Appalachian Rails & Railways Collection

The study of the railway combines the singular importance of the railroad industry to Appalachian development, with the allure of a romantic past-time. The Trains of Appalachia Collection seeks to satisfy scholar and aficionado alike by pulling together a comprehensive array of materials where Appalachia and the Railway intersect. We continually seek new additions to this living collection.

Why is this collection important?

Appalachia and the American Railroad were symbiotically enjoined in their respective developments. The terrain of our mountain systems pushed those advancing rail technology to new limits in overcoming obstacles and finding the best and safest ways to do their job. The railroad more efficiently connected Appalachians to the greater region in ways they had never dreamed of, facilitating commerce, industry, and migration patterns.

Just as the railroad industry would not have grown into what it is today without Appalachia or Appalachians, Appalachia was shaped into what it has become through the varied and complex interactions facilitated by the railway system.

See also the Appalachian Rails and Railways Collection research aid.

History of Trains in Appalachia

The railroad industry blossomed in New England, working its way North and South along the East Coast, initially for the sake of industrial and commercial pursuits and later for the sake of passengers. Envisioned as an improvement on and an enhancement of the use of canals for freight transportation, the railroads began being built in the United States in the late 1820s and their development picking up steam in the 1850s. With rich resources in the west being extracted for global markets, the dream of a transcontinental connection via railway spread. The first task was to connect to the major rivers. The Appalachian Mountains was the first great obstacle. Railway development heavily depended on the iron, coal, and timber industries, which in turn became more and more dependant on the abilities of the railroads to transport their products to market. Many towns and people throughout Appalachia desired the railways benefits of greater connectivity and increased socio-economic diversity. Many small railways formed and were later absorbed into the larger railroads.

Almost immediately, railways began using steam power, generated by burning large amounts of coal or timber. Other options of motivation were explored, including horse drawn, treadmills and wind powered models, but none offered the level of control afforded by steam power until the diesel and electric engines came along. Requiring coal for fuel, iron for machinery and rails, lumber for tracking and building construction, and all three for freight income, the railway was inextricable from industrial pursuits and virtually indispensable for industrial agents.

The potentials of offering travel opportunities for migration, hobby and tourism were recognized early on. Early on, the Baltimore & Ohio railway sponsored competitions for steam engine designs thereby sparking interest in passenger car designs. The basics of those early designs are still used today.

Written by Carl Jenkins (2007) and Kathy Staley (2009)


The following timelie shows some of the biggest and most notable floods of the last two centuries that caused damage to the railroads.

1870: Flooding damages the Southside Railroad Company and Virginia & Tennessee Railroad lines.

1888: A flood carries away bridges on Norfolk & Western lines. West Virginia faces devastation.

1901 May: Flood damage to the East Tennessee & Western North Carolina lines shut down passage through the Doe River Gorge for three months.

1916 July: Flooding damaged Southern Railway lines, especially in the Asheville, North Carolina area. Southern’s Murphy Branch was unaffected. The Murphy Branch line carried supplies to and out of Asheville, albeit through circuitous routes, sustaining the community and repairing the rail lines. The Clinchfield Railroad lines suffered minor damage and clogged tunnels.

1940 August: Flooding caused permanent damage to the ET&WNC railway lines, ending service to Boone, North Carolina as well as major damage to Virginia-Carolina Railroad and the Clinchfield Railroad lines.

1955 August: Flooding from Hurricane Diane cost Lackawanna Railroad several million dollars in repairs.

1977: 1997’s flooding finalized the demise of the Virginia-Carolina Railroad and again damaged the Clinchfield lines. The foresight of engineer M. J. Caples in pushing for wide angles, gentle slopes and large tunnels likely prevented the Clinchfield, which traveled some of the roughest terrain in the railway industry, from suffering much more devastation than it did.

2005: Hurricane Katrina washed out several miles of Norfolk Southern track in New Orleans and over Lake Pontchartrain. 

Written by Carl Jenkins (2007)