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Transcript of interview with John Hankey, May 25, 1992, for the film "West Virginia"

Source: WV History Film Project

Q: Let's start the big picture. What is the relationship between the railroads and the development of West Virginia?
JJBE 0047
JH: West Virginia was a state that had immense natural resources, wonderful timber and coal and mineral resources of all kind, which were almost worthless to anyone without some way of getting them out in the same way that farmland was worthless, stock raising, orchards. All of the things that one could do in West Virginia were essentially no value to anyone unless you could get the stuff out, unlike other states that had many rivers or a coast line. The original colonies for example, the western part of the original colony of Virginia and then West Virginia as a state was hampered. It had the Ohio river and a couple of other navigable streams. Most of the state was inaccessible. The railroads allowed the state to be developed in a way ...


Q: Let's go over that again; tell me about the impact of railroads on western Virginia, the relationship between those.
JJBE 0155
JH: Western Virginia is a place that has immense natural resources, wonderful timber, wonderful coal, iron, other minerals. Its land is suitable for farming and for orchards and livestock raising, but that land was essentially worthless without some way to get those products out. The nature of the products of western Virginia were such that they were bulky, hard to transport, of relatively low value themselves. The state needed some way to open that wilderness in the same way that eastern Virginia had the Chesapeake Bay and many navigable rivers, West Virginia had mountains. It made building roads very expensive, building canals prohibitive. The railroad was the one technology that allowed the settlers to open the state and get to those natural resources.

Q: How did the railroad come to western Virginia? How did the idea get started; how did it -- what was the first railroad, what did it do?
JJBE 0261
JH: In the early part of the 19th century with the completion of the National Road from the eastern seaboard through western Virginia to the Ohio river and then to St. Louis, the idea of some sort of network of internal communication, some way to link the eastern seaboard with the Ohio and Mississippi rivers became very popular, very important to us as a country. The first railroads into what is now West Virginia were merely passing through; they were just on their way to connect with the Ohio river.
JJBE 0312
The B & O was essentially the first railroad into western Virginia. Others followed very quickly at mid-century. It wasn't really until after the Civil War that the notion of using railroads to open up the country, to get to these minerals and natural resources, took hold. Railroad building in West Virginia took the form of several consecutive booms, one following after the other. Railroad mileage in the state increased sixfold between 1880 and 1910, corresponding with the industrialization of the state and its opening to the rest of the country.

Q: Tell me more about the challenge of building the railroads through western Virginia? What were the obstacles? Why was it significant, in terms of the history of railroads? It wasn't an easy thing, like laying track across the flat plains of Ohio was it?
JJBE 0416
JH: In this country we had to have some experience with railroads before we even could conceive of building a line or several lines across the Allegheny Mountains. In some ways, the B & O was a pioneer. They were more visionary than they realized, proposing in 1827 to build a mainline railroad through western Virginia, to reach the Ohio river. They really had no idea how they would do it. They had to learn as they went; West Virginia as a state is probably the most formidable area in the country in which to build railroads. Most of the state is made up of -- ...


Q: John, tell me how big a deal it was to lay track across West Virginia?
JJBE 0501
JH: In the 1820's when the B & O was conceived as a way to link the Chesapeake Bay with the Ohio river, we really didn't know much about railroading as a technology. The men and women in Baltimore who conceived this project were very much as we were in the late 1950's, responding to a challenge. They were proposing to do something on a scale, on a complexity equivalent to going to the moon. They didn't really know quite how they would do it and set out learning to invent railroading as they went along. By the time they reached the foot of the Allegheny mountains in 1840's at Piedmont, the technology had progressed far enough that -- the B & O truly pioneered mountain railroading. There was no more difficult -- ...


Q: Let's get back to this technology, the challenge of bringing the railroad across this country. What were the obstacles and what were the solutions?
JJBE 0611
JH: Building a railroad across flat country is easy. Building a railroad in a place like western Virginia was very, very difficult. The promoters of the B & O in 1827 recognized that. The B & O was in many regards a high stakes gamble. I would equate it to deciding in the late 1950's to go to the moon. The people here didn't have the technology, didn't have the engineering, didn't have the knowledge to really know they could get across those mountains. Deciding to do that was an act of faith and courage, as much as a hard-headed business decision.
JJBE 0664
West Virginia didn't have the rivers, the valleys, the easy access. It didn't have the coast line. When these folks decided to build across the Allegheny mountains to reach the Ohio river, they were literally betting the farm on Baltimore's future. The state of West Virginia itself was a difficult place to build through. It's mountainous; most of state consists of the Allegheny plateau, the ridge and valley region just to the east of that. There are no great valleys available just to build into the places the railroads wanted to go. They had to fight and scratch to create the kinds of grades that made this kind of early railroading a very hair-raising experience.

Q: What was it like for the people who built them, the working conditions, ? ?
JJBE 0749
JH: Early workers on the railroad in western Virginia had it no harder than farmers or any sort of industrial pioneer. They basically lived in tents, in camps, working, clearing brush, grading by hand. In those days we didn't' have earth moving machinery. We only had black powder, so that carving a right of way out of those valleys, making the shelves alongside the mountains, building the tunnels, digging the cuts and fills, was pretty much all the hand work of German and Scotch-Irish and Irish immigrant laborers.


Q: Tell me more about the lot of the railroad laborer?
JJBE 0825
JH: The railroad laborer had it no better or no worse than any other farm laborer, miner, or industrial laborer of the day. They worked outside. They worked by hand. In those days, we were not only capital shy, but labor shy. We didn't have enough people in this country to build the things we needed to build, which is why wages were so relatively high for these guys. They might make a dollar a day as a laborer, working six days a week, twelve hours a day. Most of the laborers who built the early B & O, for example, across the northern part of western Virginia were Irish, were German, were Scotch-Irish, the kinds of immigrants who came to this country before the Civil War.
JJBE 0891
They worked very hard and played very hard. They lived in tents or in cabins or in rough cars fitted up as bunk cars. Just as later across the great plains they moved their camps as the rail had advanced westwardly in those days before earth moving machinery, all we had were strong backs, picks and shovels, wagons, mules, and most of the B& O at least was built by hand by these fellows. Digging, the cuts, digging the tunnels, creating the fills, cutting the timber, literally making the cross ties as they came through the trees, these fellows worked six days a week, twelve hours a day.
JJBE 0964
Generally on Saturday night, Saturday was payday, and generally they went out and got drunk; generally they were hung over on Sunday, often observed St. Monday as a holiday. The bosses too were Irish. These were the fellows that went on in West Virginia in later years to be the owners of the construction companies and the bosses of the railroad. They climbed up the ladder as more recent immigrants came in behind.


Q: Tell me about the impact of the B & O in western Virginia?
JJBE 1046
JH: ... We can probably date the existence of modern western Virginia and the state of West Virginia to the early 1850's when the first railroads actually linked the eastern seaboard with the Ohio river. The B & O reached Wheeling in late 1852. The circumstances I think typify what it was like for these fellows to build a railroad across the Allegheny mountains. We didn't have a golden spike; that didn't come till much later on other railroads, but this was the first time a mainline railroad had been build successfully across a range of mountains like that. These fellows were proud; there was one track gang building eastwardly from Wheeling. They had come down the Ohio river and then up a series of creek valleys to a place not far from Moundsville. The other track gang was building westwardly from Mannington, following another series of valleys west out of Fairmont.
JJBE 1130
As they got closer and closer together, the excitement built, mostly Irish laborers at this point. They picked a spot near a big rock that had been left when the glaciers receded millions of years ago. The gang boss, a fellow named Roseby Carr, decided he would name that rock Roseby's Rock in his own honor, fairly typical of these guys. They were tough customers, but they got the job done. Christmas Eve, 1852, Roseby Carr drove the last spike in the B & O linking the Ohio river with the eastern seaboard. This was a big deal. This meant that western Virginia had an outlet both ways, both westwardly to the Ohio and Mississippi and eastwardly to Chesapeake Bay.
JJBE 1208
That opening had a profound effect upon Wheeling and the whole northwestern part of Virginia. For the first time they were no longer dependent upon Richmond and the tide water economy for their very existence. They were now closely linked with other economies. They could behave a little bit more independently. One statistic -- it's a rough one, but it illustrates I think how important the railroad was in those days -- wheat was the big business, wheat and flour.
JJBE 1251
Great Britain had stopped feeding itself, stopped being able to feed itself in the 1820's. We were exporting tremendous quantities of what the British called corn. We called it wheat. ... Most of it working eastwardly to Baltimore over the National Road with wagons carrying perhaps six tons, teamsters. It cost a dollar to buy a barrel of flour at Wheeling. It cost four dollars to bring that flour across the mountains to Baltimore.
JJBE 1303
So you could buy a barrel of flour in Baltimore on the docks for five ducks. The farmer saw one dollar of that. After the railroad, after 1852, the B & O charged one dollar to bring a barrel of flour from Wheeling. That meant the farmer got to keep four dollars. All of a sudden, the agriculture economy of western Virginia takes off, picks off. Everybody benefits except the teamsters on the National Road. The National Road withers through the 19th century; finally becomes part of the federal highway system in the 1920's, never again to become the major transportation artery that it was. The railroad itself withers, to be replaced by other roads, other forms of transportation. But that flip over -- suddenly the farmer makes much more money for that barrel of flour. Suddenly Wheeling begins to grow as an interior port because people know if they can get their flour to Wheeling, by god, they can get it to the eastern seaboard and get a good price for it. It changed the way people in western Virginia lived.

Q: It created towns along the way; tell me about that.
JJBE 1408
JH: The railroad has an interesting relationship with the land, and sometimes railroads will link towns. Sometimes railroads will create towns. The B & O was designed to link the Ohio river with the Atlantic seaboard. It touched a few large cities along the way, almost by happenstance -- Harpers Ferry, Martinsburg, Cumberland and then into western Virginia. In most cases though when the railroad had reason create a town such as Piedmont at the foot of the mountains, that was the end of the second division of the B & O and they needed a place to build a round house and shops to house crews who would take these trains over the hills -- towns like Grafton or Fairmont that grew up because the railroad needed a facility. Other places where the railroad needed a water tank or a pumping station or a wood pile -- these formed the nucleus of a whole series of railroad towns.
JJBE 1497
We see this happening across West Virginia again and again. Places such as Huntington, West Virginia, that offer a good site to build a town, good for the railroad, the railroad called the shots. Up and down the valleys, wherever the railroad crossed a river or crossed a major road, wherever there was enough flat land or good spring water or enough work, enough timber, enough coal, to justify setting up a town, the railroads probably had a hand in it.

Q: Do you have any sense aside from the farmers whose economy, whose livelihood was changed, was there any sense of how life changed for the average person at the arrival of the railroad?
JJBE 1574
JH: The early settlers in western Virginia were there by choice. They had come across the mountains to get away from settlement on the east coast. They either had enough of the plantation economy in eastern Virginia and Maryland, many were coming down from Pennsylvania, just following the natural run of the valleys and bridges. These were rugged individualists. They weren't very much changed by the coming of the railroad. It meant that their farming was no longer substance farming; they could actually have a cash crop. It was the next generation of immigrants to western Virginia, the people who came there knowing there was some good transportation link, who really benefited.
JJBE 1632
Suddenly, they didn't have to worry so much about scratching out a miserable, wretched, hard existence back in some hollow. They knew that they could get their crops to market, whether it be livestock and fruit in the east, or wheat, grain and cash crops in the west. The fellows who followed them came to work in the mines and the factories and the industrial plants of West Virginia, the railroad for them was literally their lifeline to what we might regard as civilization. In some cases these fellows had to ride a train into the nearest town to do their shopping, to buy their groceries, their dry goods, to see entertainment. West Virginia was and remains a fairly isolated state. In its heyday the railroad penetrated to pretty much every place there was to go that had something to offer. People depended upon that railroad network as their lifeline. Often they would take the railroad to go to church on Sunday or to go to school during the week.

Q: There was celebrations as the railroad arrived. ? ? Does the railroad just roll into town one day and everyone gathers to see strange machine coming?
JJBE 1766
JH: Good question. A railroad is not -- ... To many people in western Virginia, this railroad was an alien presence. It was a new machine; they had never seen a steam engine before. The coming of the railroad was a big deal. There was always advance notice; there was the survey party and then the clearing party and then the track laying party and then they would see their first steam locomotive, always a pivotal event in the lives of young people and old people alike. Generally when the railroad reached a town, such as Piedmont or Grafton or Fairmont or Cumberland, there would a celebration.
JJBE 1832
People were celebrating not only the coming of the railroad, this was just not an ordinary business, this was an industry that was going to change their lives and they knew it. It was like opening up a highway to us today; it made their lives easier and more pleasant and more profitable. These banquets could be pretty high class. In those days we were not afraid to celebrate in grand style. In the late 1850's when the B & O finally opened a through route to St. Louis and the Ohio river, for example, via many different routes, Parkersburg and Wheeling, they had special train loads of dignitaries, newspapermen, politicians, whoever they thought deserved thanks or would be helpful to them in the future, hauled them out of Baltimore to Wheeling, stopping along the way for toasts and banquet and feasts. Some of these feasts went on all night. Whiskey was a staple product of western Virginia, and they knew how to imbibe.


Q: Tell me about the people who didn't want the train to run on Sunday and what that meant?
JJBE 1941
JH: People were not universally in favor of the railroad now. There were folks, for example, the God-fearing Methodists and Presbyterians who had come to get away from the worldly influences. They didn't want the railroad to run on Sunday. The Sunday was Sabbath, by God, and they did everything in their power -- local ordinances, demonstrations, sermons, preaching, to keep this outside influence, to keep this work of the devil, at least away from their churches, families and children on Sundays. The trouble was the railroad needed to run on Sunday. People wanted it to run on Sunday, and sooner rather than later the railroad started running on Sundays.

Q: Progress won out over religion? What's the moral of that?
JJBE 2008
JH: I suppose that the moral of that story is progress, technological progress by whatever definition, is usually going to win out over sentiment, religion, and in some cases human values.


Q: As part of this celebrating the arriving of the railroad, the B & O loaded up a bunch of artists and took off ? ? Tell me about it.
JJBF 0032
JH: In these days, the railroad was in many ways inventing what we now recognize as just the modern texture of life.


Q: Tell me about the artists ???
JJBF 0062
JH: In these days before the Civil War -- first of all we had a financial panic in 1857, so business was down and the railroads were beginning to feel competition. They were looking around for ways to increase their invisibility to get business. We didn't have advertising agencies then; we didn't have any of these modern notions of shaping public opinion, but the B & O had one fellow, his name was William Prescott Smith. He had written two books on the B & O celebrating the opening of the railroad to Wheeling and he was a born raconteur good operating man, but he liked his entertaining. He was the B & O's unofficial host for politicians and newspaper editors and these sorts of guys. So somebody, and we don't know exactly who cooked up the idea in 1858 of what they call the 'artists excursion'. They were going to outfit a train -- and this was the first time in this country anything like this had ever been done -- cook up a train in Baltimore, invite editors and writers and literati artists, photographers, whoever they could find around the country to come ride this train from Baltimore to Wheeling.
JJBF 0167
Now the train would stop where ever they wanted it to stop. They owned the railroad, so if they wanted it to stop and take a picture here or sketch there, or make a photograph some where else, all they had to do was tell the conductor, a fellow named George Rawlings, known as Capt. Rawlings. The train set out in early June of ... The set out early June 1858 for the west and it was a gloomy beginning, but clouds parted right around Harpers Ferry in Martinsburg. The party consisted of six cars, the first of which was set up as a they called it a locomotive atelier?? a dark room, because the cameras in those days were big and bulky and made glass plate negatives. Then they had what they called a refectory? car set up with benches and tables and baskets of food, a couple of cars for sitting, and then a couple of cars for sleeping and then a car on the end with an open platform for viewing the scenery.
JJBF 0267
These folks just took their time, took five days crossing the Alleghenies, stopping here, looking at the scenery, seeing the mountains. These were some pretty important folks -- Thomas Rossiter, Asher Durant, the premier artists of the day. The B & O didn't really know what it had to gain from this, didn't really know what it was fishing for, it just knew it wanted to take these folks out on the railroad and show them a good time, kind of the proto- typical junket of its day.
JJBF 0311
They got to Wheeling, and they were happy; they'd had a chance to see scenery that they had never seen before, to make photographs, to make sketches. And even to this day, art historians are finding pictures by some of these mid-19th century artists and debating whether or not its this mountain or that track or that building that they would have encountered on this 1858 artists' excursion.

Q: What did they see when they were sitting on the ??? What must it have been like in 1858 to come down off the Allegheny Plateau? Give us a bird's eye view?
JJBF 0367
JH: These people were seeing a part of the country that, for the most part, white men had never seen before. Only 50 years earlier, it had been exclusively the province of Native Americans and the hardy pioneers crossing the Alleghenies. They had no concept of the Cheat River Valley. No one had ever seen in the east at least representations of the Allegheny Plateau. These folks knew they were bringing back -- this was a safari to them. They were bringing back images and impressions of a land that was only vaguely known to the 90% of the population that lived within 20 miles of the east coast.
JJBF 0425
They were impressed. They saw hardwood forests; they saw wildlife; they saw animals, black bears, and all the little furry things out in the mountains that for city folks were completely new and in some cases almost unimaginable. The rapids of the Cheat River, for example, the Cheat River Canyon was considered by them to be one of the wonders of the natural world. The ascent of the Alleghenies itself was impressive. This train of cars actually able to climb the mountains using locomotive power, instead of walking or riding. This was all quite new; this was progress to them, and they were very impressed with it.

Q: What image did they create in their art? Did they incorporate that -- what message did they send to easterners who had not seen this ? ?
JJBF 0503
JH: We were a good deal more innocent in those days in how to create public opinion and what images meant to us. The railroad I suppose was trying to exploit these artists. The artists apparently didn't feel exploited at all. They thought they were taking advantage of the railroad. What they came back with were a series of photographs and sketches, paintings, drawings, things that showed the wilderness being opened by the railroad, even the terms of art of the day. Titles of paintings westward, the star of empire takes its course. We were opening the land, we were making this place useful to human beings, and these artists recognized that. That's how they represented this, that the railroad or at least the railroad was neutral, and it was allowing people to go west in a way they hadn't been able to before.


Q: A few years after the artist excursion, war breaks out. Tell me about the role of the railroad in the Civil War in the formation of West Virginia?
JJBF 0619
JH: By the time of the Civil War, western Virginia had pretty much settled on its destiny. It had been trying to succeed. It had been trying to become a separate state for a number of years. At that time the B & O was the only railroad crossing that part of Virginia, actually crossing the mountains at all. As the shape of the political landscape changed, western Virginia did not vote for succession. It never considered it went out of the union with the rest of Virginia, so that as early as 1861, there were conventions meeting in Wheeling to separate the western counties of Virginia into a new state. Congress was very much in favor of it; Lincoln was in favor of it. It took a couple of years to do that.
JJBF 0694
In the meantime, McClellan had occupied pretty much all of what is now West Virginia and secured it for the union. In the early days of the war, the B & O was terribly damaged by both northern and southern forces. It was closed for months at a time as raids took place back and forth, as the southern forces carried off miles and miles of railroad and hundreds of locomotives, cars, shops, stations, whatever. Finally, as the Union army got control of the route of the B & O across Virginia -- it was a vital lifeline for the north -- it began to dawn on these western counties, the new state of West Virginia that it needed the B & O. The shape of the state itself was determined largely by the ridge of the top of Allegheny Mountain.
JJBF 0769
Everything west of that was to be the new state; and everything east of that could remain in Virginia, could remain essentially a southern state, except for the eastern panhandle. That caused a real problem for these new West Virginians. Berkeley, Morgan, Hampshire County, Jefferson County, those were tied very much to the old Virginia plantation economy. They also had good lengths to Baltimore in the north, but they carried B & O through that part of the state. If they didn't go with the new state of West Virginia, part of the B & O would continue to operate through a confederate state, through hostile territory. The United States Government, the new government of West Virginia, the management of the B & O, pretty much everybody decided that it was in the best interests of everybody if the B & O lay entirely within this new state of West Virginia. As the votes took place in 1861 and '62 and '63, those eastern counties had to be strong armed into this new state.
JJBF 0866
The Eastern Panhandle wasn't naturally part of the western counties, but they made it so just to keep the B & O wholly within federal lines. After the war there was a couple of Supreme Court decisions and challenges and a lot of political haranguing, but the deed stuck and what we now know as West Virginia has a peculiar shape, largely because of that B & O main line snaking through the eastern part on its way to the mountains.


Q: John, Henry Gassaway Davis?
JJBF 0940
JH: Henry Gassaway Davis, an interesting fellow. Someone I regard as kind of the proto- typical American. He was the kind of individual who opened West Virginia. He's almost the -- some people regard him as robber baron. I think he was a man of his time. He started out on the B & O, 20 years old, as a brakeman. He was actually recruited by William Woodside, the B & O's master of transportation. Woodside was a pretty good judge of horse flesh. Woodside was a pretty good judge of horse flesh and saw in this young Henry Gassaway Davis the makings of a good conductor and maybe even a good railroad man, so Davis spent several years as a brakeman on the freight trains. Then he became a passenger conductor. In those days that was like the captain of a ship. It took tact, brains, and skill and certain amount of political savvy on the railroad to be a successful passenger train conductor.
JJBF 1033
By the time of the Civil War, Davis had been around enough. He had enough connections on the B & O ... By the time of the Civil War Davis had been on the B & O for 18, 19 years. He knew his way around. Because the B & O penetrated the western part of the state of Virginia, Davis had a pretty good sense of natural resources and what they were worth. He made a great deal of money during the war selling horses and mules to the B & O and also selling wood to the B & O and commodities to the government, a tremendous amount of money to be made. Everything took Davis towards western Virginia. After the war, he spent a number of years literally riding, traipsing and exploring the northern part of the new state of West Virginia, looking at the spruce, looking at the hardwoods, looking at the coal lands and also remaining in touch with his old cronies back in Baltimore on the B & O, realizing that here he had the means, the motive and the ...


Q: In a paragraph or two, tell me how Davis was able to build on this opportunity that he created in the Civil War to become an empire?
JJBF 1169
JH: Davis was aggressive and Davis seen his opportunities and he took them. He had the means, the motive, and the opportunity. He had the money he'd made from selling supplies during the war; he had the connections with the railroad, and he knew how the railroad worked and how important it was to carry the stuff out of West Virginia.
JJBF 1197
He had the guts, as did many other men of that period, to go into the woods, buy large tracts of forest land, but he also had the vision to see that we would need lumber and we would need coal and that West Virginia was the closest, easiest place to get it. He anticipated the boom years of the 1870's, '80's, and '90's in a way that few others did. He was the Rockefeller of West Virginia. In the course of doing that, created the town of Gassaway, the town of Davis, created a number of railroads, the West Virginia Central in Pittsburgh, which opened the whole northern part of the state there. He was in his own right a pioneer. Because he had lived that hard life out on the railroad, he didn't have a lot of sympathy for the plight of ordinary men. He made it up from the bottom, scratching and clawing the whole way.
JJBF 1277
As was typical of many self made men, these millionaires many times over, he had what we might now regard as odd views, or harsh views on life and the plight of the working man. When he was on the railroad as a brakeman, for example, the day's pay was a 100 miles, whether it took you 10 or 15 or 20 hours to make that 100 miles. He spent many, many cold hours riding on the top of a coal pile on a coal car, putting on hand brakes and coupling and uncoupling those old Lincoln pin couplers. He probably escaped death just by a whisker many, many times over. That was life out on the railroad. He did it; other people could do it too. The towns that he set up, the companies that he set up were no better or no worse than any other industrial craft of the day. The lumber camps were rough, and the coal mining towns were rough. He made money from the company stores; he made money from providing housing; he made money every way he could. Then went to Congress; went to the Senate; was the distinguished senator from West Virginia. Who better to represent a state like West Virginia than some one who has come from the bottom, made his fortunes, knows what West Virginia is all about?

Q: On the other hand, who worse to represent because of his self-interest in steering the politics of West Virginia to his economic advantage?
JJBF 1416
JH: In those days, self interest was the name of the game. Self interest characterized American life. In many ways it was our defining characteristic in business and in politics and even personal relationships in those days. Davis was a product of his time. We can't judge him too harshly because he was Henry Gassaway Davis. He was the proto- typical West Virginian who made good.

Q: Jumping ahead, maybe as a comparison, how was Huntington and his railroad different? What was it about? Collis P. Huntington?
JJBF 1489
JH: Collis P. Huntington was another self-made millionaire, another self-made man who perhaps most strikingly lacked any sort of personal connection with West Virginia. His railroad, the Chesapeake and Ohio, was strictly an entrepreneurial venture for him. He was in it to make some money, to build a railroad and to get out. ...


Q: We were somewhere around 1869, 1870. Collis P. Huntington?
JJBF 1543
JH: Collis P. Huntington came to West Virginia with a completely different idea. He was a railroad builder; he had just completed with the other principal players, completing the transcontinental railroad and was presented with an opportunity to pick up the idea of a railroad across southern West Virginia, the Covington and Ohio, which got turned into the Chesapeake and Ohio and formed very much like the B & O, to link the eastern seaboard in a Virginia port with the Ohio river, somewhere farther south of Wheeling. Huntington was in it for the money. He was not doing it to particularly build the state of West Virginia. He was not a local boy. He made his fortune in New York and then in Sacramento.
JJBF 1615
He was more or less the new breed of capitalists, using money from Wall Street, money from Great Britain, money from anywhere he could find it. He saw an immense coal wealth and an immense demand for coal in the east and the mid-west. Huntington was not even really a railroad man; he was a business man, so that he hired good talent. He knew where to find what he needed, knew how to buy himself politicians, knew how to find his way around in the re-construction era. Huntington established the town of Huntington on the Ohio river as at least initially the western terminus of this Chesapeake and Ohio railroad, built easterly from its terminus in Richmond to reach the tidewater at Newport? News?.

Q: How did he change things? How did the C & O change the future of West Virginia?
JJBF 1716
JH: After the Civil War, the state of West Virginia was ready for something like the C & O, some device to open up the southern end of the state. The northern end was progressing nicely, thanks to the B & O and reconstruction up there. In the south, it was still a great deal of virgin territory -- coal lands that hadn't been touched yet -- the great flat top field in south central West Virginia. The problem there of course as always, the stuff is of no use to anyone unless you can get it out. At this point, the rest of the country was beginning to look on West Virginia as a natural resource, as something to get coal and wood and iron and chemicals from. People saw the state not in terms of its natural beauty or its farmland or its climate, but what they could go in and grab and take out as cheaply and quickly as possible. Huntington epitomized the post-war ideal of making your bucks fast, just getting in there, getting it out. Again, he was no worse, no better, than his contemporaries. That was the mind set of the day.

Q: The big difference now is that money starts, fortunes start to be made by people who have absolutely no attachment to West Virginia and Huntington is really the first in that line, isn't he?
JJBF 1846
JH: Huntington is an early exploiter of West Virginia. There had been others before operating on a small scale. You could even say that the first trappers and hunters in West Virginia were simply there to exploit the natural resources. Huntington does it on a grand scale. He comes in with ...


Q: Let's go over that again. ? ?
JH: West Virginia after the war was a very different place from western Virginia before the war.


JJBG 0047
JH: West Virginia after the Civil War was a very different place from the western Virginia before the war. You might say that it lost its innocence. C.P. Huntington was an exemplar of that. The state was no longer just a place to come and farm and a place to come and start a coal mine or cut timber. It was a natural resource to be exploited, to take things out of. Huntington had a dream, and West Virginia participated in that dream in a small way. He had just helped finish the transcontinental railroad, which wasn't really transcontinental at all.
JJBG 0096
At a time when people were thinking more in terms of what is in the next county and where can I make my next ten bucks, Huntington was thinking what is in the next state and the next state beyond that and where can I make my next ten million. He was dreaming of a true transcontinental railroad. The C & O was going to be the eastern end of that link. It would start at Tidewater, Newport News and extend all the way to the Pacific ocean, one way or another. There were a lot of visionaries in those days. There were a lot of promoters, a lot of projectors. Huntington had the money and the savvy and came very close to being the first man to be able to ride from coast to coast on his own railroads or railroads that he controlled or helped build. Most people in West Virginia don't realize that the ... Most people in West Virginia don't realize the role that the role of the C & O very nearly played in being the first of a true transcontinental railroad.

Q: What happened?
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JH: So many things happened.

Q: Was he successful?
JH: No. To a certain degree, Huntington came up against his own limitations, the fact that even in those days it wasn't possible for one man to do that. Partly the C & O was itself a victim of expensive construction. It cost a lot of money to build that kind or railroad over those mountains.
JJBG 0247
Coal was seductive; it was much easier to just haul coal down to Tidewater and very easy to lose sight of Ohio and the Great Plains and the Rockies and everything west of there. The C & O had difficulties, went into receivership, went bankrupt a couple of times in the late 19th century. In many ways the C & O typified railroading in West Virginia for 75 or 80 years. Life was hard out on the C & O.
JJBG 0294
Probably more train wreck songs have been written about the C & O in West Virginia than any other single railroad. In those days ballads and songs and folk songs were entertainment. We made our own entertainment then. The railroad and the things that happened to the men on the railroad, such as John Henry and the Big Bend Tunnel, or Billy Richardson's Last Ride, the Wreck of the FFV, all of these things were very real, were very important to the people that lived and breathed and died by the railroad.

Q: Why has the railroad captured the natural imagination for so long?
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JH: I think the railroad in West Virginia is a good example of what the railroad is to all of us. It takes us places; it gives us food and fuel; it gives us work. For many people in the state, the railroad was the only industry that gave year-round work, the industry. If they hired out, they could figure that they could retire from it. In some cases though. ...


Q: Tell me what it is about railroads that as evidenced with John Henry songs and other songs that came up in the late 19th century that has still today, fascinates people?
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JH: There are a lot of reasons that we like railroads. We've always had a kind of a duel nature. We depend upon railroads; they were the defining American technology of the 19th century. And we hated them; we reviled them; we protested against them; we resented them. At the same time, we were writing songs about them. We were in some ways worshiping them. Railroads brought us fuel and food and carried us places we wanted to go; they made it possible to farm and to work in factories and to have a national economy. But these were also living things.
JJBG 0488
These were the products of human beings. The little railroads that permeated the forest in West Virginia had their own character; they reflected the needs, desires and wants and characteristics of the people who made them. The C & O was a big, powerful, fast railroad, but it also had a character that just said 'West Virginia'. The engines themselves are alive; steam locomotives have a life of their own, they live and they breathe. The eat fuel, they talk to you, they sing to you, and men more so than women form an attachment to machines. These are very likable machines. They can kill you quickly.


Q: John, tell me what life was like to those building a railroad like the C & O?
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JH: Building the railroads in southern West Virginia were much different from working on them or running them. We might offhand say life was cheap, and it was as it was in the steel mills and the lumber mills and other places. The trains before they had air brakes and automatic couplers might leave one terminal with a full crew of eight or ten men. Often they would arrive at the end of their run missing a brakeman, who had fallen off a car, fallen down, run over. The railroad simply went down and hired the next man standing in line for that job. Work was more dear than life in many cases. We had no pensions; we had no social security; no insurance. If you worked for the railroad you did so at your own risk; it was your problem if you got hurt or maimed or died.
JJBG 0649
That gave rise to a certain extent to the culture of labor in West Virginia, both in the mines and on the railroads. Even though it had a reputation for being a non-union state, labor organizations were very early and very important on the railroads at least in West Virginia as a means to help the men, to make it easier to just get through a hard, cold, cruel, miserable life out there on the railroad.

Q: How were they treated? How were the blacks and the Italian immigrants who worked in the New River Gorge treated? Was it a fair deal?
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JH: In those days the fellows who build the railroad were nothing more than beasts of burden, whether they were recently freed slaves or recently arrived German, Irish, Polish, Italian, Ukrainian immigrants. These folks came to the docks on the east coast, found their way to where the work was, hired for 50 cents or a dollar day as common labors. They would work for a boss or work for a company. In many cases the contractor never even knew the names of the men working for them. He simply paid them off every week and if they didn't show up again, he hired someone in their places.
JJBG 0774
The work itself was a little easier. We had steam shovels by that time, the 1870's, '80's and '90's. We had dynamite instead of black powder and a little bit of what we would recognize as modern machinery. But it still took brawn, not brain to dig these tunnels, make these lines, to lay the road bed that carried the tracks across the mountains. Often these men would work for the railroad after they finished their stint on the construction gangs. Sometimes they would go farther west with another construction project. These were the same fellows who built the dams and who built the canals and built the buildings across the country through the late 19th century.

Q: So brawn was so important. Is it conceivable that John Henry could be a steel driving machine?
JJBG 0849
JH: Of course. John Henry was probably a real character. There's usually a real man behind the myth or the legend. And he very well could have beaten that steam drill once or twice. We keep coming back around to the notion of 'can you stop progress', and even John Henry couldn't stop progress. He could stop that one steam drill, maybe, but not the one next behind it and the one behind that.


Q: Tell me what the significance of the 1877 strike was?
JJBG 0909
JH: The strike of 1877 was a truly pivotal event; the fact that it began in Martinsburg means less than what the strike in its aftermath meant for railroad workers and unions across the country. Essentially the strike began at the B & O shops in Martinsburg when freight train crews and then passenger train crews refused to take their trains out, protesting a 10% cut in pay. In those days, any kind of job action on the railroad was regarded as treasonous. It was heretical. It took a great deal of courage first of all to stop work. The company called out federal troops and the local militia ...


Q: John, why was that strike important.
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JH: The outcome of the strike -- the strikers lost as they almost always did in the 19th century -- what it did do though is set up the notion. News of that strike and what happened in Martinsburg traveled throughout the state and then throughout the country. It turned nasty Chicago and in Pittsburgh, but you might say it brought us to our senses. We, to a certain extent, realized we had to start taking care of the men as well as the railroads, the machines, the stockholders. Out of that on the B & O at least came what was known as the B & O Relief Department, a very early example of a pension plan, an insurance plan, a savings, basically a credit union. That was radical in those days. It all came out of that great strike of 1877.
JJBG 1070
The strike also affected men like Frederick Kimball, who at that point was a young man learning the railroad business out of Philadelphia. Kimball was the son of a wealthy banker, an investor. Spent seven or eight years learning the railroad trade on the Pennsylvania railroad. Went in as a partner in a financial firm in Philadelphia. At some point got interested in the Shenandoah Valley Railroad. That round-about route led him in 1881 at the creation of the Norfolk and Western Railroad to the position of vice president. He essentially completed, set up, the modern Norfolk and Western as we know it.
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N & W had started out in some ways like the B & O or the C & O as a way to cross the state of Virginia and West Virginia and link the seaboard with the Ohio river. N & W turned out a little big differently, though. When Kimball and his firm took it over in the early 1880's at foreclosure, what had begun as the vision, the dream of a former Confederate States of America officer, William Mahone, turned into a much more calculated gambit by a Philadelphia financial house using British investors' money to exploit this wonderful natural resource.

Q: What effect did the N & W have on the southern West Virginia?
JH: We can think of general terms. In the early days with the B & O opening up northern West Virginia for development, lumbering, coal mining of the C & O at mid-century, the 1860's and '70's opening central West Virginia and penetrating the valleys and hollows through the Kanawha Valley.
JJBG 1243
But it was the Norfolk and Western Railway that really opened the southern most part of West Virginia, the Pocahontas region of the Flattop Range. Even the name Pocahontas is kind of an invention. Kimball's wife just choose that name because she was enamored of the character Pocahontas and her saving John Smith in the early days. Just named a town Pocahontas. That was one of the termini of the Norfolk and Western, and she gave that name to the whole coal region.

Q: What did the N & W do to life there in southern West Virginia? There are few people who lived along the Tug Fork when Kimball started laying rail.
JJBG 1318
JH: Norfolk and Western opened what we might think of as the most remote, the most isolated parts of the state. By that time the technology had improved so that we could build railroads almost anywhere by tunneling mountains, by building bridges. The Norfolk and Western pioneered many of our notions of modern railroading with heavy duty equipment and modern operating practices and some very modern labor attitudes. Kimball did not object for example when his men joined the Knights of Labor in the 1890's. Very, very liberal for his time in terms of what the rights of workers were. Norfolk and Western literally brought life to the area around the Tug Fork, the Big Sandy, the very southern edge, the border with Virginia. There's not a whole lot else to say about the Norfolk and Western. ...


Q: John tell me about the role of railroads in shaping what we know now as the West Virginia colonial ? ? way ? ? West Virginia evolved the way it did which is not like ? ?
JJBG 1451
JH: To a certain extent, the economy, even the shape, the texture of West Virginia is what it is, is what it became because the state came after railroads. If it had remained part of the state of Virginia it probably would have evolved in a completely different form. Emerging as it did, during the Civil War and then growing into maturity in what we call the 'guilded age,' the age of railroad transportation, we were able to make West Virginia a colony of the rest of the country. Its resources, its coal, its timber built New York and Baltimore and New Orleans and Chicago and Cleveland. Its money came from New York and Boston, Philadelphia, Great Britain. Even the people who came to West Virginia to farm, to mine, to timber came from somewhere else, and the railroads allowed that to happen.
JJBG 1539
The railroad had a very positive effect on the state and a very negative effect. Even the industries that came afterwards, the steel mills and the American ruler?? the chemical plants along the Kanawha river, the wartime economies of the first and second world wars were dependent upon the railroads to make that happen. The railroads were likewise dependent upon West Virginia for fuel, for traffic, for just a way to get to the Ohio river. It's a very complex relationship. These things always are. It has its good and its bad.

Q: One last thing. These small little railroads, Greenbrier, Cheat Mountain ... we'll get that one ..

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