In the 1830s small railroads started popping up all across the United States. Very quickly railroads became the main transportation arteries that tied our nation together. Rail lines opened up vast tracks of America that were difficult to reach and made it possible for people and goods to move freely across our nation. This was nowhere more true than in West Virginia. The Appalachian Mountains were one of the first barriers to westward expansion and in southern West Virginia the terrain was so rugged that even the Indians avoided it as a place for permanent settlement.
In the mid 1800s several rail lines were built near the borders of the state. However, it wasn’t until developers began focusing on accessing the rich timber and coal reserves of West Virginia that railroads began being built here in earnest.
Early important events in the rail history of the southern part of West Virginia include the following. The 1873 completion of the Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) line from Roanoke, VA to Huntington, WV which opened up some of the richest and most inaccessible coal fields in West Virginia. This was also the first rail line to completely cross the state. The creation of the Norfolk and Western (N&W) in 1881 was also important. The N&W grew rapidly through the acquisition of many other smaller lines and began bringing rail service to the southern-most part of West Virginia in 1883. The early N&W needed access to the Midwest in order to succeed and constructed the Ohio Extension through the rugged and difficult terrain of the West Virginia coal counties. This track was laid from the north and south and met near Matewan in Mingo County. The last spike was driven at Rawl on September 22, 1892. There is an historical marker on the site commemorating this event. In succeeding years many more lines and spurs were constructed through the area to access the rich coal reserves. This coal was indispensable in powering the early American Industrial Revolution and helped our country transition from a large agrarian nation to an industrial world superpower.
Currently the coalfields of southern West Virginia have one of the highest concentrations of railroad tracks in America. Hundreds of trains crisscross this region daily and the area still retains many early railroad features including trestles, tunnels and stations. The region is also one of the best places in the U.S. for watching mountain railroading. This type of railroading features very long trains with double and triple engines and frequently engines on both the front and rear of the train. This is to provide the tremendous power necessary for traversing the steep mountain grades.
At one time the Williamson Rail Yard, built in 1902, was the second largest train yard in the world. This ten mile long switching yard is still an extremely active facility with miles of tracks and trains. This yard houses one of the few active roundhouses in America and is one of the only places in the country where you can still see a caboose at work. Cabooses have been discontinued on most trains but they are needed for backing long coal trains into some of the deep mountain hollows.
Today because of its rich history, high concentration of trains and many railroad related features this area has become a Mecca for trainspotters, train enthusiasts and photographers. It is still one of the most active train traffic regions in America.