Cradled by the green-carpeted, wave-resembling ridges forming the Tygart Valley, Elkins, located in the West Virginia Highlands, represents down-home America. From the historic, red brick railroad depot, two barely visible, gravel-imbedded tracks stretch out of town, their direction indicated by the girder-resembling bridge ahead, and to the right, of them. Https://www.durbinrock.com
Proudly and powerfully led by the black Western Maryland number 82 and dark-blue Baltimore and Ohio number 6641 diesel engines, the six-car complement comprising the late-May New Tygart Flyer stood poised atop the slender rails next to the 1908 depot, the locomotives humming with deep, throaty, journey-anticipatory vibration on the hot, power blue morning. The passengers, most of whom consisted of school bus-deposited groups, progressively crowded the red-brick, track-level platform as the sun and temperature inched higher. The steel Pullman coaches, internally air conditioned, enticed the throng inside during the 1045 boarding, the passengers recollecting into smaller groups as they gravitated toward their assigned cars.
Although the railroad’s physical journey had been scheduled to depart at 1100, its historical one had begun more than a century ago, in 1880, and the “Western Maryland” and “Baltimore and Ohio” railroads, the names displayed by the current engines, had played crucial roles in it.
Principally hauling freight and coal, along with limited passenger service, the Western Maryland Railway itself, whose line entailed a six-year construction period beginning in 1906, had served the three states of Maryland, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania, with two major track subdivisions: the Connellsville Subdivision, primarily engaging in easterly and westerly freight traffic flows, connected Cumberland, Maryland, with Connellsville, Pennsylvania, while the Thomas Subdivision, also originating in Cumberland, threaded its way through densely-forested, coal- and timber-rich West Virginia to Elkins.
The latter subdivision, however, had actually begun in 1880 when the West Virginia Central and Pittsburgh Railway had contemplated laying narrow-gauge track, but almost immediately elected to employ the more widely used standard gauge, for the purpose of providing access to the Allegheny Highlands’ abundant, hitherto untapped resources, itself sparking the establishment of several towns, inclusive of Davis, Thomas, Parsons, and Elkins.
The Coal and Iron Railway, established in 1899 to facilitate logging operations, originated in Elkins, boring through the Cheat Mountain Tunnel and following the Shavers Fork of the Cheat River and the West Fork of the Greenbrier River into Durbin, where it connected with the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad’s Greenbrier Division. Although construction had been completed in 1903, the Western Maryland’s acquisition of the West Virginia Central and Pittsburgh only two years later resulted in the Coal and Iron Railway’s redesignation as the “Durbin Subdivision.”
Elkins, located at the mouth of the Leading Creek and Tygart Valley rivers, was named after investor and Senator Stephen B. Elkins, who, along with Senator Henry Gassaway Davis, had been instrumental in both the railroad’s and the town’s growth. Originating to serve the workforce needed to maintain and operate the line, the expanding town had once featured maintenance shops and “Wild Mary’s” freight yard, the staging area and western terminus of the many coal operations which had fanned out from the Elkins area, supported by a 900-strong team.
Threshold to some of the world’s richest timber and natural resources, and the transportation hub of the Appalachian Mountains, it became home of the Davis and Elkins College and Davis’s Graceland Inn summer residence, where invited guests would escape the Washington heat and humidity in order to enjoy its higher-elevation, cooler-climate location. Elkins became the Western Maryland Railway’s southwestern hub, its Thomas Subdivision connecting with its main line at Maryland Junction, south of Cumberland.
Although its service had been consistently ranked as fast, efficient, and of considerable quality, it significantly competed with the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, but was fraught with several obstacles, including a proliferation of costly, high-maintenance tunnels and bridges; use of a single, as opposed to the B & O’s double, main line track; and service to only two major cities-namely, Baltimore and Cumberland.
The Baltimore and Ohio, having already established an affiliation with the Chesapeake and Ohio in 1962, petitioned the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) to gain control of the Western Maryland two years later, which it granted, but the line had continued to operate independently until 1972, at which time all three rail companies were merged into the Chessie System. Further amalgamated with the Seaboard Coast Line and The Family Line ten years later, it briefly operated the Seaboard System, but was remorphed into the CSX Corporation, whose railroad division was designated “CSX Transportation,” in 1987. The town of Elkins, whose growth had peaked in 1920, began a resource depletion-sparked decline and progressive rail service reduction until the tracks witnessed their last operation in 1959, thereafter lying barren and unused for some four decades.
In 1997, the Interstate Commerce Commission granted CSX Transportation permission to abandon the track it owned, but no longer used for coal carriage, below Elkins, which was subdivided into the still-active Elkins-Tygart Junction portion and the inactive Elkins-Bergoo section, provided that the West Virginia State Rail Authority could acquire both for a $6 million fee.
The line, encompassing some 140 miles of Elkins Division track and managed by the West Virginia Central Railroad, is now operated by the Durbin and Greenbrier Valley Railroad, a short-line company owned by John and Kathy Smith. Originating service on May 16, 1998 during the annual Cass Scenic Railroad railfan weekend, it initially operated from Durbin until the Randolph County Development Authority reconstructed the old Western Maryland bridge, allowing it to re-establish rail access to the Elkins train depot abandoned by CSX in 1992, once the location of its 22-acre, roundhouse-equipped yard.