Chesapeake and Ohio Railway

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Chesapeake & Ohio Railway
C&O logo.png
Chesapeake and Ohio Railway System Map.PNG
C&O system map, circa 1950
Reporting mark C&O, CO
Locale Illinois
New York
Washington, D.C.
West Virginia
Dates of operation 1869–1987
Successor CSX Transportation
Track gauge 4 ft 8 12 in (1,435 mm) standard gauge
Length 4,994 miles (8,037 kilometres)
Headquarters Cleveland, Ohio

The Chesapeake and Ohio Railway (reporting marks C&O, CO) was a Class I railroad formed in 1869. Led by industrialist C. P. Huntington, it reached from Virginia's capital city of Richmond to the Ohio River by 1873, where the railroad town (and later city) of Huntington, West Virginia was named for him.

Tapping the coal reserves of West Virginia, the C&O's Peninsula Extension to new coal piers at the harbor of Hampton Roads resulted in the creation of the new City of Newport News. Coal revenues also led the forging of a rail link to the Midwest, eventually reaching Columbus, Cincinnati and Toledo in Ohio and Chicago, Illinois.

By the early 1960s the C&O was headquartered in Cleveland, Ohio. In 1972, under the leadership of Cyrus Eaton, it became part of the Chessie System, along with the Baltimore & Ohio and Western Maryland Railway. The Chessie System was later combined with the Seaboard Coast Line and Louisville and Nashville, both the primary components of the Family Lines System, to become a key portion of CSX Transportation in the 1980s.[1] A substantial portion of Conrail was added in 1999.


19th century[edit]

The primary avenues of transportation in Virginia in the 1830s were the rivers and the ocean. The early railroads connected the coast with inland points, and one of these was the Louisa Railroad, chartered in 1836 to run from Taylorsville on the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad (RF&P) just south of what is now Doswell, to points in Louisa County.[2] At first the RF&P operated the railroad, but in 1847 the Louisa Railroad acquired its own rolling stock and took over its own affairs. By 1850 the railroad had been extended west to Charlottesville. That year it became the Virginia Central Railroad, and a year later over the protests of the RF&P it built its own line from Taylorsville to Richmond.[3]

The original Blue Ridge Tunnel built by the Blue Ridge Railroad and used by the C&O until its replacement during World War II

West of Charlottesville lay the Blue Ridge Mountains, the crossing of which required a series of tunnels. The Commonwealth of Virginia, always keen to help with internal improvements, undertook construction of that portion of the line as the Blue Ridge Railroad and upon completion leased it to the Virginia Central (which later purchased it). Meanwhile, the Virginia Central leapfrogged its rails ahead to Clifton Forge. In 1853 the Commonwealth chartered the Covington & Ohio Railroad to connect the Virginia Central and the James River & Kanawha Canal at Covington with the Ohio River.[4]

The Civil War halted the westward expansion of the railroad, even though the line would have been valuable to the Confederacy. During the latter part of the war the Virginia Central pulled up sections of its line for supplies to maintain other parts. However, by 1865 the entire line had been restored. The Virginia Central and Covington & Ohio were consolidated as the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad (C&O) in 1868.[3]

In 1869 the C&O came under the control of C. P. Huntington, builder of the Central Pacific and Southern Pacific (SP) railroads. The C&O had run out of money, and its officers asked Huntington if he could finance the westward construction of the railroad. Huntington and his associates subscribed to mortgage bonds, and the C&O was reorganized with Huntington as its president.[3]

On January 29, 1873, the C&O was completed from Richmond, Virginia to the Ohio River a few miles east of the confluence of the Ohio and the Big Sandy — the latter river forms the border between West Virginia and Kentucky. The legendary competition between John Henry and a steam-powered machine occurred during the construction of a tunnel south of Talcott, West Virginia near the Greenbrier River. The new western terminus of the railroad was Huntington, West Virginia and cost the company over $23 million ($460,542,061 today),[4] throwing it into receivership by 1875. The railroad was foreclosed and reorganized as the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway; another reorganization followed in 1888.[3]

C&O system map, circa 1873

Huntington envisioned the C&O as the eastern portion of transcontinental system in conjunction with the SP. He organized the Chesapeake, Ohio & Southwestern Railroad (CO&SW) in 1877 to take over the Memphis, Paducah & Northern Railroad, a line from Elizabethtown and Louisville through Paducah, Kentucky to Memphis. Huntington's Louisville, New Orleans & Texas Railway (LNO&T) provided the connection between Memphis and New Orleans, the east end of the SP. In 1884 Huntington formed the Newport News & Mississippi Valley Company to hold the Elizabethtown, Lexington & Big Sandy Railroad [EL&BS] (opened in 1872 from the Big Sandy River to Lexington, Kentucky with trackage rights to Louisville), the CO&SW, and the C&O itself.[3]

Coal cars at the Danville, West Virginia yard in 1974

C&O's line along the Ohio River to Cincinnati was opened in 1888 with the completion of the Maysville & Big Sandy Railroad (M&BS) from Ashland to Covington, Kentucky, opposite Cincinnati (the second Covington on C&O's main line), and the Covington & Cincinnati Elevated Railroad & Transfer & Bridge Company (C&CER&T&B) — one of the few three-ampersand railroads in the U.S. Both the M&BS and C&CER&T&B were proprietary companies of the C&O.[3]

Huntington's empire fell apart in 1888. The C&O was taken over by Vanderbilt interests. It soon acquired the EL&BS and Lexington-Louisville trackage rights over the Louisville & Nashville Railroad. Illinois Central, by then under the control of E. H. Harriman, purchased the CO&SW and LNO&T, consolidating the latter with the Yazoo & Mississippi Valley Railroad.[3]

Postcard showing the C&O Terminal in Newport News, circa 1930s

During the presidency of Melville Ingalls, also president of the Big Four, C&O undertook expansion at its eastern end. In 1882 it constructed a line east from Richmond to a new tidewater terminal at Newport News, Virginia. In 1888 C&O leased (and later purchased) the Richmond & Alleghany Railroad, which followed the towpath of the James River & Kanawha Canal from Richmond through Lynchburg to Clifton Forge. Two years later the railroad arranged for access to Washington, D.C. over the Virginia Midland Railway (later Southern Railway) from Gordonsville.[5]

20th century[edit]

By the turn of the century C&O had become a major bituminous coal hauler, and the Midwest was becoming a better market for coal than the East. In 1903 the majority of the stock of the Hocking Valley Railroad (Toledo-Columbus-Athens and Gallipolis, Ohio) was purchased jointly by the C&O, Baltimore & Ohio (B&O), Erie, Lake Shore & Michigan Southern (LS&MS), and Pennsylvania Railroads (PRR). In addition, C&O and LS&MS acquired the Kanawha & Michigan Railroad (which had a line from Charleston, West Virginia through Gallipolis and Athens to Columbus) from the Hocking Valley, and LS&MS purchased most of the stock of the Toledo & Ohio Central (Toledo-Columbus-Corning). By 1911 C&O had acquired control of the Hocking Valley. To satisfy antitrust legislation, C&O was required to sell its interest in the Kanawha & Michigan to the T&OC in 1914.[3]

To gain access to the Hocking Valley, C&O incorporated the Chesapeake & Ohio Northern Railway (C&ON) built north from Limeville, Kentucky, a few miles southeast of Portsmouth, Ohio. C&ON bridged the Ohio, built north of Waverly, Ohio, and arranged for trackage rights over Norfolk & Western (N&W) for 62 miles (100 kilometres) to Valley Crossing, south of Columbus. The C&ON was opened in 1917. In the 1920s because of a limitation on the number of trains C&O could run on the N&W line and because grades on the N&W were steeper than those on C&O's main line, C&O constructed a parallel line — the Chesapeake & Hocking Valley Railway (C&HV) — between Greggsville, near Waverly, and Valley Crossing. C&O leased the C&HV in 1926 and merged it (and also merged the Hocking Valley Railroad) in 1930.[3]

On other fronts, in 1910 C&O purchased the Chicago, Cincinnati & Louisville Railroad, a line from Cincinnati to Hammond, Indiana, and reorganized it as the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway of Indiana. About that same time C&O bought a one-sixth in the Richmond-Washington Company, operator of the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad. In 1918 C&O bought White Sulphur Springs, Inc. — it had controlled the company since 1910 — operator of The Greenbrier, a resort hotel at White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia.[3]

C&O class L 4-6-4 locomotive displaying streamlining applied to several passenger train locomotives in the 1930s

In 1923 Orris Paxton Van Sweringen and his brother Mantis James Van Sweringen, Cleveland real estate developers, purchased 30 percent of C&O's stock. The principal item in the Van Sweringens' empire was the Nickel Plate Railroad (NKP), and they drafted proposals to merge C&O, NKP, Erie, Hocking Valley, and the Pere Marquette (PM) to form a fourth eastern system of the magnitude of the New York Central Railroad, PRR, and B&O. By 1929 the Van Sweringens also hoped to include Wheeling and Lake Erie (W&LE), Delaware, Lackawanna & Western, and the Chicago & Eastern Illinois, the last to furnish a connection with the Missouri Pacific, in which they held a sizable interest. Later that year the Van Sweringens withdrew their applications as their empire began to collapse. Meanwhile, in 1928 C&O had received permission to control the PM, which ultimately unified their operations.[3]

Chessie on a 1940s timetable
Chesapeake and Ohio Railway steam turbine locomotive 500, ca. 1949


In the depths of the Great Depression C&O inaugurated an all-air-conditioned passenger train, the George Washington, from Washington and Newport News to Louisville and Cincinnati and return. In 1933 C&O introduced the figure of a sleeping kitten in its advertising named "Chessie". Chessie birthed two kittens named Nip and Tuck. During World War II, her "husband," Peake (as in "Chessie's Peak" = Chesapeake), was shown with a bandage on his paw as a war veteran returning from military service.[3]

While Chessie was created by artist Guido Grenewald, the success of sleeping kitten Chessie as a marketing tool is often credited to Lionel Probert, at the time an assistant to the C&O president. "Chessie" became one of the most successful and beloved railroad mascots ever developed. The railroad had great difficulty keeping merchandise in stock that bore the image of the popular feline.[6]

Later years[edit]

In 1937 Robert R. Young acquired 43 percent of the stock of Alleghany Corporation (a holding company that controlled the C&O). By 1942 Young was chairman of the board of C&O. Nicknamed "Rail Road Young", R.R. Young inaugurated many forward looking advances in technology. He changed the C&O's logo to "C&O for Progress," and in 1945 proposed a merger of C&O, PM, NKP, and W&LE, with the thought of adding western connections (likely prospects were Missouri Pacific, Denver & Rio Grande Western, and Western Pacific) to create a coast-to-coast railroad. The Nickel Plate objected to the proposal. As it fell out, C&O merged PM on June 6, 1947, NKP purchased C&O's W&LE shares about the same time, and C&O distributed its NKP shares to C&O stockholders as a dividend later that year.[3]

The C&O's "Big Mike" #2705, a 2-8-4 Class K-4 "Kanawha" built by Alco in 1943, at the B&O Railroad Museum in 2008

Young also proposed takeover of the Association of American Railroads and the Pullman Company and became an advocate of coast-to-coast through sleeping car service with his famous ad headed "A hog can cross the country without changing trains — but you can't!" Young intended to make C&O the top passenger railroad in the country. To this end, he ordered a steam-turbine-powered Vista-Dome streamliner, the Chessie, for daylight service between Washington and Cincinnati, and he sent an order to Pullman-Standard for 289 passenger cars, enough to completely re-equip all of C&O's other trains. By the time the Chessie arrived from the Budd Company, C&O had discovered (possibly by observing the patronage of B&O's new Cincinnatian) that there was no market for a daytime Washington-Cincinnati train. Most of the Chessie cars were sold to other railroads; a dozen went to Argentina. Nearly half of the Pullman-Standard order was canceled or diverted to the other railroads.[3]

In 1947, while all that was happening, C&O acquired a large block of NYC stock and became NYC's largest stockholder. Young proposed a merger of C&O, NYC, and Virginian. Young left the C&O in 1954 to take over management of the NYC. Riddled with depression most of his life, Young committed suicide in 1958.[3]

In 1960 C&O turned its attention to neighbor B&O and offered to purchase its stock. The Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) approved C&O control of B&O at the end of 1962, and the actual exchange of C&O stock for B&O took place in February 1963. By 1973 C&O owned more than 90 percent of B&O's stock. B&O in turn owned nearly half the stock of Western Maryland (WM) and controlled the Reading Company (RDG); the RDG controlled the Central Railroad of New Jersey. In 1966 the ICC approved C&O control of the Chicago South Shore & South Bend Railroad (CSS&SB), an interurban-turned-commuter carrier with tracks through the industrial area just south of Lake Michigan.[3]

Chessie System, CSX[edit]

The Chessie System was incorporated in 1973 to own the C&O. C&O in turn controlled B&O, and the two of them held more than 90 percent of WM's stock. C&O, B&O, and WM did not merge immediately but became Chessie System Railroads: They traded their identities and colors for new paint and a new emblem featuring C&O's mascot, Chessie (the name "Chessie System" had been used colloquially for C&O since the feline's inception in 1933). CSS&SB did not become a Chessie System railroad but remained a stray cat in the alley behind Chessie's house until 1984 when it was purchased by the Venango River Corporation.[3]

Chessie System then merged with Seaboard System Railroad (itself a combination of Seaboard Air Line Railroad, Atlantic Coast Line Railroad, Louisville & Nashville Railroad and Clinchfield Railroad), to form CSX Transportation. WM merged into B&O on May 1, 1983; B&O was merged into C&O on April 30, 1987, and C&O was merged into CSX on August 31, 1987. After acquiring 42 percent of Conrail in 1999, CSX became one of four major railroad systems left in the country.

Revenue Freight Ton-Miles (millions)
C&O Pere Marquette Hocking Valley
1925 17468 3073 2614
1933 16881 2053 (merged C&O)
1944 28743 5719
1960 28852 (merged)
1970 37070

Popular culture[edit]

  • Tex Beneke and his Orchestra performed a big band song "Chesapeake and Ohio", written by Sigman & Magidson, in which Tex sang of his regret about not requesting the address of a lady he met on the C&O.
  • A C&O passenger train was featured in the opening sequence of George Stevens' film Giant, the final film for James Dean.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Surface Transportation Board, Docket AB_55_627_X, CSX Transportation, Inc.; abandonment exemption in Floyd County, Kentucky; February 14, 2003
  2. ^
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q Drury, George H. (1994). The Historical Guide to North American Railroads: Histories, Figures, and Features of more than 160 Railroads Abandoned or Merged since 1930. Waukesha, Wisconsin: Kalmbach Publishing. pp. 59–64. ISBN 0-89024-072-8. 
  4. ^ a b
  5. ^
  6. ^

External links[edit]