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A Glimpse into the South Branch Valley Railroad
April 27, 2012 - Jodi Burnsworth
Most visitors on the Potomac Eagle are unaware of the long storied past of the South Branch Valley Railroad. While many pioneers had the best of intentions and dreams, the smoke from a locomotive in Hardy County would not be seen until the late 1800s. But it wasn’t until after the turn of the century that a rail line was built south of Romney.
In 1909 construction started for a new company known as The Hampshire Southern Railroad. A year later the first trains, providing freight and passenger service between Romney and Moorefield, were operating on the new railroad.
This system was sold to the Moorefield and Virginia Railroad Company in 1911. In November 1913 they transferred the system to the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. Passenger service was abandoned on the line sometime around 1928.
Fifty years later, in October 1978, the Chessie System turned the South Branch Valley Railroad over to the state for operation by the Rail Authority, making West Virginia the first state to own and operate a commercial freight railroad. The 52-mile line, which primarily serves the poultry industry, runs from Petersburg to Green Spring, where it connects with the CSX main line. A private contract operator runs the popular Potomac Eagle excursion train over the same line, where passengers routinely see the train’s namesake since bald eagles reestablished themselves in the Trough in the early 1980s.
The Trough is a narrow canyon where the South Branch of the Potomac River runs between Sawmill Ridge and River Ridge, northeast of Moorefield on the boundary of Hampshire and Hardy counties. George Washington gave as good a description as anyone, writing in his journal in 1748: “The Trough is [a] couple of Ledges of Mountains, Impassable, running side and side together for above 7 or 8 miles and ye River down between them.” Washington, visiting as a young surveyor, is supposed to have raced through in a canoe.
Less than a decade after Washington’s visit, a bloody battle ensued at the Trough in 1756, during the French and Indian War. A large band of Shawnees defeated 16 to 18 settlers in the Battle of the Trough, killing seven of them.
The great flood of 1985 ripped through the Trough, doing great damage to railroad facilities. Water reportedly backed up to a depth of 90 feet at the head of the canyon.
The Trough remains popular today with canoeists and kayakers, with fisherman, and with sightseeing tourists on the Potomac Eagle excursion train.
*Editor’s Note: My profile photo was taken aboard the Potomac Eagle when I rode the train in October 2009.
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C&O 8016 (formerly CSXT 116, Clinchfield 800) leads the Potomac Eagle past Eagle Rock in the scenic South Branch Valley. 8016 was completed in August 2003 and is owned by the C&O Historical Society. Photo courtesy of Potomac Eagle.