Breezes of change were just beginning to swirl in 1823 when 33-year-old Claudius Crozet resigned his professorship at West Point Academy and was sworn in on April 9 as principal engineer for the State of Virginia. The Virginia Board of Public Works, whose internal improvements were centered primarily on river locks and highways, directed much of Crozet’s efforts toward surveying and mapping for the same in the western part of the Commonwealth, beyond the Blue Ridge and Allegheny Mountains.
The country took notice in 1825 when the Erie Canal opened to traffic in New York. Word arrived from England that same year when George Stevenson’s steam locomotive contraption successfully carried its first public passengers. In a report to his board in 1826, Crozet pondered a merging of the two soon-to-be competing transportation modes. Shortly thereafter, proponents of each began to lobby their preferences. One ambitiously suggested a rail line connecting Richmond with the Ohio River.
By 1830, Crozet, having closely followed the advancements of steam-powered rail systems, formally recommended their use where most practical to augment Virginia’s water canal system. The state was falling behind her neighbors, he said, in terms of internal improvements. He pointed blame at a politically driven middle-of-the-stream approach that refused to rely on the abilities and experience of the very engineers whom they had employed. Then he reiterated his recommendation “that a railroad operated by steam would be the most suitable method of transportation from the head of the river navigation to the Kanawha River.”
William Couper, Crozet’s first biographer, described this moment as “Crozet’s grand conception of 1830.”
“Here we see the perils of the pioneer,” he wrote. “No steam railroad had operated in the United States when Crozet unfolded his farsighted and unprecedented project. With that speedy perception we call genius, he beheld the solution of the great engineering problem [of river locks and dams] on which he had labored for so many years… Crozet, the master of physical and mechanical laws and forces, was opposed by a brilliant Virginian some twelve years his senior—a polished writer, speaker and politician of high attainments—Joseph Carrington Cabell … [who wielded] great influence with people of the state …”
Cabell’s canal policy won out. As a result, the Board of Public Works was reorganized in 1831. With “a direct slap at Crozet,” it decided that the principal engineer would be elected annually, and, going forth, with a salary reduced by 30%. Six months later, Crozet submitted his resignation. At the close of 1831, Claudius Crozet closed this chapter of his life. Virginia’s loss became Louisiana’s gain.
As the adage states, “You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.” For the next six years, Crozet added to his engineering experiences while Virginia shuffled sideways with the consequences of politicians directing the internal improvements of the state.
In 1835, interested citizens met at Louisa Courthouse to gauge support for the establishment of a railroad to traverse their landlocked region of the state. Investors stepped up to support the forward-thinking leaders and, in 1836, the Louisa Railroad was chartered with Frederick Harris as its first president. By 1837, Virginia’s Board of Public Works decided to follow the private money and to subscribe to that railroad’s stock.
In a second stroke of good judgment, the state extended an offer of employment to a former engineer heralded as the one who had established “the system that made her mountain roads the best… under more adverse conditions than any man who ever lived in our country…” It was their good fortune when Col. Claudius Crozet accepted the offer.
By the close of 1838, the Louisa Railroad operated between Hanover Junction (Doswell) and Louisa. Much wrangling followed to decide between Gordonsville and Charlottesville as the point from which the line would continue westward to Harrisonburg.
In his annual report to the Board of Public Works in 1839, Crozet wrote, “A railroad of great importance has been extended to Louisa Courthouse, and is in progress to Gordonsville. [Regarding] its further extension to Staunton, the great difficulty consists in the passage of the Blue Ridge. Our surveys have indicated that the most favorable pass is at Rockfish Gap.”
It would be 1848 before the laying of track would proceed over, under or around that great Blue Ledge looming on the western skyline. Special interests dominated discussions between a northern route to Harrisonburg via Powell’s or Swift Run Gap, preferred by Greene and Rockingham counties, or the southern route to Staunton through western Albemarle’s Rockfish, Jarman’s, Turk’s, Paine’s Run (Black Rock), or Brown’s Gap, preferred by advocates in Albemarle and Augusta.
The Staunton Convention took place in 1846, bringing together the principal players to hear presentations of data and figures gathered to date. Newspapers relayed the proceedings along with spin their readerships wished to hear. The whine emanating for some time from Charlottesville was given voice by that town’s newspaper The Jeffersonian: “We learn from one of our delegates that the general opinion among the members was, that the probable route for the extension of this Railroad will be from Stanardsville to the vicinity of Bowcocke’s, about ten miles North of Charlottesville, and thence to Payne’s Run, by Brown’s Gap in this county.
“The Jeffersonian states: that the citizens of Charlottesville will not take a great interest in the improvement if this route be selected; and urging that the road should have at first been extended in the direction of Charlottesville, instead of Gordonsville; and remarks that, ‘A Railroad to be profitable and beneficial, must terminate as well as begin at a large town, and not begin in a large city and end in the wilderness, as the Louisa Railroad now does.’”
The most convincing voice ultimately was that of Louisa Railroad’s own civil engineer W.A. Kuper, who laid out in detail the decided advantage of the southern route at Rockfish Gap, echoing Crozet’s findings from seven years earlier. Kuper stated, “Let me add in conclusion, that your road is to occupy a prominent position in the scale of public improvements, and is destined to effect a complete revolution in the prosperity of Virginia …”
With renewed vigor, the Louisa Railroad swung toward the south from Gordonsville, and, in 1850, changed its name to the Virginia Central Railroad Company, reflecting its greater influence and goals. The mighty Ohio River was waiting, and they finally had a plan to get there.
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