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Photo by Joe Tennis
For nearly seven miles, the Virginia Blue Ridge Railway Trail overlooks the Piney and Tye rivers. The trail also crosses Naked Creek on a newly built covered bridge.
Built quickly, the Virginia Blue Ridge Railway should have been one of those temporary timber trains that pulsed through the mountains of the Blue Ridge then died out in a few months – or maybe a few years. The railroad was built in 1915 across Amherst and Nelson counties and hauled virgin chestnut trees just ahead of a fast-moving blight.
Steam engines puffed. Passengers boarded railcars. But, almost as soon as operations began, this railroad had to be shut down during World War I when the government declared it unnecessary to the war effort.
The railroad got started again. But when the war was over, so were many of those blighted chestnut trees. Still, this railroad rambled on, as it curiously proved to do – against all odds, year after year, even as floods hit the tracks along the Piney and Tye rivers.
A mill shut down. The tracks to Woodson were scrapped.
Then came the Great Depression. That surely should have been the end. But, ironically, the bleak years of the 1930s turned out to be a new beginning. First, a new plant opened near the tracks to extract titanium dioxide from ilmenite ore. Then a strange discovery was made. This old logging line had been built near one of the biggest aplite deposits in the United States. And that ore of quartz and feldspar – used for making glass – inspired another plant to come aboard in 1939.
By the 1950s, that railroad that was once barely running turned out to be quite profitable. It also uniquely continued to use steam engines through the 1960s, long after others switched to diesel power.
Then came “The Flood.” Hurricane Camille took aim at the Virginia Blue Ridge Railway in 1969 – and forced so much water into creeks that the railroad bridge on the Tye River moved one foot downstream. That bridge was repaired, and the railroad kept going – until it was ultimately abandoned in the early 1980s. By then, it had been dubbed “the longest-running, commerically successful short line in America.”
Today, a section of the old railroad corridor has been converted into the Virginia Blue Ridge Railway Trail – thanks to the foresight of Steve and Popie Martin. These Amherst County residents bought the long and linear railroad property that bordered their farm. Then they donated that land to the public for biking, hiking and horseback riding.
On a bright summer’s day, equine enthusiast Barbara Allen of nearby Stoney Creek pauses by the banks of the Piney River with her horse. “In the summertime, the shade is just divine,” Allen says. “It’s just so beautiful.”
For nearly seven miles, the Virginia Blue Ridge Railway Trail overlooks the Piney and Tye rivers. The trail crosses Naked Creek on a newly built covered bridge. A railroad tip car stands at the trail’s terminus near what was once an old scale house.
“Technically, the trail is done, but, you know, it’s never quite done,” says Emily Harper, the director of parks and recreation for Virginia’s Nelson County. “Right now, there’s an Eagle Scout who’s working on four benches to add. We’d like a bench every quarter-mile, at least.” F
Want to read more? Joe Tennis’s new book, “Virginia Rail Trails: Crossing the Commonwealth” ($19.99, The History Press, 2014, 272 pp.), is an illustrated history and guide to 45 rails turned to trails, including the Virginia Creeper Trail, New River Trail, Chessie Nature Trail, Jackson River Scenic Trail, Huckleberry Trail, Guest River Gorge and the Virginia Blue Ridge Railway Trail.