The N&W's Bluestone
The Bluestone Branch Today
Photo Gallery -
1957 NRHS Excursion to Matoaka
Extra on the Bluestone Branch - 1985
Delivering Rolling Stock to Bramwell
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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 &
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
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.
Wilson, Charles H., Jr.,
"The Bluestone Branch Revisited", The Arrow,
Wilson, Charles H., Jr.,
"Bluestone Junction", The Arrow, March/April 2002
Nichols, Jim, "Exploring
the Bluestone Branch", The Arrow, May/June 2001
Corporation, Track Charts - Pocahontas Division,