Secrets of the Blue Ridge: Frederick Harris and the Steam Horse at Rockfish Gap

The Louisa Railroad Company’s first locomotive was named the Frederick Harris in honor of the Company’s first president. The “Westward Ho” locomotive, similar in form and pictured here, began its service for the Virginia Central RR in 1857, worked across the Alleghenies with the Frederick Harris, and hauled Confederate troops in 1862. (Courtesy of the Phil James Historical Images Collection)

In July 1853, a most unusual event transpired on the road between Mechums River Depot in Albemarle County, and Waynesboro, west of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Augusta. The citizenry along that route witnessed a theretofore unheard of feat, and, even more importantly, time-altering history in the making.

The Richmond Daily Dispatch recorded it thusly: “The First Locomotive across the Rockfish Gap.— On Monday last, the locomotive “Frederick Harris” was taken from the depot at Mechum’s River, and placed on wheels to be transported across the Blue Ridge at Rockfish Gap. It was soon on the road, drawn by 18 mules, and by Tuesday morning was at the top of the mountain. It no doubt rested at night at Waynesborough, where it was to be placed on the track.

“Our friend, Alexander, of the Jeffersonian, gives a glowing account of this journey of the first locomotive through that part of the world; and declares that a greater sensation could not have been produced had President Pierce, Gen. Scott, Louis Napoleon, or even Queen Victoria passed along.

Horse riders pass by the simple rail stop for the Mountain Top Inn at Rockfish Gap in a detail from a larger work by German artist Edward Beyer (1820–1865). Beyer captured this idyllic scene in 1854, only months after the mountaintop track was opened for passenger and freight traffic. (Courtesy of the Phil James Historical Images Collection)

“What would the Venerable Frederick Harris, the first President of the Louisa Road, have said had he witnessed this event—this journey across the mountains of a locomotive bearing his name? Would that the excellent old gentleman could have been spared to have witnessed such a consummation. He would have been the happiest man in the United States for one day.”

This event was a critical step in expanding rail service from the east over the Blue Ridge Mountains and to points west. The locomotive Frederick Harris would be a workhorse in continuing to lay track west of the mountain while rail line continued to be laid from the east. These efforts were connected by a temporary track until the Blue Ridge Tunnel was completed in 1858.

An 18-mule hitch (or a “20-mule team”, comprised of 18 mules and two horses) performed most of the heaviest hauling tasks in their era, and required the utmost skills from their teamster and crew. (Courtesy of Library of Congress)

The Virginia General Assembly had chartered the Louisa Railroad in 1836. Frederick Overton Harris Jr. (1780–1842) was appointed as the fledgling railroad’s first president. A lieutenant in the War of 1812, he had served Louisa in the state legislature, and his estate Frederick’s Hall was known for producing quality tobacco. Harris had an excellent reputation as a good manager. He continually fought for extensions of the railway until forced to resign for health reasons near the end of his life.

Plans originally called for the rail line to extend from Hanover Junction (Doswell) north of Richmond to Harrisonburg in the Shenandoah Valley by way of Swift Run Gap. The rail line had reached Louisa and proceeded toward Gordonsville by 1839, but plans to continue due west sputtered and stalled while a more feasible mountain crossing at Rockfish Gap was considered. When the political dust settled after an eight-year lapse, in 1847 the line proceeded southwestward from Gordons-ville toward Charlottesville.

The Blue Ridge Railroad Company was formed by the Commonwealth in 1849. Claudius Crozet hired on as Chief Engineer to build the Blue Ridge Railroad section through western Albemarle County. In 1850, Louisa Railroad, with its expanded vision, was renamed the Virginia Central.

David Sheeler and family lived in this house beside the eastern portal of the Blue Ridge Tunnel near Afton, VA, where he was an invaluable tunnel watchman for 25 years. (Courtesy of Waynesboro News-Virginian)

On that historic day in July 1853, a sturdy 24-year-old David Sheeler (1829–1885) was at the reins of the 18-mule team that hauled the 15-ton locomotive up and over Rockfish Gap via the old Stagecoach Road. On Monday, July 18, starting out at four in the afternoon from the Virginia Central Railroad’s depot at Mechum’s River, it took two hours for the cumbersome load to make its way to Dettor’s Tavern, three miles to the west. A news account noted, “Before arriving at the top of the mountain, a very short turn in the road was reached, and there it was found necessary to ‘jack around’ the rear of the engine in order to get it straight with the long team. Slowly and with stately tread, the mules stepped up the mountain, and then with an equal steadiness, they moved down the slope.”

Sheeler was the right man for the job. He had previously “hauled the first bars for railroad iron west of the Blue Ridge” for the proposed continuation of the Louisa Railroad’s line. With the opening of the Blue Ridge Tunnel to traffic, the last 25 years of his working life were spent as watchman for the tunnel. He lived with his large family in a house directly alongside the tunnel’s east portal where he traversed the 4,237’ rail path six times daily on average, to avert any danger for trains entering the tunnel.

An early 1900s postcard view titled “Main Road, looking east and Blue Ridge Mountains, VA.” The scene gives some idea of the treacherous task assigned David Sheeler in 1853 when he transported a steam locomotive over Rockfish Gap. All of his teamster skills were put to the test as he drove an 18-mule hitch to accomplish the herculean feat. (Courtesy of the Phil James Historical Images Collection)

March 13, 1854, was another historic day. The newspaper reported, “Monday morning the [new railroad] bridge at Waynesborough was tested, and sustained its burden very completely and satisfactorily. Immediately afterwards, the engine ‘Frederick Harris,’ with only a tender—upon which, however, and the engine, there were crowded some 40 or 50 persons—proceeded across the mountain” along recently laid track.”

Charles Ellet Jr., chief engineer of the Virginia Central Railroad, who designed the temporary track over the mountain at Rockfish Gap, was on board for the test trip. He wrote, “The western slope, two miles long, was ascended in 15 minutes, and the eastern slope, of two-and-a-half miles, was descended in 25 minutes. Returning, the entire trip from Greenwood to Waynesborough, 10 1/2 miles, was made in one hour and 19 minutes… It is calculated that in the ordinary working of the road, the distance from Greenwood to Waynesborough will be made in one hour and a half by the passenger train—in two hours by the freight trains.

Frederick Harris was buried at his home Frederick’s Hall that lent its name to the nearby village in Louisa County, VA. His inscription reads, “In Memory of Frederick Harris. The first President of the Louisa County Rail Road Company to whose exertions it is a great measure indebted for its corporate existence. He was born on the 14th day of January 1780 and died on the 9th day of April 1842. Aged 62 years 2 months and 25 days.” (Photo by Anna Elisabeth Porter with sideline support from granddaughter Lila Grace.)

“The road is in very good condition and as ‘permanent’ as any in the state. I think that, instead of the ‘Temporary Track,’ we should call it the ‘Mountaintop Road.’ All it needs, for its successful working, is good machinery and careful men.”

Great feats beget even greater feats, and conjecturers inspire visionaries. In August 1853, the Richmond Dispatch wrote, “The Staunton Spectator, noticing the advent of the locomotive Frederick Harris in the Valley, remarks that it crossed the mountain nearly a century and a half after Governor Spottswood and his gallant band—the ‘Knights of the Golden Horseshoe’—the discoverers of Augusta. Who knows, it says, but what in another century, the flying machine may light upon Rock Fish Gap! A hundred years!—Why, our contemporary is an old fogy. The flying machine will be in operation, we conjecture, before we die, and we expect to visit him in one.”

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
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Secrets of the Blue Ridge © 2003–2019 Phil James


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