History of the Norfolk and Western Railroad

The Norfolk & Western Railroad (commonly known as the N&W) was a legendary railroad whose legacy lives on today. Its rich history and reputation were built on nicknames such as King Coal and becoming famous for manufacturing its own steam locomotives and hopper cars. The N&W was also the last major railroad in the United States to use steam locomotives before retiring them by the end of 1965.

Like many other iconic railroads, mergers were a significant part of N&W’s history. The company was involved in over 200 of them during its lifetime!

Let’s look at other key moments and events from the rich history of the N&W Railroad.

Predecessors of the N&W Railroad

The N&W Railroad’s earliest predecessor was the City Point Railroad (CPRR), established in 1838. In 1854, this railroad became part of the South Side Railroad, which connected with the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad (V&T) at Lynchburg, Virginia.

Around the same time, in 1853, the Norfolk and Petersburg (N&P) Railroad was established, with building completed in 1858.

The N&P suffered a similar fate to many railroads during the American Civil War, suffering significant damage and being controlled by different sides at varying times. The South Side Railroad also suffered heavy damage during the Civil War, although the eastern portion of the old CPRR was a vital asset for the Union during the Siege of Petersburg.

Early years as the N&W Railroad

Following the Civil War, William Mahone, who had built the N&P Railroad, set to work restoring his railroad. Mahone dreamt of linking the main trunk lines across Virginia to reach the west. He achieved this by becoming president of all three railroads, leading to the 1870 merger of N&P, the South Side Railroad, and the V&T to form the Atlantic, Mississippi and Ohio Railroad (AM&O).

While this railroad was profitable in its early years, it soon fell into trouble. These events would eventually lead to the reorganization of AM&O into the Norfolk & Western Railroad in 1881.

Taking advantage of the coal boom

N&W railroad earned its King Coal nickname during the coal boom from the mid-1880s to the Great Depression. The railroad even bought and reorganized the Flat-Top Coal Land Association into the Pocahontas Coal and Coke Company (PCCC).

Coal towns throughout southern West Virginia flourished through these years, and wealth and affluence became concentrated in these areas. In 1886, N&W railroad extended its tracks to reach the coal piers at Lambert’s Point in Norfolk County to support the growing demand for coal and its services. The railroad also helped to develop a residential section to house coal workers and their families.

The N&W railroad was one of the most successful and profitable railroads throughout the early 20th century. Unlike many of its counterparts, it remained profitable through both World Wars and consistently paid dividends to shareholders throughout the Great Depression.

The “merger era”

The period from the mid-1950s to 1980 became known as N&Ws merger era. While mergers were a feature of the railroad’s operations throughout its lifetime, they were particularly prolific during this period.

  • In 1955, N&W completed the acquisition of the Virginian Railway.
  • In 1964, N&W completed one of the most complex mergers railroading has ever seen in the United States, consolidating four railroads into its system. This move allowed N&W to add a more direct route into Chicago and allowed N&W to provide a direct service connecting the Atlantic coast with the Great Lakes and Mississippi River.
  • In the late 1960s, N&W bought Dereco, the owner of the Delaware and Hudson, and Erie Lackawanna railroads. N&W later sold these railroads without ever merging them into its system.
  • In 1981, while still operating independently, N&W acquired the Illinois Terminal railroad.

The N&W Railroad today

N&W railroad merged with Southern Railway in 1980 to create the Norfolk Southern Corporation. Both railroads continued to operate separately for the next two years before Southern Railway was renamed Norfolk Southern railway in 1982. The Norfolk Southern Corporation subsequently transferred N&W to the newly named company, and the merger was complete.

N&W’s rich heritage as a coal transporter continues through its modern iteration as Norfolk Southern. In addition, the PCCC is now the Pocahontas Land Corporation and remains a subsidiary of Norfolk Southern. As a result, today’s railroad remains one of our country’s largest coal transporters while also being a leading player in the movement of automotive parts and vehicles across the country.

The company’s headquarters are close to the Lambert’s Point coal piers, which were instrumental to N&W’s success in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Add N&W railroad rolling stock to your collection with Model Train Stuff!

If you love the history of the N&W railroad or want to add another reporting mark to your collection, we have a broad range of N&W products here at Model Train Stuff.

Here are three of our favorite pieces.

Athearn HO Covered Hoppers, Norfolk And Western

Produced to have the look and feel of in-service rolling stock, the hopper cars in this three-pack will look great being pulled through your railroad by an N&W locomotive or any other engine in your collection. They’re great if you love customizing your collection, too, giving you a perfect blank canvas for adding your own weathering, grime, rust, graffiti, or anything else.

Lionel O 2226930 2-Bay Hoppers, Norfolk And Western (2)

This twin pack of Lionel hopper cars is based on those used in the early 20th century when the N&W railroad was at the height of its power carrying coal across the country. The coal is removable, too, so if you have other cargo to move around your railroad, these hopper cars can do the job for you. The detail on these cars is exceptional, and they’re another product all set for you to get to work with your own customizations.

Walthers Mainline HO Double Door Auto Parts Box Car, Norfolk And Western

This imposing yet slick-looking box car is based on cars seen on N&W and later Norfolk Southern from the 1960s through to the 2000s. The working side doors make it easy for you to load and unload cargo once your train reaches its destination, and the car features stylish modern detailing and wheels. Or check out other N&W rolling stock!

Shop the Banner Photo Engine and Passenger Car

Remember to show us your railroad!

Ready to add the N&W to your model railroading collection? Once your favorite N&W products are rolling through your landscape, remember to take a picture and tag us on Instagram!

Happy railroading!