Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Richmond and Chesapeake Bay Railway

The fascinating story of this former passenger interurban that connected Richmond and Ashland. All that is left today is the former terminal at Laurel and Broad streets, and a car barn on Brook Road. A mile-long concrete trestle existed here, but was torn down in the 1950's and 1960's.

It says here that the line was constructed for high speeds- up to 90mph!

From the National Register of Historic Places:

Statement of Significance
The Richmond and Chesapeake Bay Railway car barn is significant because it is one of two surviving buildings associated with the independent electric railway that provided service between the City of Richmond and the Town of Ashland from 1907 to 1938. The only other surviving building, the terminal, has been heavily altered and is no longer recognizable as a terminal building. Utilitarian in nature, the car barn incorporates industrial materials of the time – steel structure and corrugated metal siding. A number of innovations incorporated into the line made it unique – the type of car, the current utilized, and the concrete and steel viaduct. The car barn is eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places under criteria A and C. It is eligible under criterion A because of its association with an interurban railroad that incorporated innovative technology. The car barn is eligible under criterion C because it is representative of early twentieth century industrial architecture.

Historic Background
Frank Jay Gould, son of New York financier, Jay Gould, envisioned an electric railway from Norfolk to Fredericksburg that would pass through Petersburg and Richmond with branches to the Northern Neck. Gould wanted a high-speed electric railway with large comfortable cars – not the local trolley system the line would later become. Incorporated in 1905, the Richmond and Chesapeake Bay Railway integrated a number of innovations, many never before seen in the United States, namely the type of cars used, the voltage at which they were operated, and the concrete viaduct. Gould wanted cars that were fast and comfortable. The four, thirty-nine ton, fifty-five foot cars, manufactured by the St. Louis Car Company, resembled Pullman parlor cars with mahogany paneling, high backed seats, frescoed ceilings, smoking compartments, and vestibule doors.3 The original rail cars were an oddity– “they were built in two sections, divided with a large transformer in the center. These cars, the only ones of their kind, were designed to absorb only as much power as was required and return the excess to the overhead wire. In this manner, enough power was left in the line to sell to customers along the right of way.”4 The cars used 6,600 volts at twenty-five cycles per second instead of the customary 600-volt direct current used by trolleys. Further, no other interurban railway up to this time had used voltages higher than 3,300. A pantograph extended from the center of the car transferred power from the overhead wire to the motor. Because of high speeds envisioned for the railway, up to 90 miles and hour, the overhead wire could not be strung in the traditional manner from pole to pole. A suspended centenary system was chosen, because the slightest sag in the wire could result in the pantograph losing contact with the wire and arching. For these reasons, too, the rail line needed to be level and straight. To maintain Gould’s high standard for a straight and level rail line it was necessary to construct a half-mile long bridge that would cross Bacon’s Quarter Branch, the double tracks of the Seaboard Air Line Railway, and a number of well traveled roads. A wood trestle with steel spans over the streets and railroads was planned, but while traveling in France, Gould saw aconcrete viaduct. Gould halted construction on the wood trestle and ordered a concrete viaduct be built. The viaduct was designed by the Trussed Concrete Steel Company of New York and was the largest bridge of its type in the United States at the time.
Intent upon building an interurban railroad, Frank Jay Gould purchased the Brook Turnpike in 1902. Chartered in 1812, the Brook Turnpike improved travel between Richmond and northern portions of the state, and for a long time it was the only road leading north from the City of Richmond. In the 1830s, a trip north to Washington still required a thirty-eight hour stagecoach journey along the turnpike. A special act of the General Assembly chartered the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad in 1834. The charter contained a number of unique features, including a statute prohibiting the construction of a railroad between Richmond and Washington or any portion thereof. Based on this statute, the State Corporation Commission was unwilling to grant Gould a charter for is new railroad. After a Virginia Supreme Court decision and no objection from RF&P Railroad, the charter was granted in 1905. The Richmond to Ashland section was the first to be built. Railway management was anxious to begin service and opened the 5.2-mile section between Richmond and Lakeside on 27 July 1907, months before the rest of the line was ready for operation. The single-track railroad could not accommodate the scheduled runs while managing the ongoing construction required to complete the line to Ashland. As a result, business was suspended six days later, until 28 October 1907, when the 14.8 miles between Richmond and Ashland finally opened for business. Construction costs totaled $994,000. Gould had plans to begin immediate construction on the line to Tappahannock, but the stock market panic of 21 October 1907 made investors nervous. The Virginia Passenger and Power Company and the Richmond Passenger and Power Company, both controlled by Frank Gould, were in receivership. As a result of these events, the line was never completed. The railroad continued to operate until 20 December 1917, but the short section of track was never profitable. The heavy Pullman-style cars showed abnormal wear because they weren’t designed for frequent local stops. The line was put up for auction in August 1918 and the highest bidder offered $90,000 and wanted to scrap the assets. The trustees rejected the bid because the tracks and real estate alone were worth $140,000.

In 1919, Oliver J. Sands and Jonathan Bryan bought the franchise for $135,000 and the Richmond-Ashland Railway was chartered on 15 April 1919. A bond issue of $200,000 helped finance the purchase price and start-up costs. The new railway would operate as an interurban streetcar line between Richmond and Ashland. The line was converted to cheaper to operate 600-volt D.C. current instead of the 6,600-volt current originally used and four streetcars were acquired second-hand. There were a number of grade crossing accidents and on 16 July 1922 there was a head on collision between two trolleys that injured six people. “Expenses incurred due to the collision and several crossing accidents strained the financial resources of the company.”5 In 1936 when the original thirty-year franchise expired, the company’s deficit had reached $171,619 and their bond indebtedness was $161,500. The bond interest had been in default for six years. On Tuesday, 22 March 1938 the lasttrolley left Ashland and the copper wire and rails were sold for scrap. Virginia Electric and Power Company purchased the railroad’s right of way to run electric transmission lines in 1937. The City of Richmond purchased the Brook Road right of way lying within the corporate limits. “When Brook Road has been improved, as we plan to improve it, real estate values, both along Brook Road and on Chamberlayne Avenue, are bound to be enhanced, and we will have a new and badly needed outlet to Route 1.”6

Frank Jay Gould was the youngest of six children born to Jay Gould and his wife, Helen Day Miller. Jay Gould was an American financier and railroad speculator – a prototypical robber baron. Along with James Fisk and Daniel Drew, he wrested control of the Erie Railroad from Cornelius Vanderbilt and in 1869 he precipitated a financial panic, when he and Fisk attempted to corner the gold market. When Jay Gould died in 1892, at the age of 57, he left an estate valued at seventy-seven million to his children. In 1909, Frank Jay Gould incorporated the Virginia Railway and Power Company. The goal was to acquire Richmond and Tidewater Railways and related companies, and provide light and power, operate street railways, and distribute manufactured gas. Among the Richmond acquisitions were the Richmond Railroad and Viaduct Company, the Richmond and Petersburg Electric Railway Company, the Richmond Traction Company, the Virginia Passenger and Power Company, and the Richmond Passenger and Power Company. The Richmond Passenger and Power Company, established in 1887 by Frank Sprague as the Richmond Union Passenger, was the first commercially successful electric street railway system in the world. In 1913, the Virginia Railway and Power Company built its head quarters building at 702 East Franklin Street -- twelve-story “skyscraper” designed by Alfred C. Bossom. In 1925, Gould sold his controlling interest in the Virginia Railway and Power Company to Stone and Webster and the name was changed to the Virginia Electric and Power Company (VEPCO). Gould died in Paris in 1956.

With the exception of the car barn and the terminal little remains of the Richmond and Chesapeake Bay Railway. The Richmond terminal at 814 West Broad Street is still standing and occupied by the Richmond Glass Company. However, the exterior has been sheathed with a metal cladding that completely obscures the classical facade designed by the architectural firm of Noland and Baskervill. The former terminal building is listed as a contributing building to the Broad Street Commercial Historic District Boundary Increase. The Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority removed part of the viaduct in 1958 as part of a slum clearance project and to build Carver School. Another portion was taken down to make way for the Richmond Petersburg Turnpike (Interstate 95). The remainder was demolished by the City of Richmond in 1965. The north abutment was still visible from Sledd Street in 1983. The Virginia Dominion Power Company’s, formerly VEPCO, power transmission line has preserved the character of the cuts and fills with little alteration since they purchased the right of way in 1937. The Ashland Depot, at the corner of Maple and England streets was replaced with the Ashland Post Office in 1940.

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