Abandoned Rails


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The N&W's Bluestone Branch

 

 

Photo Gallery - The Bluestone Branch Today    

Photo Gallery - 1957 NRHS Excursion to Matoaka

Photo Gallery - Ballast Extra on the Bluestone Branch - 1985

Photo Gallery - Delivering Rolling Stock to Bramwell - 1995

Map - Bluestone Branch & Adjoining Branch Lines

 

 

History & Overview

 

When the N&W penetrated the Bluestone River Valley in the early 1880's, they did so less than 10 miles northwest of Bluefield, WV near Bluestone.  Originating along the Pocahontas District mainline, the switch for the branch was located less than a quarter mile west of Bluestone Junction at mile N374.1.  From here the Bluestone Branch extended just over 17 miles to Giatto, near Matoaka in Mercer County.  As you will soon read, prior to 1902 the segment of the branch between Bluestone Junction and Coopers was in fact the N&W's mainline to Flat Top Tunnel for a number of years. 

 

The Bluestone Branch served as a major artery in the funneling of coal from the scores of mines located along or near it's tracks, to the N&W mainline.  As the branch was extended westward past Coopers and Bramwell in the late 1800's, many other branch and spur lines evolved.  When it was all said and done, the evolution of the Bluestone Branch from Coopers to Matoaka and points west took nearly 20 years. 

 

It may come as a surprise that much of the branch was constructed with little to no grade.  The one exception being the three miles east of Matoaka between the 12 and 15 mileposts or Rock and Widemouth Tunnel No. 2.  In this segment the westbound grade averages 1.07% for three miles with the grade exceeding 1.3% in many places.   

 

Located between Simmons and Duhring was Clift Yard, a small marshalling yard where coal loads from the various spurs and branches were assembled.  Clift Yard functioned much like Flat Top Yard, located on the Pocahontas District mainline between Falls Mills and Bluestone, does in modern times.  From Clift, the loaded coal trains were dispatched to Bluefield.  For many years this was done under the power of the N&W's electric locomotives since the Bluestone Branch was electrified as far west at Clift Yard.    

 

For much of the early 20th Century movements to and from the Bluestone Branch off the mainline were controlled by the tower operator at Bluestone Junction. 

 

The N&W served the communities along the Bluestone Branch with a daily passenger train.  Stations were located at Bramwell, Simmons, Montcalm, and Matoaka.  The train would originate in Bluefield and operate to Matoaka.  It would return east down the branch after turning on the wye at Giatto.  Passenger service on the Bluestone Branch ended in 1953.  In later years N&W assigned a "B" designation to the branch, thus the mileposts are identified as B1 through B17. 

 

 

Branch Lines

 

Mill Creek Branch - This line diverged from the Bluestone Branch at Coopers and meandered up Flat Top Mountain along Mill Creek at a 3% grade where it served several mine operations.  When construction of Flat Top Tunnel began in 1887, the branch was extended to the east portal and served as part of the mainline over the mountain for the next 14 years.  In 1902 the "low grade" route was built between Bluestone Junction and Flat Top Tunnel.  This included the construction of Coopers Tunnel and a large trestle across the valley at Coopers.  The low grade route was initially laid as a single track line with a 1.6% grade.  Given the amount of traffic, the track of the former Mill Creek Branch was still needed to accommodate traffic.  Because of this, improvements were made in order to reduce the grade from 3% to 2.23%.  The line was most often utilized by eastbound traffic whereas westbound trains ran over the low grade line.  The two tracks joined together at both the east portal of Flat Top Tunnel and also at what is today the switch for the Bluestone Branch off the Pocahontas District mainline near the east portal of Coopers Tunnel.  In the early 1920's the low grade line was upgraded to double track.  This resulted in through traffic no longer needing to operate over the former Mill Creek Branch trackage.  When construction began on Elkhorn Tunnel in the late 1940's, the entire Mill Creek Branch was abandoned as it laid in the path of the proposed right of way.  It was eventually covered over by the massive fill required for the new Coopers Trestle that was also built in conjunction with the Elkhorn Tunnel project.  Elkhorn Tunnel opened to traffic in 1950 along with the new (current) bridge at Coopers.  Today the only remnant of the Mill Creek Branch is a large stone bridge abutment in the Bluestone River just west of Coopers Trestle.  Several stone supports of the original Coopers Trestle are also visible in the Bluestone River.   

 

Simmons Creek Branch - Extended three miles west from it's junction with the Bluestone Branch at Freeman, or where US 52 crosses the Bluestone Branch.  Concrete bridge abutments are still visible just south of the US 52 overpass where the Simmons Creek Branch spanned the Bluestone River.  The tracks paralleled US 52 much of the way up Flat Top Mountain.  Even today there are remnants of several coke ovens are easily visible from the highway. 

 

Crane Creek Branch - The Crane Creek Branch was constructed in 1901 and diverged from the Bluestone Branch at Montcalm.  In fact, the switch for this line off the Bluestone Branch was never removed and still exists in Montcalm near Methodist Hill Road.  The branch followed Crane Creek for a distance of five miles to Mannering (McComas) and passed through the communities of Godfrey and Crystal. 

 

Flipping Creek Branch - Left the Bluestone Branch at Duhring and followed Flipping Creek until terminating a short distance northwest of Goodwill.  Like the Simmons Creek Branch, the bridge abutments are still visible where the line crossed the Bluestone River at Duhring. 

 

 

Giatto Wye, Left & Right Fork - Widemouth Branch

 

According to N&W and Norfolk Southern timetables, the Bluestone Branch ends at Giatto some 17.58 miles from Bluestone Junction.  It was here at the headwaters of Widemouth Creek that two branch lines originated and a wye was built.   

 

The line venturing off the the left follows the Left Fork of Widemouth Creek and was therefore aptly called the Left Fork - Widemouth Branch.  The line passed through Weyanoke and terminated near Lamar which is approximately three miles from Giatto.  Given that Lamar was in such close proximity to Clark's Gap, the N&W had considered for a number of years to extend the trackage

 

Diverging from the wye in a northerly direction was the Righthand Fork - Widemouth Branch.  This line extended just over five miles from Giatto to Arista and was paralleled by Route 10 for much of the distance.  There were two spurs that fed the Righthand Fork.  The tipple at Piedmont was served by the two mile long Big Branch Spur which followed Big Branch down to Smokeless.  As surprising as it may be, the switch at Smokeless along with most of the Big Branch Spur to Piedmont still exists.  Another spur left the Righthand Fork just west of Springton and traveled up the hollow past Wenonah. 

 

It is interesting to note both the Righthand Fork - Widemouth Branch and Big Branch Spur were listed in the 2005 Norfolk Southern track charts with milepost designations of BA and BB respectively.  Both fell under the category of "discontinued lines". 

 

Remaining evidence of these lines consists of the wye at Giatto along with much of the Right Fork trackage.  Not much remains of the Left Fork beyond Weyanoke where the Virginian crosses overhead. 

 

 

Expanding Westward

 

After just a few years of operating in the Bluestone River Valley, the N&W began searching for a new route to expand westward into the vast, untapped coal fields of southern West Virginia.  By 1885 three potential routes had been identified.  Two of those three were directly linked to the Bluestone Branch. 

 

Both the Mill Creek and Simmons Creek Branches were being looked at to execute a route across and through Flat Top Mountain.  Also under evaluation was the Crane Creek Branch.  Plans called for extending the line west to Pinnacle Creek and then to the Guyandotte River near Pineville.  A third route involved the Pocahontas Branch.  Currently I am working on a page for this line and hope to have it online later this year. 

 

After careful consideration and research, a contract was awarded on February 1, 1887 to begin grading the right of way from the western terminus of the Mill Creek Branch to a location along Elkhorn Creek near the present day communities of Maybeury and Switchback.  This project resulted in the construction of Flat Top Tunnel which opened in 1888 and was the predecessor to the current Elkhorn Tunnel.  

 

In addition to the N&W's desire to cross Flat Top Mountain, the company was also plotting a way to penetrate Clark's Gap via the Left Fork - Widemouth Branch.  Official company documents indicate that surveying of the Clark's Gap area took place into the late 1920's when efforts were abandoned.  By that point in time the Virginian Railway had already established a successful route over Clark's Gap and preliminary merger talks between the two companies had begun.

 

 

Final Years & Current Status 

 

The last coal loads on the Bluestone Branch came from an operation along the Crane Creek Branch in McComas in 1984.   At the time service ended, the entire branch was rated for 10 mph.  The last move over the line west of Coopers was in 1996 when NS delivered several cars to Bramwell for static display. 

 

Norfolk Southern currently uses the first mile and a half for the storage of excess cars.  Coal loads are also frequently spotted being stored here as well.    In recent years auto racks have been seen stored on the branch as well.  At Matoaka, maintenance of way equipment has also been seen parked on Bluestone Branch trackage near the connection track to the Princeton-Deepwater District (ex-Virginian).  Ownership of the right of way still belongs to Norfolk Southern and the Bluestone Branch was listed in their 2005 track charts as a "discontinued line".  

 

Throughout the 1990's and into the 21st Century, a number of theories and rumors have been circulating regarding the Bluestone Branch's future.  Many speculate the branch was left intact for two primary reasons.  The first is due to the fact that it connects both of the Norfolk Southern mainlines (Pocahontas and Princeton-Deepwater Districts) in the area and could be used as a connecting route in an emergency or if future business warrants the need to do so.  This leads to the second thesis that one or more of the old mines along the route could be reactivated and would require rail service. 

 

While anything is possible, it is not likely that the branch will see service anytime soon.  At many of the grade crossings the track has either removed or paved over and overgrowth is rapidly claiming portions of the right of way beyond recognition.  In addition the nearly 20 bridges would require at the very least a thorough structural inspection and coat of paint, possibly major repairs or even replacement in cases.  There are also two tunnels along the route that would require also require inspection and most likely reinforcement.  It has been documented in recent years that Widemouth Tunnel No. 2 has experienced debris falling from the tunnel ceiling, particularly near the east portal. 

 

Jeff Hawkins

October 2010

 

 

 

Bibliography

 

Wilson, Charles H., Jr., "The Bluestone Branch Revisited", The Arrow, November/December 2001

Wilson, Charles H., Jr., "Bluestone Junction", The Arrow, March/April 2002

Nichols, Jim, "Exploring the Bluestone Branch", The Arrow, May/June 2001

Norfolk Southern Corporation, Track Charts - Pocahontas Division, 2005

http://safetydata.fra.dot.gov/OfficeofSafety/PublicSite/Crossing/Crossing.aspx

http://www.bramwellwv.com

 

 

Copyright 2002- | Jeff Hawkins

All copyrights are the property of their respective owners.