceased train operations, laid off employees and leased the Staunton / Harrisonburg segment to the B&O. Garrett resigned and took over as president of the B&O after his father passed away. P.P. Pendleton, who was B&O's vice president, succeeded Garrett.
Starting off the year of 1867, the plan for the expansion of the VRR south continued despite the last two depressive years. Seeking ways to continue construction of the Staunton to Salem segment the VRR entertained two proposals, one from the SVRR to lease the operative section's for 2,000 dollars a month for fifteen years and provide personnel and equipment. The other came from a company known, as National Security Iron, Coal and Improvement Co. this outfit would complete the Staunton to Salem segment for a smaller amount of money. Both proposals were referred to the B&O. The instructions from the VRR to the B&O are to reach terms to complete the VRR to Lexington or Salem. This is the first indication of stopping the VRR at Lexington. Ultimately The B&O decided on the SVRR plan.
By 1877 the lease agreement with the SVRR was terminated due to a misunderstanding about the limits of their operations. The SVRR wanted the rights to finish construction to Salem, but the VRR decided this was not in their best interests. The VRR terminated the lease and the S.VRR vacated all personnel and equipment from the VRR line. Once again the B&O resumed operations on the VRR There was a faint glimmer of hope for the VRR to resume construction by mid-April 1878 using convict labor for substantial savings. At a meeting in November 1877 a motion to resume work on the VRR's line south of Staunton was defeated. The B&O's ability to provide assistance to the VRR became harder due to a "rate war" with the PRR This affected the B&O's revenues to the point of big pay cuts and lay-offs; B&O employees went on strike from July thru August. President Garrett's attitude towards his B&O employees did not impress the VRR's founders and the communities it serviced. Garrett thought of the VRR as the underdog of the B&O and it was not a priority at this time. This statement planted seeds of distrust within the VRR supporters, about the B&O management. The next nosedive for the VRR occurred with the death of former president and inspiration Col. Michael G. Harman in December of 1877. After his death, there was no one willing to step up and negotiate differences between the VRR and B&O. Slowly the two companies began to break apart.
With the arrival of 1878 the financial woes continued for the VRR Its supporter's distrust of the B&O to resume construction south of Staunton grew like mold on cheese. A prominent Rockbridge County attorney suggested petitioning congress to "force" the B&O back to work on the VRR expansion south of Staunton. President Pendleton's death saw the appointment of pro-tem president William Keyser. Continual financial problems bogged down all involved in the construction of the line south of Staunton. The Finance committee chair from Baltimore stated in a meeting that the depression of 1873 made the availability of funds impractical and almost impossible to obtain for an incomplete railroad. He also advised sponsors to be patient and hold on, the economy would soon rebound. He told the VRR to implement policies and measures to reduce its debt and stabilize its credit. At this point the B&O had contributed 2,060,000 dollars. Total contributions by local communities were only 538,000. Following in the 1873 depression there was no market for the 3,000,000 in loans needed to finish the line to Salem .
In 1879 Keyser became active president of the VRR and met stiff pressure from the local communities disapproval with the B&O leadership. Things heated up for the VRR in April when the Virginia General Assembly found out what was happening. They passed legislation allowing counties to revoke their contributions to the VRR unless the line was finished to Lexington by April 1, 1881 to Buchanan by April 1, 1882 and to Salem by April 1, 1883. However, this "wake up call" had no effect on resuming construction.
With the year 1880, Keyser attempts to patch up relations with communities and supporters of the VRR and B&O leadership met with little success. However, the Virginia General Assembly repealed the legislation enacted in 1879 thus allowing the VRR a little breathing room. Keyser continued looking for financing to resume construction but the prospects of obtaining funds were very bleak. About mid 1880 a plan was introduced to complete the line to Lexington by joining together in a traffic agreement with the R&A (Richmond and Allegheny Railroad) this line was under construction along the James River (present day CSX territory) and links the cities of Richmond, Lynchburg and Clifton Forge. As this line passes through the town of Glasglow, a branch line heads west towards Lexington from the Balcony Falls station. The VRR could stand a significant chance of a loan to finish its line from Staunton to Lexington. According to the traffic agreement, the VRR could ship valuable mineral resources, ores and manufactured goods from Lynchburg to customers and businesses in the north through its B&O connection. The only stipulation was that Lexington would become the southern most depot of the VRR until the national economy warranted extension farther south.
In April of 1881 the VRR's board of directors cleared the way for a 1,000,000-dollar loan to complete the Staunton to Lexington segment. A contractor was selected and the board voted to resume construction in July 1881, seven years after construction was stopped. The board also unanimously voted to permanently cease any attempts to proceed beyond Lexington. Rockbridge County proposed to convey the right-of-way south of Lexington to the SVRR but there was no vote on the proposal. In August 11, 1881 there was a meeting to tie up loose ends with the loan and a provision was introduced to dispose of unfinished work and right-of way south of Lexington. This provision failed to attract any buyers and it was unofficial end of the VRR as it was planned. All hopes for the 113-mile Harrisonburg to Salem line, connecting the Virginia and Tennessee with the B&O would never materialize. However, the end began with the construction suspension in December of 1874. In early October the current contractor was released from the work and the contract was renegotiated with other companies. On October 15, 1881 the R&A branch line was completed to Lexington. Samuel Spencer as the president replaces Keyser; he had high hopes for the extension and anticipated large profits. Construction on the Staunton to Lexington segment would not be completed until late in 1883.
The VRR tried one last time in 1890 to finish the route from Lexington to Salem. In July the VRR the B&O, and the R&S (Roanoke and Southern Railway) joined in a traffic agreement. However, this fell through when the R&S decided to lease to the N&W (currently the Winston-Salem Division of NS) thanks in part to big businessmen in Roanoke. If the agreement had carried in favor of the VRR and B&O they could have given the PRR and the SVRR a run for their money.
The 62-miles of track between Harrisonburg and Lexington never really profited for the VRR All the expected income from the R&A connection never developed. The SVRR made the connection to the newly formed N&W (ex-Virginia and Tennessee and ex-Atlantic Mobile & Ohio) in 1882 at Roanoke, forever sealing the fate of the VRR The final stages of the VRR began in 1896 when its northern connection the S&H (Strasburg and Harrisonburg Railroad) was sold by the B&O. In 1942 the Harrisonburg to Staunton section was sold to the C&W (Chesapeake and Western Railroad) the Staunton to Lexington section was abandoned, the rails removed and were scrapped for the WWII effort. The last move in the dissolution of the VRR happened on December 29, 1942 when the C&W bought the remaining holdings to the VRR all of the unfinished construction and right-of ways and sold them to interested parties.
Today all that remains of the VRR south of Staunton, VA are a few viaducts, weathered embankments, stone arch bridges and bridge abutments. Still sitting there, some still waiting to receive the iron girders, the others will never see them again. The tracks north of Staunton, VA are still intact and currently operate under the ownership of the Eastern Shore Railroad as a subsidiary called the Shenandoah Valley Railroad, how ironic. In Harrisonburg, VA the Norfolk Southern currently operates on the old VRR mainline servicing industries in and around the Harrisonburg area. The VRR saga is a testament to the individuals who sought to recover the Shenandoah Valley from the economic ravages of war. Despite the financial woes they pressed on, ever determined to connect to the Virginia and Tennessee at Salem. But fate had a different agenda for the VRR forever stopping it 87 miles short of its ultimate goal the town of Salem VA and the wealth that the Virginia and Tennessee connection would provide to it.
See also the Lexington-to-Buena Vista line.
From the original write-up about this line on this website:
The CSX (Baltimore and Ohio) branch that leaves the main line at Harpers Ferry, WV, originally extended as far southwest as Lexington, VA. It ran southwest, several miles west of the Norfolk & Western Shenandoah Valley line.
The line segment south of Staunton was abandoned prior to World War II, and some sections have disappeared entirely. Parts of the right of way south of Staunton are now used for I-81. Another section is used as a utility line corridor.
Further north, a different section of this branch was abandoned in the 1990s, between Edinburg and Mt. Jackson. This portion had been joint B&O-Southern for some years before becoming all Southern (later NS).
Thanks to Clay Wiseman for contributing information about this route.