History in Our Backyard Chapter 10: The “Unfinished Railroad”

The term “unfinished railroad” refers to the roadbed without track that existed during the Civil War.  This article will give a brief description of its history. Another article will discuss its use specifically during the Civil War period.

Exhibit 12 Standard Gauge (left) vs. Narrow Gauge

The “unfinished railroad” had a role in the Civil War, but later it was two different working railroads run on the same roadbed. Although incorporated in 1853 no track had been laid as the Civil War began. Running between Orange and Fredericksburg, it existed under several names and configurations existing operationally from 1877 until 1984. The first line was narrow gauge, best known as the Potomac, Fredericksburg and Piedmont Railroad (PF&P). It provided passenger and freight service for almost fifty years. The second venture was standard gauge. It also hauled freight and passengers under the name of the Virginia Central Railway between 1927 to1937 and freight within Fredericksburg until 1984.

Incorporated in 1853, the Fredericksburg and Gordonsville Railroad Company’s (FGRRC’s) “purpose was to build a railroad between Fredericksburg and Gordonsville or Orange Court House in order to connect with the rail lines already running to Gordonsville.” The company failed by November 1857.  Road grading from Fredericksburg on 18 miles of the project had taken place by the time of the Civil War but no track had been laid, thus the “unfinished railroad” term. The project was resurrected in 1871. Some progress was made by the new company, however, after many delays, the State took possession of the railroad in December of 1873. It restored the property to the original owner, the FGRRC. In March 1876 the railroad was again reorganized and the name changed to the Potomac, Fredericksburg and Piedmont (PF&P), best known to locals as the “Poor Folks, and Preachers” due to its clientele. The first train to Orange arrived on February 26th, 1877.

PF&P showed a profit for many years. 1910 proved a banner year with 18,000 passengers and $56,000 in freight revenue. The high point for number of employees was 63 in 1920 but the decline was coming. The automobile and the truck “offered portal to portal service and substantial reductions in labor costs.” Furthermore the line could not interchange freight with mainline connections. In 1925 the line was sold and reorganized as the Orange and Fredericksburg Railroad but that was quickly sold to Langhorne Williams, a Richmond banker. The new name was the Virginia Central and the first upgrade was to install standard gauge track in 1926.

Exhibit 13 PF&P Engine and Tender

The line generally operated at a loss until it petitioned the Interstate Commerce Commission in 1937 to abandon the 37 miles between Orange and West Fredericksburg. It would continue to operate one mile of track in Fredericksburg as a switching operation for 15 industrial customers.  The Williams family continued to operate that line until 1967 when it was transferred to the city. The line was quickly recognized as a white elephant and although several schemes promised a profit, in March of 1984 the ICC approved final abandonment

Three excellent sources of reading are “Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad Historical Society, Inc.” Volume 5, Issue 4, Fall 2009, “The Virginia Central Railway,” Ames Williams, pages 18-28, Remembering: A History of Orange County, Frank S. Walker Jr., pages 252-256 and “Tracks Through Time; A Railfan Tour of Orange County, Virginia”, Frank S. Walker Jr., page 20, a pamphlet available at the Orange County Visitor Center.

Author: Bob Lookabill
Date: July 2018

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Continue to Chapter 11: the Unfinished Railroad in the Battle of the Wilderness

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