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Baltimore & Ohio Railroad

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The beginning of the era of larger industrial development in West Virginia was due to the enterprising spirit of a few of the shrewder business men of Baltimore, Maryland (MD) who feared the doom of their city's prosperity was foreshadowed in the diversion of trade and emigration from the National Road to the route of the Erie Canal around the northern flank of the Alleghenies. After realizing that the completion of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal would by its expense prove inexpedient as a measure calculated to counteract New York's advantage, or to retain Baltimore's inherited commercial prestige, these men decided on the feasibility of a railroad from Baltimore to the West and faithfully and persistenly pushed their plans to completion.

First Railroad in West Virginia

B&O bridge across the Potomac at Harpers Ferry, WV

The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad (B&O), the first U.S. railroad chartered for commercial transportation of freight and passengers, was originally incorporated by act of the Virginia General Assembly in 1826 and by the Maryland legistlature in 1827. The first stone in the construction of the B&O was put in place in Baltimore, MD on July 4th, 1828, by Charles Carroll, the last remaining survivor of the signers of the Declaration of Independance. Carroll made short address to the crowd onhand to witness the event, saying, "I consider this among the most important acts of my life, second only to my signing the Declaration of Independence, if indeed, it be only second to that."

On Oct. 1, 1829, laying of the B&O track began, and on Jan. 7, 1830 the railroad opened its newly laid line from Mount Clare, MD to the Carrollton Viaduct over Gwynns Falls, three mites away. By Dec. 1, 1834, the B&O reached a point called Wager's Bridge across the Potomac at present-day Harpers Ferry, WV, completing a 81 mile miles of track from Baltimore, Maryland. Until steam locomotives became standard in 1835, horses pulled railed cars along the B&O's tracks.

In 1835, James Carroll donated 10 acres to the B&O for the construction of railroad shops. Because ten acres were found insufficient, due to the rapidly increasing operations of the company eleven acres adjoining the tract were purchased the same year. Construction soon began on an engine house with accommodations for nine engines; a large wooden car house, 150 feet in length containing three tracks; another car house, 208 feet long and of bricks; and a smithyard repairing shop. This was the beginning of the B&O's famous Mount Clare Shops, although the B&O had apparently maintained a facility at the location as early as 1829.

In June of 1836, the railroad bridge across the Potomac into Harpers Ferry was completed. During that same year, the B&O made a connection with the Winchester and Potomac Railroad, at Harpers Ferry.

For several years, the point near Harpers Ferry was the end of the line for the B&O. The Virginia legistature would not authorize the line to build further, largely because Virginia politicians feared the negative economic effects the B&O might have upon the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, which at that time, was still under construction.

It was not until 1838 that construction the B&O's route through (what was then) Virginia-territory was made possible. In that year, the Virginia legistature authorized an ammendment to the B&O's original charter of incorporation. This modification granted the B&O a five-year extension of time to built its line through Virginia, on the condition that the route should pass through Virginia from Harpers Ferry westward to a point near Cumberland, MD, and that Wheeling would become the terminus of the road.

On March 19, 1839, the Virginia General Assembly authorized the B&O to construct a railroad bridge across the Potomac River in the vicinity of Elk Branch, just above Harpers Ferry, and on Feb. 25, 1841, passed an act authorizing the B&O to establish three depots in Jefferson County.

Construction of the B&O was begun in 1840, and completed to Cumberland, Maryland, on November 5, 1842. Thus, the B&O became the first railroad to enter and pass through lands now a part of West Virginia. The total length of the B&O's track in West Virginia totaled 39-miles.

Interestingly enough, the counties the B&O passed through were not were not included in West Virginia at the time of its admission into the Union, a topic that can be explored in more depth in the article, How Berkeley and Jefferson Counties became a part of West Virginia.

The B&O's Cumberland to Wheeling Route

Early photo of the B&O's Cheat River Viaduct

In 1848, construction began on the B&O's 200-mile-long rail route between Cumberland and Wheeling, with work proceeding from both ends. The construction of the road was at that time the greatest triumph of engineering skill that had been witnessed in this or any other country. The route of the B&O was over the Allegheny Mountains ran through the most challenging mountain terrain ever attempted by any railroad, anywhere, at that point in time.

The building of the rail line required the construction of 113 bridges and 11 tunnels. The B&O's 4,100-foot-long tunnel, near Thunnelton, WV, would become at the time of its completion be the longest tunnel in the world. The Cheat River and Tray Run Viaduct, in Preston County, the largest iron bridge in America when built, was another engineering feat accomplished during the construction of the B&O line to Wheeling.

The last spike on the route was driven on Christmas Eve, Dec. 24th, 1852, at Rosbey's Rock, a point 7 miles east of present-day Moundsville, WV. The first train over the route reached Wheeling on January 1, 1853, and on Jan. 10, 1853, the completion of the line was officially observed with much ceremony. A special train carried the President of the B&O, and his guests from the city of Baltimore, and the states of Maryland and Virginia, to Wheeling.

As completed, the B&O mainline in West Virginia passed through Jefferson, Berkeley, Morgan, Hampshire, Mineral, Preston, Taylor, Marion, Wetzell, Marshall, and Ohio counties. Towns along its route included Harpers Ferry, Martinsburg, Keyser, Piedmont, Rowlesburg, Grafton, Fairmont, Moundsville, and Wheeling.

Grafton - Parkersburg Branch

1860 Map of B&O lines

Undaunted by previous failures, Parkersburg with the support of a large tributary region continued the fight for a railway. Meantime, aways doubtful of the wisdom of establishing the terminus of the road at Wheeling, and still regarding it as a unsatisfactory terminus, the directors of the B&O felt the necessity of a river terminus at a lower point in order to get an advantage in securing the traffic of the West.

To this end the Northwestern Virginia Railroad was projected and chartered in 1851 from the main line at Three Forks Creek (present-day Grafton) to the Ohio River at Parkersburg. Although regarded as a domestic corporation which should receive more friendly support than a foreign corporation, it was really constructed under the direction of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, through B. H. Latrobe who was chosen chief engineer of the new line.

After the road's completion, on May 1, 1857, the Northwestern Virginia line was sold to B&O. Although it had 23 tunnels it was one of the best constructed railroads in the United States at that time. Along its entire route, especially at Grafton, Clarksburg and Parkersburg it opened the way for a new era of larger opportunity and development. Even at points which did not feel its immediate touch it stimulated efforts to secure better communication as a basis for new enterprise and industy.

As completed the B&O's Grafton-Parkersburg route passed through Taylor, Harrison, Doddridge, Ritchie, and Wood counties. Major towns along the route included Grafton, Clarksburg, West Union, and Cairo.

B&O Branch Lines

Fairmont, Morgantown & Pittsburgh Branch - B&O RR
Grafton & Belington Branch - B&O RR
Monongahela River Branch - B&O RR
Richwood Branch - B&O RR
Paw Paw Branch - B&O RR


Scale drawings, diagrams, and other drawings of locomotives, rolling stock, equipment, and structures used on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad (B&O).

Drawings: Baltimore & Ohio