Historic Structures

Grafton Railroad Line Railroad Machine Shop and Foundry, Grafton West Virginia

The story behind the construction of the Northwestern Virginia Railroad Machine Shop and Foundry illuminates the relationship between railroad technology and managerial practices during the experimental phase of railroad history. The organization of the Northwestern Virginia Railroad as an independent corporation, financially controlled by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, was one of the earliest uses of this technique as a method of promoting the railroad's freedom from political control. Forced by political pressure to make Wheeling its first terminus on the Ohio River, the Baltimore and Ohio formed the Northwestern Virginia to add to its route a more desirable line to the west. Once the Virginia legislature had acceded to Wheeling's pressure, it could hardly do less for other towns. The year following the arrival of the Baltimore and Ohio in Wheeling (1852), a group of businessmen in Parkersburg was granted a charter for the formation of the new road, thus firmly establishing the railroad's importance to furture urban growth and industrialization. After the Civil War, other railroads used this technique to take advantage of the rivalry between cities and towns. Through it, they gained a measure of freedom in the location of their lines and repair facilities (and, in some cases, gained cash subsidies). The machine shop and foundry at Grafton reminds us that this technique was based on an advanced technology. Since many of these communities were less than a generation removed from a frontier society, such a repair complex was, in a sense, a technological outpost in a primitive world. It served as an umbilical cord to a society which many had left behind and as a reassuring symbol of their ability to control the natural environment. It is easy to see why communities were eager to collaborate in bringing the railroads to their towns at a time when natural forces were still overwhelming.

The decade of the 1840s was marked by a thorough re-evaluation of the role of the railroad in a national transportation network. The case of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad is an example of the general trend toward the adoption of an allrail concept. The original idea of a railroad linking the port of Baltimore to the rapidly increasing Ohio River trade entailed a terminus at any navigable port on the river - hence, the name - Baltimore and Ohio. By the 40s, the concept of the railroad as an auxiliary to a system of navigable waterways had been abandoned. The successes of the 1830s, both here and abroad (particularly in England), had given railroad directors a more lofty conception of their role in a national transportation network. Improvements in the size and dependability of motive power, innovations in bridge and track design and the general independence from seasonal weather fluctuations led to acceptance of the all-rail concept as a replacement for canals and rivers in the national network. Consequently, by 1842, the B&O had revised its own goals to include an all-rail line through Cincinnati with a terminus at St. Louis. These developments involved the B&O in a series of legal and political conflicts which led to the formation of the Northwestern Virginia Railroad.

The 1838 extension of the original charter from the State of Virginia revealed the attempt by Virginia legislators to retain a concept of a national transportation network based on mixed modes. While the original charter of 1827 granted the railroad permission to meet the Ohio River at any point north of the mouth of the Little Kanawha, the revision stipulated that its terminus be at Wheeling, the chief rival of Pittsburgh in the growing river trade. In granting the port of Baltimore the commercial advantages of a link to Wheeling, the Virginia legislatures assumed that the river would continue to be an important link in a national transportation network. The rationale for such a concession was based on the belief that trade lost to Virginia's eastern port would at least contribute to the development of Wheeling as a major commercial and industrial center. Consistent with this belief, the 1838 law authorized the city of Wheeling to raise $1,000,000 toward the construction of the line from Harpers Ferry. When the five-year extension ran out in 1843, the line had been completed only to Cumberland. Due to delays in financing, the second extension was not granted until 1847. In this act, the Virginia legislature indicated that the railroad should enter the ravine of the Ohio River at a point north of the mouth of Fish Creek, and that a more northerly route would be preferable. The railroad should meet the river north of Grave Creek, if possible, even though more costly, and the city of Wheeling would reimburse the company for the added expenses. These negotiations over the proposed route revealed a growing concern on the part of the city for its own commercial position, revealing an increasing awareness that the railroad's idea of its own role in a national transportation network had changed and was no longer consistent with the city's concept of a combined railway-waterway system.

The conflict of these two concepts emerged most clearly as a result of the surveys undertaken from 1844-48 preliminary to extension of the road to the Ohio River. During the summer of those years, the B&O's chief engineer, Benjamin H. Latrobe, 3r., directed the activities of three corps of surveyors. These teams plotted the territory between Cumberland and the Ohio, exploring the possible routes with termini between Wheeling and Parkersburg {at the mouth of the Little Kanawha) 96 miles to the south. By 1844, these engineers had located five ostensible routes. The northernmost of these had a proposed terminus on the Ohio 40 miles south of Wheeling! It was obvious that while the railroad was willing to extend the road to Wheeling, its main objective was the most direct route west to Cincinnati and St. Louis. Wheeling's concern at these developments led to its proposal of an alternative route surveyed by Jonathan Knight. A former B&O chief engineer and then resident engineer in Wheeling, Knight's route diverged from Latrobe's northerly one at a point on Buffalo Creek and met the Ohio at Moundsville, 12 miles south of Wheeling. It was a more difficult route requiring high grades, extensive excavations and tunneling - conditions far less favorable to the railroad. President Thomas Swann applied to the legislature for relief of these onerous provisions in 1850. As a result, a board of three independent engineers - non-resident in Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Ohio - was appointed to settle the dispute. When this board rendered a decision in favor of Knight's Grave Creek route, the railroad was faced with the prospect of either following it or of never getting to the Ohio at all. In a general meeting of stockholders in May 1850, President urged the directors to acced to the Wheeling route and finish the railroad to the Ohio as soon as possible.

The subsequent successes of the B&O indicate that some very creative and ingenious policies emerged from the forge of this controversy over routes. What first becomes apparent is that the railroad's situation was not as black as it might have seemed. The line east of Piedmont was yielding increasing revenues. The developing coal industry of the Cumberland Basin and the flourishing agriculture of western Maryland both owed some debt to the B&O. In spite of its large outstanding debt, the completion of the line to the Ohio was probably not an indispensible factor for its future financial well-being. The initial outlays of fixed capital during the early experimental years had been large but the failure of the company to pay dividends was due mainly to reinvestment of profits in upgrading and extending the line west. By 1847, the company was firmly established as an enterprise of great importance to the city of Baltimore and the State of Maryland. Swann and his aides were undoubtedly aware of this when the decision was made to follow the Grave Creek route and push the road to Wheeling.

The completion of the line to Wheeling was less the result of any feeling of manifest destiny implicit in its founding charter than of the calculation of real economic advantage. While Swann and the major proponents of expansion were by this time committed to the idea of an rail-link to Cincinnati and St. Louis, they undoubtedly realized the positive aspect of a connection to Wheeling as well. As much as the all-rail concept might hold the imagination of railroad men, the hard realities were that river traffic was increasing, not decreasing. In addition, Wheeling, in the 1840s, was not only a depot of the river trade, but a growing commercial and manufacturing center. Hence, in the short run, the road to Wheeling had the prospects of paying a handsome dividend.

Perhaps the most significant part of dividend yielded by completion of the road to Wheeling was that Swann and his associates gained a highly favorable bargaining position viz a viz the Virginia legislature. Having imposed its will upon the railroad, Wheeling, in a sense, had set a precedent which ultimately was used to its detriment. In acceding to the city's wished on the railroad link, the legislature established the importance of the railroad to future local urban growth. Having done so, the legislators could hardly refuse similar demands by other cities and towns. The B&O found in this situation a valuable tool with which to extricate themselves from the narrow and difficult path to Wheeling. In short order, a group of Parkersburg businessmen, with financial backing from the railroad, appeared in Richmond to petition for similar favors for their town. Whether or not Swann and his aides realized this fact in 1850, when they decided to build Wheeling, is debatable. That they did not seem unlikely in view of the diplomatic skills they had previously displayed exploited the situation indicates that it may even have been part of a tacit agreement in May of 1850. Late in 1852, construction of the Northwestern Virginia railroad from Grafton to Parkersburg was underway.

On February 14, 1851, the Virginia Legislature granted a charter to the Northwestern Virginia Railroad Company to build a line from Grafton to Parkersburg at the mouth of the Little Kanawha River. The petitioners were residents of Parkersburg and they became its first officers, but it was obvious that the B&O Railroad was behind it from its inception. James Cook of Parkersburg became the first president. Other Parkersburgers were the directors: George Neale, Jr., Jefferson Fibbons, Jonathan M. Bennett, William Logan and Joseph Spencer. But the chief engineer was Benjamin H. Latrobe, Jr., the chief architect of the B&O west of Harpers Ferry. In September 1851, before the line to Wheeling had been completed, Latrobe was already surveying the area between Grafton and Parkersburg. And, while the original stock was subscribed in Parkersburg, the construction was financed mainly with B&O money. The city of Baltimore guaranteed a $1,500,000 loan in 1852, and the B&O itself provided a similar amount. In May of 1853, Thomas Swann resigned as the B&O's president and replaced James Cook as president of the Northwestern Virginia Railroad. From 1853 until 1857, Latrobe and his assistants, George Hoffman, J. C. C. Hoskins, and Albert Fink was busy supervising the progress of the new road. William Burton, who had been the B&O's superintendent of construction, served the Northwestern Virginia in the same capacity. By July of 1856, the road was ready for the laying of the rails.

The fiction of separate corporate identities in no way hindered the extension of the road to Parkersburg. The directors of the new road were concerned only with the advantages which would accrue to their city on the arrival of the B&O. Consequently, they cooperated in every way and were perfectly content to leave the details of construction and finance to Swann and Latrobe. The B&O kept its grip on the new road through its financial structure. Shutting off the sources of new capital just as the road was ready to be railed provided the means for adding to the Northwestern Virginia to the B&O's network. In 1856, the two companies signed an agreement whereby the B&O would complete the road and operate it on a contractual basis for five years beginning February 1, 1857. The following year, the B&O purchased the machine-shop at Grafton for $112,330.04, the sum to be applied to the outstanding debt owed to the parent company. In 1865, the Northwestern Virginia was finally sold at foreclosure to the B&O. It had no roiling stock worth mentioning and had been run by the parent company since 1857.

The history of the Northwestern Virginia Railroad set a pattern for the subsequent expansion of the Baltimore and Ohio and was followed by other roads as well in the great post-Civil War railroad boom. By forming new corporations, the parent company could use local enthusiasm for the railroad to circumvent the antagonism of state legislatures against corporations chartered in competing states. Flotation of new stock issues was also a better way for companies such as the B&O to raise capital. Increasing capital shares and the issuance of second mortgage bonds by the parent company was less desirable since the markets for such issues were appreciably less due to heavy fixed capital expenditures. Through subsidiary companies, such as the Northwestern Virginia, it could advance large sums toward new construction without endangering its own credit, while, at the same time, reserving effective control. While the origins of this technique have not been adequately traced (it is very likely that they had British antecedents), the case of the Northwestern Virginia must certainly be one of the earliest examples in this country. It emerged from the political and economic crucible of the route controversy between the Baltimore and Ohio and the city of Wheeling. Its subsequent spread indicates its effectiveness as a tool of management as the concept of an all-rail system gained currency.

Construction of the Northwestern Virginia Railroad from Grafton to Parkersburg was a true challenge to the techniques which Latrobe and his aids had evolved on the road west of Cumberland. Threading the line though more than a hundred miles of difficult mountainous terrain called for numerous tunnels and bridges. A workshop was needed to supply the materials for such structures, and, consequently, one of the first projects of the new company was the erection of the machine shop and foundry at Grafton. The reason given by Latrobe for the location at Grafton was its nearness to the two major bridges which would have to be erected; but the size and permanence of the building clearly reveal that it was intended to be the nucleus of a major repair center. Built during the course of 1853, it was equipped and operating early in 1854. In that year, the masonry piers for the bridge over the Tygart's Valley River were complete and those for the Monongahela River Bridge at Clarksburg nearly so. The shop was fitted out with the necessary machinery, "forge, lathes, screw cutters, planing machines, etc.," and began turning out wrought and cast iron members for the superstructures.