Abandoned Rails

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The N&W's Pocahontas Branch


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Although it was one of the shortest branch lines on the Norfolk & Western Railway, the first loads of coal from the Pocahontas coal region were hauled out  on this 4.6 mile piece of railroad.  The branch line followed Laurel Creek south from it's confluence with the Bluestone River, , spanning the creek  a total of five times.  While coal mining began here in 1882, the N&W didn't complete the railroad into Pocahontas until March 10, 1883.  The first car load of coal was hauled out two days later.  By the end of 1883 over 105,000 tons of coal had been hauled over the N&W to Norfolk. 


On May 12, 1904 the N&W chartered the Pocahontas & Western Railroad with plans of extended the railroad south from Pocahontas to connect with the Iaeger & Southern which was building a line south from Iaeger along the Dry Fork  This line is today's Norfolk Southern Dry Fork Branch.  By linking up with the Iaeger & Southern, the N&W would be afforded an additional route between Bluefield and Iaeger.  The plan never materialized and rails were only laid as far south as Boissevain.  This segment became operational in May 1907.  An additional portion of the proposed right of way was graded for over three miles beyond Boissevain, but work was never completed.  Ultimately the charter for the Pocahontas & Western was dissolved on December 23, 1912 and the 3.29 mile line was sold to the N&W. 


Geographically speaking the Pocahontas Branch was typical of the hundreds of branches tucked away in the valleys and hollows of the region.  There were steep grades, lots of curves and bridges, and of course tunnels.  All the ingredients of a classic Appalachian branch line. 


Along the way three tunnels were built.  Pocahontas Tunnel No. 1 is 201 feet long and has a natural rock face at each end with no lining.  Stretching a bit longer at 366 feet  in length was Pocahontas Tunnel No. 2 which was also a natural rock tunnel until it was lined with concrete and portals in 1915.  Just south of Pocahontas is the 37-foot  long Western Branch Tunnel.  The name is derived from the Pocahontas & Western Railroad which built the tunnel. 


While the mainline from Bluefield to Vivian was placed under catenary in 1915, the Pocahontas Branch was delayed in receiving it's wires.  This was due to the time required to install catenary on all of the yard tracks in Pocahontas along with the required lining of Pocahontas Tunnel No. 2.  Electrification of the Pocahontas Branch was completed and the wires went live on November 6, 1916. 


With most branches being built along streams and rivers, many bridges were required to help the railroad to navigate the valleys and hollows.  The Pocahontas was no exception with 22 bridges situated along less than five miles of track.  The majority were a result of the line's proximity to Laurel Creek.  Five  bridges were located between Bluestone Junction and Pocahontas, and were numbered 852 and 1151 through 1154.  Between Pocahontas and Boissevain there were 17 spans which carried the numbers of 2151 through 2167. 


The mainline of the Pocahontas branch consisted of a single track.  A short passing siding was located between Bluestone Junction and Bridge 1152 on the north side of Pocahontas Tunnel No. 1.  It is thought that this siding was utilized primarily by passenger trains waiting to enter the mainline at Bluestone Junction.  The yard in Pocahontas consisted of five yard tracks in addition to the mainline.  There was also a house track for the depot.  A similar track arrangement existed at Boissevain. 


The Pocahontas Fuel Company operated for 73 years until it was closed in October 1955.   During it's years of operation the mine produced more than 44 million tons of world famous Pocahontas Coal.  The Pocahontas prep plant continued to operate until at least 1974.  While it is unknown exactly when the prep plant in Boissevain shut down, the facility was demolished in 1971.


Today the rails are still in place from Bluestone Junction to the site of the former Route 644 grade crossing in Pocahontas.  South of Route 644 all that remains are some faint traces of the right of way, including many bridge abutments.  In Pocahontas much of the area occupied by the yard and station now comprise the Pocahontas Town Park which also includes N&W caboose 530302.


Jeff Hawkins

March  2013



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