By Phil James
All aboard for a time traveler’s delight! From its trailhead alongside Nelson County’s Route 151 at Piney River Depot, the Virginia Blue Ridge Railway Trail offers a unique opportunity to hikers, bicyclists and equestrians. After 15 long years of collaboration among various interests, the former Virginia Blue Ridge Railway line that ceased operations in 1980 reveals again the natural and cultural history of a special people and place.
Incorporated in 1914, the VBRR operated for 65 years: 48 years as a steam-driven railroad operation and its final 17 years under diesel power. “Work has begun on the Virginia Blue Ridge Railway,” stated the Richmond Times-Dispatch on February 1, 1915. “The new road will lead to vast areas of timberland in the mountains of Amherst and Nelson Counties…. The main line of the road, which will be standard gauge, will extend from Tye River to Tyro, a distance of 25 or 30 miles. Narrow gauge branches will be built into the mountains… where there are large quantities of valuable timber. The work of sawing this timber into lumber will be started within the next few months.”
Following the 1904 discovery of a chestnut blight on Long Island, New York, and its unrelenting infestation of forests in the Northeast, businessmen and foresters responded by purchasing vast timber tracts. To salvage the valuable but rapidly declining timber, paths were cut into infested tracts followed by the rapid laying of rails in order to haul the timber to mills and process it into marketable boards. Corporations formed, seemingly overnight, to manage and market the commodity. Boomtowns of woodsmen and mill workers sprang up nearby the milling operations, bringing a season of welcomed prosperity to many remote outposts.
Initially, the Tye River Timber Company and the Leftwich Timber Company owned rights in Amherst and Nelson Counties. In order to reach east coast markets by way of the Southern Railway, Virginia Blue Ridge Railway was incorporated. From a junction on the Southern at Tye River, 10 miles of track were constructed, following the Tye to its confluence with the Piney River and then on to the village that would eventually adopt the latter river’s name.
Five months after that first newspaper announcement, the Times-Dispatch reported on the 22nd of June 1915: “The tracks of the Virginia Blue Ridge Railway have been completed from Tye River through Nelson County to Lowesville, a distance of 13 miles, and is being pushed on to Massie’s Mills, nine miles further. The promoters are arranging now for the inauguration of a regular passenger and freight service from Lowesville to Tye River, where connection will be made with trains of the Southern Railway…. The entire road is to be completed October 1.”
Workers poured in and the affected villages prospered, but only for a short while. Deemed “non-essential” during the World War, VBRR was shut down in December 1917 until after the Armistice in November 1918. During those early years, VBRR served the Nelson County towns of Lowesville, Massie’s Mill, Piney River and Woodson, as well as Rose’s Mill in Amherst, connecting them by rail with the Southern Railway at Tye River.
As the finite supply of marketable timber dwindled, the railroad scrambled to stay afloat by hauling whatever would bring in revenue: passengers, pulpwood, apples in season, cooperage supplies, tan bark, and the occasional inbound supplies of feed and fertilizer.
Hard times brought on by the Great Depression ran neck and neck with costly difficulties caused by floods, washouts and derailments. In addition to the Piney and Tye Rivers experiencing flooding, heavy downpours on denuded hillsides quickly swelled mountain tributaries such as Allen’s Creek, Castle Creek, Coon Creek, Cub Creek, Davis Creek, and Shoe Creek. All these factors combined to keep prosperity at bay.
However, in 1931 the tide began to turn toward better times for the short line. Various mining operations were established that extracted minerals used in the manufacture of paint, glass, and bricks. The railroad hauled in supplies needed by the companies and carried away their finished products. For several decades that work provided VBRR with some of its best financial years.
By the late ‘60s, handwriting began to appear on the wall and evidence mounted that the best years were past. In addition to its tragic toll on human life, phenomenal rains in the mountains carried in by Hurricane Camille in 1969 laid waste to miles of track and destroyed several bridges. Increasingly troubling environmental concerns with the mining operations and the one-by-one closing of those industries hit hard on the railway’s bottom line. When the last plant folded at Piney River in 1980, the end for the hard working little railroad was at hand.
VBRR’s all-time list of locomotives numbered 11: nine steam and two diesel, beginning with its first one built and purchased new in 1915. Amazingly, three of the steam locomotives that ran on the VBRR line have been preserved in New Jersey. Two of these may be visited in-person at the Whippany Railway Museum. The red wooden caboose, built around 1922 and used on the Virginia Blue Ridge from 1948 to 1960, has lovingly been returned to a place of honor next to the restored depot at Piney River.
The well-maintained, gently meandering seven-mile rails-to-trail experience that begins at Piney River Depot crosses five bridges, one covered and another 200 feet long. While out on the trail, one would do well to obey the old railroad adage to “Stop-Look-Listen.” None of this line’s delights should be overlooked.
Follow Secrets of the Blue Ridge on Facebook! Phil James invites contact from those who would share recollections and old photographs of life along the Blue Ridge Mountains of Albemarle County. You may respond to him through his website: www.SecretsoftheBlueRidge.com or at P.O. Box 88, White Hall, VA 22987. Secrets of the Blue Ridge © 2003–2015 Phil James