Railroad Was ‘Economic Conduit’ for Mountain State

If not for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, Dan Toomey believes it would have been much more difficult for West Virginia to secede from Virginia.

“For the counties that would become West Virginia, the B&O was an economic conduit,” said Toomey, guest curator at the B&O Railroad Museum in Baltimore. “The economy of those counties would have been primitive without the railroad. How would you get coal and wood to market on the East Coast without the railroad?”

Toomey points to the West Virginia state seal as an indication of the importance of the B&O to the establishment of the Mountain State on June 20, 1863. On the reverse side of the seal is a depiction of the Trey Run Viaduct. Located in Preston County north of Rowlesburg, the trestle was among the first iron railroad bridges in the nation. It was built by the B&O across the Cheat River.

Originally, Berkeley and Jefferson counties were not part of the new state. They were not included until a few months later, after referendums were held on those counties joining West Virginia.

After breaking ground in 1828, the B&O crossed the Potomac River at Harpers Ferry. It continued through Jefferson County to Martinsburg in Berkeley County – where the railroad had built roundhouses and machine shops – and then westward. Toomey said the line between Baltimore and Wheeling opened in 1852.

“The railroad helped break the isolation and increase the population in those mountainous counties in the western part of Virginia,” Toomey said. “Many of these were Irish and German.

“Eventually, the differences between these folks and those in Tidewater Virginia became apparent,” he added.

Toomey said the B&O was a major line of communication between the western states and the eastern theater of the Civil War, supplying the war effort with material and men. The Union forces had to make sure this vital link was kept open. They could not afford to have part of it remain in Confederate hands.

“The Union knew it had to protect the railroad. Right off the bat, the B&O got attacked,” Toomey said.