The History of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway

The Chesapeake and Ohio Railway (C&O) was one of the most prominent East Coast freight haulers of the 20th Century. Operating in eight states at its peak, this historic railroad built a legacy which still impacts freight transportation to this day. 

The first operations of a company which would eventually become part of the mighty C&O can be traced to a canal operation known as the James River & Kanawha Canal Company, which was founded in 1785. Like many railroads of the day, the C&O wasn’t simply the evolution of one railroad, instead being the result of several mergers and acquisitions. One of these was the Richmond and Alleghany Railroad, which was formed as a replacement for said canal as transportation evolved. The C&O merged with the Richmond and Alleghany in 1889, making this the technical earliest predecessor, however the railroad was already established by this point, bringing with it its own interesting history. 

Origins of the C&O Railway

In 1836 the Louisa Railroad Company was incorporated with the goal of providing a western feeder connection to the Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac Railroad, which ran between Washington DC and Richmond, Virginia. The route was no easy build however, with the mighty Blue Ridge Mountains standing in the way of westward expansion. 

With the assistance of public funding released in 1849 (in the form of the Blue Ridge Railroad, which oversaw construction), the Louisa Railroad was able to cross the Blue Ridge Mountains by way of massive earthworks and tunnel construction. One of these tunnels, simply known as the Blue Ridge Tunnel, was heralded as the longest railroad tunnel in the world at the time, standing at 4,273 feet in length. Renamed the Virginia Central Railroad to reflect its greater reach, the route continued to forge west until construction was abruptly halted by the Civil War in 1861.  

Due to its ability to efficiently transport goods and people from the lush farmland of the Shenandoah Valley to the city of Richmond, the Virginia Central became an integral asset to the Confederate forces. So heavily used was the line, that the track fell into disrepair due to maintenance work being unable to keep up with demand. The route was also successfully damaged on several occasions by Union raids. By the end of the war, the railroad required extensive rebuilding, with just five miles of operable track left intact.  

Collis P. Huntingdon

As postwar expansion continued, company president Williams Carter Wickham brought in Collis P. Huntingdon to assist in the development and financial recovery of the Virginia Central. Huntingdon was already involved in the building of the Transcontinental Railroad, and saw the rapidly growing line as an enticing prospect for connecting the under-construction transcontinental rail network with the eastern seaboard.  

In July 1867, the railroad completed construction to Covington, Virginia, where it was able to connect with the halted and incomplete Covington & Ohio Railroad. The two companies formally merged to create the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad the following year, and the C&O continued west utilizing the Covington and Ohio’s right of way.  

Work on extending the C&O continued for several more years, allowing the route to reach White Sulphur Springs in West Virginia, until the Panic of 1873 brought an abrupt end to westward expansion, with the railroad falling into receivership by 1878. Concurrently, Huntingdon abandoned his plans of linking the route with the Transcontinental Railroad.

Establishment of Coal Shipments

With westward expansion no longer a priority, the railroad instead turned its focus to the east. The independent city of Newport News was developed by Huntingdon in a strategic move to construct a port for shipping coal (the railroad’s most lucrative commodity) from the railroad’s western points to the major cities of the north and overseas. Today Newport News has expanded into a major commercial center on Virginia’s coast, and shipping and ship-building remain a crucial part of the region’s economy, with military shipbuilder Huntingdon Ingalls Industries continuing the Collis P. Huntingdon legacy.

Huntingdon’s Exit and Continued Growth

An 1888 reorganization would see Huntingdon and Wickham cease involvement with the C&O, with the route catching the attention of JP Morgan and William K. Vanderbilt.

The following year, the Richmond and Allegheny Railroad (formerly the James River & Kanawha Canal Company) merged into the C&O. During this time, the railroad recommenced expansion into the midwest, eventually connecting to the Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago, and St. Louis Railroad.

Mergers and Growth in the Early 20th Century

Expansion of the C&O system continued throughout the early 20th century, while the existing system underwent a substantial rebuilding for higher capacity trains and operational efficiency.

In 1910, the C&O completed a merger with the Chicago, Cincinnati, and Louisville Railroad, while also buying controlling interests in the Kanawha & Michigan (K&M) and Hocking Valley Railway lines. The purchase of these lines led to massive expansion in the midwest, and gained the C&O direct access to Chicago. However the establishment of antitrust laws would eventually lead the C&O to relinquish their interest in the K&M.

By 1920 the railroad had developed major inroads in the midwest, with operations including more than 10,000 miles of track in eight eastern and midwestern states.

C&O Passenger Services

Unlike other large operators of the 20th century, the C&O wasn’t heavily invested in passenger operations. They did however operate a selection of well known and luxurious services, with trains like the George Washington and the Sportman becoming much loved by travelers. It was in marketing for the smooth ride on these services that the iconic Chessie Cat was born, with advertising for their services featuring the classic image with the tagline “Sleep Like a Kitten”.

Although passenger service was considered second to freight on the C&O, innovation during the streamliner era still occurred. Several 1920s era Hudson type steam locomotives were rebuilt with striking Art Deco inspired cladding in the 1940s, while the railroad also experimented with massive streamlined steam turbine locomotives before adopting a fleet of first generation EMD diesels.  

Later 20th Century and Consolidation Into CSX

Following World War II, the C&O continued to remain profitable and financially stable.

One of the most significant developments for the railroad was the 1947 merging of the Pere Marquette Railway (PM) into the system. This acquisition would help to diversify the C&O’s traffic, with the PM holding a considerable presence in the automotive shipping industry thanks to its upper midwestern network. Automotive haulage would eventually account for 50% of all C&O’s rail transportation revenue and would help to ensure continued profitability as the demand for coal began to fall. 

In 1963 the C&O undertook another key merger, becoming the controlling interest in the famed Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. Both companies would continue to operate autonomously for another decade, despite being marketed with similar styling. It wasn’t until 1973, upon the merger of the Western Maryland Railway, that both companies would formally fall under the C&O brand, becoming part of the Chessie System, named for the railroad’s former passenger mascot and incorporating a stylized version of the Chessie Cat in the new logo. 

The Chessie System brand lasted until 1987, when the railroad merged with the Family Lines System (itself made up of a merger between the Louisville and Nashville and the Seaboard System) to become CSX. This final merger would secure the railroad’s future as a major class one operator into the 21st century.   

Bringing the C&O to Your Model Railroad

With a great selection of items available across multiple scales, you can bring the legendary C&O to your model railroad with ease!

From classic steam locomotives of the early 20th century, to the massive Kanawha and iconic yellow and blue rolling stock, there’s something for every era of C&O history here at!