Abandoned Rails

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Atlantic Coast Line Railroad

Shops Yard - Richmond, VA





Rails were first laid to the south bank of the James River in Manchester (now Richmond) by the Richmond and Petersburg Railroad in 1838.  The Richmond and Petersburg was also the first railroad to span the James River into Richmond.  Additional information about the bridges over the James River will be incorporated into a separate feature that will encompass the mainline between Byrd Street Station and FA.  In 1898 the Richmond and Petersburg Railroad was consolidated into the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad (ACL). 


The ACL established their switching yard and engine servicing facility across the James River from downtown Richmond.  Known as Shops Yard, the complex was comprised of 10 yard tracks, a single mainline track, and cab engine rip tracks where engines were kept in between assignments. 


Shops' status as the ACL's primary facility in Richmond didn't last very long.  The completion of Broad Street Station in 1919 resulted in the ACL immediately shifting it's passenger trains from Byrd Street Station to Broad Street Station.  Just a few years later in 1924, the ACL transferred all of it's locomotive servicing from Shops Yard to the RF&P's new engine terminal at Acca Yard. 





Despite losing it's mainline status, Shops Yard remained an important facility in two ways.  There were still a large number of customers along the industry laden four miles of the old mainline between Shops and FA that were dependent on rail service.  Other sources of traffic included LCL (Less than Container Load)  freight from the ACL freight station along with transfer jobs to and from Acca Yard. 


A great deal of interchange traffic was also handled by the Shops Yard crews.  The ACL interchanged with both the Southern Railway and the C&O.  There was a steep connection track etched into the hillside below Shops which allowed the ACL and Southern to swap traffic.  After the bridge across the James River was removed in 1970, it created an operational issue for the transfer jobs.  Because of the limited room between the switch to the connection track and the end of the track at the James River, it was common for transfer jobs to consist of seven cars or less. This connection track remained in use into the 1970's. 


Across the James River to the west of Byrd Street Station was a trestle that connected the ACL with C&O's 2nd Street Yard.  The ACL also maintained a spur into the Tredegar Iron Works.  Many ACL employees recalled that trips across the James River bridge were often terrifying, especially if you were riding the cars.  The ACL also operated a transfer job between Shops Yard and the RF&P's Acca Yard.  

Herman Wilkins, a native of Petersburg, worked for the ACL and was the 2nd trick yard clerk at Shops from 1960-63.  During his tenure, employees at Shops Yard included a general yardmaster, night yardmaster, and twelve clerks.  The clerk jobs consisted of a chief clerk, four crew clerks, three yard clerks, three swing job clerks, and a vacation relief clerk. 


A crew sheet dated October 16, 1963 reveals there were six daily jobs calling at Shops.  This included three yard switchers that went on-duty at 7:00 AM, 3:00 PM, and 11:00 PM and were responsible for servicing all of the industries between Shops and FA.  In addition there were also three interchange jobs that called at 7:45 AM, 3:45 PM, and 11:45 PM.  These crews handled interchange traffic with the C&O and Southern in downtown Richmond along with the RF&P at Acca Yard. 


In addition to the yard itself, there were moderate facilities located at Shops.  The focal point of the engine service area was a three-stall roundhouse situated in the northwest quadrant of the property.  In Shops' early years, a wooden coaling tower and water tank were located just west of the roundhouse.  There was also a scale house located behind Martin Chevrolet between Perry and Wall Street.  Crews reported to work at a one story, brick yard office at the south end of the yard between Cowardin Avenue and Semmes Avenue.  The building was located on the west side of the tracks and was situated at street level, thus it overlooked the throat of the yard from an elevation. 


An interesting piece of information I received from a former SCL employee stated that most crews at Shops Yard did not utilize portable radios, although they were available.  The reason for this is that they did not want the Brown Street Yardmaster, who was in charge of the crews, to know what they were doing or where they were.  All movements were conducted under the guise of hand signals and lanterns.  Fuses were even used for long distance couplings.




The Loop Train


As previously noted, the ACL ran a transfer job to the RF&P's Acca Yard.  After the ACL merged with the Seaboard Air Line Railway in 1967 to form the Seaboard Coast Line Railroad (SCL), an extended transfer move or "loop train" as it was known, was created.  The loop train originated at Shops Yard where crews would build a consist that was often 30 to 40 cars long.  A caboose was placed on the south end of the train and it was shoved down the old main to Clopton where it would reverse direction and proceed north to Meadow, then to Acca Yard.

Upon reaching the wye at Acca, the train would go around the west leg and shove back into the yard.  After completing their set off and pick up assignments, the train would then proceed south along the Bellwood Subdivision to Brown Street Yard.

Upon arrival at Brown Street, the yardmaster would assign the crew a track to leave their cars in.  Any cars destined for Shops Yard would be assembled and ready for pick up on a separate track.  The loop train crew would break for lunch prior to departing Brown Street. 

After their meal, the crew would make a reverse move by shoving south on the Bellwood Subdivision alongside Main Street Station.  This was necessary so they could get south of the home signal at Brown Street.  Once clear of the circuit and having received a clear signal, the engineer would waste no time moving the locomotive's throttle to notch 8.  One crew member recalls "It was always fun when you got the signal, because it was wide open to get as much speed as you could to try and climb that steep grade back up the hill to the wye at Acca.  The GP7's and GP9's would transition just about in front of the Brown Street Yard Office, and then would really be making some power (and smoke) when you went by."  Occasionally one of the Brown Street yard jobs would give the loop train a shove up to Brook Road so they could make the grade past Hermitage Road.  The loop train didn't typically stop at Acca on the return trip, as the Brown Street crews would usually handle any transfer moves between there and Acca.

Upon returning to Shops, the crews would tie the train down in the yard, cut off the power and place it in the engine track.  The next shift of yard crews would be responsible for sorting out the consist and delivering the cars to various customers along the line between Shops and FA.   




Final Years


After the formation of the SCL, Shops Yard became a redundant facility and was for all purposes left "as is" with virtually no maintenance ever performed.  By the 1970's, the yard tracks at Shops were in absolutely deplorable condition.  Derailments in the yard were frequent, and there were few spikes actually holding the rails to the rotted crossties according to one former SCL employee.  That same gentleman recalls his engine going on the the ground many times due to poor track conditions.


By the mid-1980's the City of Richmond began making plans to replace the original Robert E. Lee Bridge built in 1934.  This was the closing act for Shops Yard.  In conjunction with the new bridge, plans called for the bridge approaches and right of way on the south side of the James River to undergo a major realignment.  Part of the realignment included the elimination of the bridges that carried Semmes Avenue and Cowardin Avenue over south end of Shops Yard.  The bridges and yard office were demolished in 1988 and the entire area was filled in, resulting in a completely new intersection which left the area unrecognizable from just a few years prior.  The new Robert E. Lee Bridge was completed in 1989. 


If you visit the site of Shops Yard today, don't expect to find much.  In the late 1990's a large office complex, now occupied by Sun Trust Bank, was built on what used to be the north end of the yard.  The remaining  area is an empty field quickly being reclaimed by Mother Nature.  There are however two remants of Shops still visible.  A lone pole stands in the grass where Railroad Avenue and Riverside Drive merge to form an entrance ramp to the Manchester Bridge.  In fact, this pole is visible in a 1937 photograph of the yard.  There is also a metal shed in the wooded area below Cowardin Avenue that was part of the engine servicing facility. 


Jeff Hawkins

September 2011






Copyright 2002- | Jeff Hawkins

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