Shenandoah Valley RR Question: Massanutten Mountain

NW Mailing List nw-mailing-list at
Tue Oct 15 01:24:19 EDT 2019

On the day I read Abram's message I was reviewing my research on the Shenandoah Valley RR and the Antietam station.  I did a talk on the subject for the Sharpsburg MD Historical Society a few years ago, and I will repeat it for the Sharpsburg Library October 17.  My talk begins with the reason SV built into Maryland, crossing the Potomac River at Shepherdstown on the line's route to Hagerstown.

Simply put, Abram correctly surmises that people with wealth and influence chose to built their railroad down the east side of the Shenandoah Valley to enhance their own interests.  Iron ore and the products derived from its refining existed on both sides of Massanutten Mountian as well as agricultural opportunies.  The Valley RR, backed by the B&O had first entered the west side of the great valley well ahead of the SV RR.  Therefore a more favorable route was not the primary goal.  Construction started in 1870 south from Hagerstown.  Nine miles of grading was done as far as the village of Grimes, MD when the project fell dormant with the financial panic of 1873.  In today's words the "panic" was actually a depression which lasted through the 1870's.  Funds for this first effort was provided by the Central Improvement Company, fronted by the Pennsylvania Railroad.

Construction resumed in 1879 this time funded by E. W. Clarke and Company of Philadelphia.  Bonds to raise money were also sold to individuals and municipalities.  This time work started in either Charles Town, WV and/or Front Royal, VA.  It was not certain the that railroad would bridge the Potomac at Shepherdstown.  Two other options were explored.  One was to build northwest from Shepherdstown to connect with the Cumberland Valley RR at Bedington, WV.  The other was to connect with the Western Maryland RR at Smithsburg, MD.  Ultimately, SV built a bridge at Shepherdstown and 7 miles of new grading to reach the previously graded roadbed at Grimes, MD. 

By 1881 SV was complete from Hagerstown to Waynesboro, VA connecting with the C&O. By this time, Frederick Kimball was SV President and he persuaded his board of directors to complete the railroad on to Roanoke in 1882 to connect with the new N&W, formed from the bankruptcy of the AM&O.  Follwing the discovery of the expansive Pocohontas coal fields, the wisdom of Kimball pushing the SV to completion was validated. The B&O was not so lucky with theValley RR.

This is a brief answer to Abram's question. It is not intended to be complete.  Both railroads of the valley are covered in great detail by Mason Cooper in his "Norfolk and Western's Shenandoah Valley Line" and Bob Cohen's "A Trip by Rail in the Shenandoah Valley" which covers B&O history in the valley. Another resource is "Iron Horses in the Valley" by John R. Hildebrand.  The Wikipedia entry on the SV is worth reading, but I have some issues with it. I also did a lot of research in newspaper archives.

By the way, one can view the lower Shenandoah Valley from the top of Elk Ridge, aka Red Hill, east of Sharpsburg, MD. On a clear day the sight of the Massanuttens, 40 miles distant,  rising up in the middle of the valley floor is breathtaking.

--Rick Morrison

----- Original Message ----- 
  From: NW Mailing List 
  To: N&W Mailing List 
  Sent: Friday, October 11, 2019 12:00 PM
  Subject: Shenandoah Valley RR Question: Massanutten Mountain

  Massanutten Mountain, located in Shenandoah and Rockingham Counties, Virginia, is a mountain of approximately 47 miles in length and something like 11 miles wide in places, and curiously lies smack-dab in the floor of the Shenandoah Valley, running on the same longitudinal axis as the valley.  Its north end is at Strasburg, Va, and it's south end is near Harrisonburg and Elkton.

  The Shenandoah Valley RR located itself on the east side of Massanutten Mountain, passing through Front Royal, Bentonville, Rileyville, Luray, Stanley, Shenandoah and Elkton.

  The B&O's Valley Railroad, and Interstate Highway 81, lie on the west side of Massanutten Mountain, passing through Woodstock, Mount Jackson, New Market and Harrisonburg.

  Of the two floors of the Shenandoah Valley, the one on the west side of Massanutten Mountain affords the most favorable location for a railroad, grade-wise.  All you need to do to see this graphically is look at the satellite imagery in Google Maps, and turn on the Terrain feature.   Ingham Hill, the pusher grade north out of Shenandoah, could have been avoided had the railroad located on the west side of the mountain.   

  So the question is, why did the Shenandoah Valley RR choose to locate on the least favorable of the two routes around Massanutten Mountain?

  If one answers that the SV chose the eastern location due to the iron ore deposits around present-day 
  Shenandoah, Va, I would suggest that there were iron ore deposits on the west side of the mountain, as well.  (Check any early book or map dealing with Virginia minerals.)

  My guess is that "prominent people," and their wealth and influence, were already located on the east side of the mountain, and advocated for the construction of thew new railroad through their own area, so as to enhance their own interests.  Is this correct?  Was that prominent person William Milnes?

  abram burnett

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