|Almost immediately after the end of the war efforts to
bring about the building a railroad line were renewed. In 1865, the governments of
Virginia and West Virginia united their efforts to promote the building of the western
railroad expansion. In August of that year a contract was made with the Virginia Central
Railway Company to undertake the construction of the line. In 1868 the merger of the
Virginia Central and the Covington & Ohio railroads created a new railroad called the
Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad Company (C&O). Greatly in need of financial support for
the new road, the C&O's President, William C. Wickham, managed to interest Collis P.
Huntington, a member of the so called "Big Four", in the C&O expansion
project. With the financial backing of Huntington and his associates secured, the
construction of the C&O's extension through West Virginia began in 1869.
The construction of a railroad through the rugged terrain
of the area during the era of the mid-1800's proved to be a difficult task. In the years
before the invention of the steam shovel, jack hammers and other modern construction
tools, the construction of the many fills, cuts and tunnels the route required was
performed by men using picks and shovels, supplemented by mules and wagons. The majority
of the laborers hired for the job were said to be newly freed black slaves from Virginia,
while many of workers on the Engineering Corps were retired officers from the Union and
Confederate forces. One of the C&O's major construction projects during the course of
building the rail line was the construction of the Big Bend Tunnel at Talcott, WV. This
mile and half long tunnel was the site where the legendary John Henry is said to have
engaged in a contest against a steam-powered drill.
January 29, 1873, following four years of ponderous work, the railroad construction crews
working eastward met with their counterparts that had been building westward at a point
about three-fourths of a mile east of Fayette Station on the north side of the Gorge. The
formidable task of completing the rail line was at last achieved. Later that day, a
special train loaded with distinguished guests and officials of the C&O, that had left
Richmond, Va. on January 23, 1873, arrived at the Hawk's Nest railroad bridge, where a
ceremonial observance of the driving of the last spike took place to officially dedicate
the completion of the rail line. The train continued on after the ceremony, reaching
Huntington later the same day, where a gala celebration was planned. Although many
contemporary historians have written about the great ceremony that took place in
Huntington that night, the Huntington Herald Dispatch reported a very different
story. According to the newspaper's account, a failure occurred along the route of the
telegraph wires, and word of the train expected arrival time did not reach the City of
Huntington in time. When the special train arrived at the Huntington Station, a very small
number of people were on hand to greet the train and its guests, on that very cold and
damp night in January.
The C&O's westward expansion was completed at a cost of
$23,394,263.69, a enormous amount of money for that period of time. The railroad line was
not open to freight traffic until March of 1873 with passenger service being started on
April 1st of that year. However, it was not until June that trains could run with
regularity. The completion of the line had been somewhat rushed. In places along the route
temporary or makeshift methods of construction had been utilized. Following the official
opening of the line several sections of track had to be relaid. Many permanent fills and
retaining walls were not constructed until after the rail line was completed.
During these early years of operation the C&O
experienced constant problems with rock slides blocking it's tracks. A huge rock slide
that occurred in 1875 that blocked all rail traffic for three weeks. For many years, the
line was not very profitable. Although a good amount of freight was being hauled by the
railroad operational problems and costs cut into the company's profits. Adding to the
company long list of problems was the fact that the even the most "modern"
locomotives in use during this early period were tiny and not very powerful. In 1878 the
Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad was sold under foreclosure and reorganized as the
Chesapeake and Ohio Railway Company, with Collis P. Huntington assuming the office
of President of the reorganized road.
Despite all of the difficulties experienced by the
railroad, the completion of the line had allowed the development of the coal industry in
the New River Gorge to begin. The first shipment of coal via the railroad was made by the
New River Coal Company from it's Quinnimont mine in September of 1873. By the end of the
century, coal would become the commodity of greatest importance to the C&O, a great
portion of which was being produced by mines located in Fayette County.