The New River Gorge

Part Five
A wet autumn day in Thurmond.

Any time I visit the New River Gorge I almost always spend some time in Thurmond. For rail fans visiting southern West Virginia, Thurmond is certainly a must see place. Almost all of the railroad structures which crowded this narrow strip of flat land are gone. Still, there is much about this place which carries you back a hundred years to the boom times of the New River coal fields. A great deal has been written about Thurmond, much of it available on-line, and I’ll not do a history summary here. But I will touch on some of the highlights.

An east-bound grain train rolls through Thurmond.

Confederate Captain William Thurmond acquired 73 acres along the New River for $20. Subsequently, the town of Thurmond was incorporated in 1900. Not long after he had purchased the land the C&O completed its line through the Gorge in 1873. But there was virtually no growth in Thurmond for many years. The story of Thurmond is really a story of Thomas G. McKell of Glen Jean, WV. McKell had negotiated with the C&O to build a branch line up Dunloup Creek (then known as Loup Creek) which became the C&O’s Loup Creek Branch. McKell arranged for financing to construct a rail bridge over the New River to connect the new branch line with Thurmond. Thurmond quickly became a boom town and generated 20% of the entire C&O’s revenue.1

The John Bullock/Roger Armandtrout House sits trackside at the western end of Thurmond. It was featured as a boarding house in the movie “Matewan”.
A view from the front porch of the Bullock/Armandtrout House.

With the opening of the Loup Creek branch Thurmond became a center of commerce. It soon gained a passenger depot, freight station, turntable, engine house, water tank, coal and sand towers, hotels, banks, stores, restaurants and homes.1

Fresh off the plateau, coal loads cross the New on the Loup Creek Branch entering the main line at Thurmond. Often these trains pull into the Rush Run siding at the western end of Thurmond and head back east after the power runs around the train.

“The growth [of Thurmond] was so great that during the first two decades of the 1900’s, Thurmond handled more freight than Richmond, Virginia and Cincinnati, Ohio combined, and the railroad depot hosted over 95,000 passengers yearly. With 18 train crews operating out of the town, a little more than 150 people worked for the railroad, as laborers, brakemen and dispatchers.”1

For railfan photographers Thurmond is situated such that evening light is usually very nice.
The Cardinal runs through the Gorge on Sunday, Wednesday and Friday; train 50 (EB) in the morning and train 51 (WB) in the evening on each of those days. Thurmond is a flag stop so there is no agent at the station.
The west end of Thurmond as seen from the former Rend Branch (now a rail trail). The Rend Branch connected at the Loup Creek Branch and ran down river for about ½ mile before turning up Arbuckle Creek Canyon to reach the mine at Minden, WV. The distant track is the mainline and the near track is the Rush Run siding. From Thurmond downriver to Sewell it’s single track.
There is very little in the way of access roads in the Gorge so this is the method used to maintain the switch heaters. I’ve often wondered why they don’t just build a high-rail propane truck.
The old passenger depot has been restored and is well maintained. During the warm weather it is open to the public and manned by park service employees.
East-bound rolling through Thurmond with friend Jesse Smith at the controls.
West-bound empties on the main with loads sitting on the Loup Creek Branch waiting to enter the main. For photographing trains Thurmond offers many different composition opportunities.
This 1913 USGS map shows the extensive yard tracks at Thurmond during boom times. The smaller yard shown on the south side of the river is the eastern terminus of the Southside Branch (Sewell to Thurmond, now a rail trail). The Southside yard tracks are still in place, the Thurmond yard tracks are all gone and all that is left are the two mains.
If you enjoy to watch and/or photograph trains, waterfalls, nice trails, and visiting ruins then Thurmond can be a productive day trip. All these things are within one mile of Thurmond. Above, coke ovens at the ghost town of Rush Run (across the river from Thurmond).
Some of the old yard track at the east end of the Southside Branch (across the river from Thurmond).
This short spur off the Southside Branch serviced a mine here at the mouth of Arbuckle Creek. This area, especially behind me, has one of the best displays of spring wildflowers to be found in the Gorge. Also, Arbuckle Creek, to my left, has a number of great waterfalls. There is a short and steep connector trail here which takes you from the Southside Branch trail up to the Rend Trail.
One of the many great waterfalls on Arbuckle Creek.
A view of Thurmond from the Concho overlook. On this windy and cold April morning a west-bound ethanol train rolls by. The road winding up the mountain is Beury Mountain Road. It follows the ridge line for several miles taking you to Leland (which sits above Prince, WV along Meadow Creek).
With smoking brakes and the whine of dynamics a pair of CSX motors eases loads down the mountain on the Loup Creek Branch. Thurmond is behind me along this road and it goes up the mountain to Glen Jean. “Back in the day” they brought 200 loads per day down this mountain 20 loads at a time. So much coal was mined that the C&O had trouble keeping up with demand. There was even consideration given to double-tracking the Branch. The Branch originally terminated at Glen Jean (six miles from Thurmond) but an additional five miles was eventually added linking it to the old Virginian Rail Road at Pax, WV. It eased some of the burden plus shipping rates were cheaper.
R J Corman motors bringing loads down the mountain.

There used to be several eye appealing bridges along Dunloup Creek but they were all replaced a couple years ago to accommodate two-lane traffic.
Dunloup Creek has many attractive waterfalls especially nice in Spring and Autumn.
Another Dunloup Creek waterfall.

If you railfan Thurmond and use a scanner you can get a warning for both east-bound and west-bound trains. Crews traveling west usually call the signal at Claremont (about three miles east of Thurmond) and for east-bound they usually call the Rush Run signal about 1.5 miles west of Thurmond.

See you in December for Part Six of the New River Gorge!

1. See The (near) Ghost Town of Thurmond, West Virginia

Fred WolfePhotographs and text Copyright 2017

See more of Fred’s work at or find him on Facebook at Wolfelight-Images and at

The New River Gorge

Part Four

Read The New River Gorge Part One; Part Two; Part Three

The Sewell Bridge

In Part Three we had just arrived at the Sewell Bridge. Here on the south side of the Sewell Bridge was the location of the western terminus of the Southside Junction. Most of the mining in the Gorge was “drift mining” – coal seams were exposed on the mountain slopes and all that required was building access up to the seam and then mining into it. Since the New River had simply interrupted the various seams, those on the north side were continued on the slopes of the south side. The Southside Junction was built to accommodate mining these other seams. The Southside Junction ran from here up to Dun Glen across from Thurmond, West Virginia.

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The New River Gorge

Part Three

Read The New River Gorge Part One here and Part Two here

The New River Gorge Bridge as seen from Bridge Buttress

In Part Two, we had just begun to explore Fayette Station, West Virginia.  Here Route 82 (one way from the north side of the Gorge and back up the other side) descends the mountain to the river then back up along the south side.  Before the New River Gorge Bridge was built, Route 82 was how the Gorge was crossed at this location.  At that time it was two way but for years now it has been limited to one way traffic.

Fayette Station is a busy place during the warm months.  It is a center of activity for raft take-outs, rock climbing, viewing the bridge and for several waterfalls which are within walking distance.  It also has a great rail fan location which I’ll get to later. Read more

The New River Gorge

Part Two

(Click here to read The New River Gorge – Part One)

Looking track east from the overlook at Hawk’s Nest. Here, main #2 continues along the south side of the river while main #1 crosses the bridge and continues along the north side. The two mains rejoin on the north side at the bridge crossing at Cunard, West Virginia.

In Part One we left off at Cotton Hill, West Virginia. As we move track east we soon come to Hawk’s Nest, only a couple of miles upriver from Cotton Hill. At Hawk’s Nest you step into the rich coal mining history of the Gorge. The 30 track miles from Hawk’s Nest to Quinnimont contain almost the entire history of New River coal. In the peak years early in the last century the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway (C&O) serviced 75 mines along this stretch of river including the various branch lines that crawled up the several side canyons.

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Editor’s Notebook

South portal of the Paw Paw Tunnel on December 27th, 2016. The walk through the tunnel on the old towpath is a little over one-half mile. A flashlight is required.
Across the Potomac river from Paw Paw, West Virginia, a landmark canal tunnel stands which is also associated with the early years of railroading. The largest structure on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, the 3,118 foot long Paw Paw Tunnel was built at the height of the race between the C&O canal and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad to reach the Ohio River. Construction of the tunnel began in 1836, but labor disputes, unexpected construction difficulties and lack of funds delayed completion until 1848. The C&O Canal and the B&O Railroad were both born on July 4th, 1828. In Georgetown (Washington, DC) the C&O Canal held an elaborate ceremony with President John Quincy Adams in attendance. In Baltimore the groundbreaking for the B&O railroad was more modest. Charles Carroll, the last remaining signer of the Declaration of Independence dug the first shovel-full of dirt to begin the construction of the railway. As the two companies made their way westward disputes over property were inevitable. At Point of Rocks, Maryland, competing claims to the narrow right of way resulted in a four year delay in construction until the courts ruled in the canal's favor. In the end, of course, the railroad won out. The Baltimore and Ohio reached Cumberland, Maryland in 1842, eight years ahead of the canal. After a disastrous flood in 1889 bankrupted the C&O, the canal came under the control of the Consolidation Coal Company, which was principally owned by the B&O. The canal closed in 1924.
The Center for Railroad Photography & Art recently published The Railroad and the Art of Place, by David Kahler, who is a contributor to The Trackside Photographer. It is an evocative look at how railroads shape the visual and cultural landscape. We will have an in-depth article about the book in March. In the meantime you may learn more and order here. 

The New River Gorge

Part One

Far below the Hawk’s Nest overlook, a stack train moves east through the New River Gorge.

In 1872 Collis P. Huntington took an overnight float trip down the New River from Hinton to Hawk’s Nest to see where his railroad was going. By 1873 the line was finished. By 1874 the first branch line (Laurel Creek, Quinnemont) was open as was the first mine (Laurel Creek, Joseph Beury).  Cutting ever deeper through the mountains, the New River exposed four coal seams world famous for high quality, high BTU coal.
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