Glencoe Museum lies at the heart of Southwest Virginia’s rail history. From the region’s first trains to Civil War battles and rail’s heyday in the late 1800s, Radford has played a “Central” role.
Laying the Tracks
In 1850, the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad company set out to create a rail route from Lynchburg to Bristol, Virginia. The New River was a significant natural boundary, and they chose to cross it here, in what is now Radford.
In addition to a covered rail bridge, the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad built a depot with a roundhouse and several machine shops, calling it Central Depot for its central location between Lynchburg and Bristol. These would be the seeds of the future City of Radford. The first trains rolled through in 1856.
Civil War Supply Lines
Less than ten years later, this new railroad – and the covered bridge at Central Depot – would play a significant role in the Civil War. Because the Virginia and Tennessee line served as a major supply line for Confederate forces, supplying Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson to the north and east, it became a target for Union forces. The bridge was destroyed but quickly rebuilt.
A New Era in Rail
After the Civil War, rail travel began to come into its own. The rail line went through the hands of several owners and followed the ebb and flow of the topsy-turvy economy of the 1870s. Several other lines were either built or planned, including General Gabriel C. Wharton’s proposed line connecting the area to the West Virginia coalfields.
Real change came in 1882 when a new company – Norfolk & Western (now Norfolk Southern) – arrived on the scene, buying old rail lines and grabbing up existing charters. Norfolk & Western transformed the area immensely, improving rail lines and building a new bridge at Central, setting the stage for the creation of the City of Radford in 1892.
In the railroad’s heyday, Radford boasted two passenger stations and attracted many different industries. However, with the rise of the automobile, the railroads began to decline. Though passenger rail service ended in Radford in 1973, today trains still rumble across the New River just a few yards from the original covered bridge that spanned the river 150 years ago.
Visit “Central Depot” for a closer look at Southwest Virginia’s rail history. Check out the site of the Civil War battle in what is now Radford’s Bisset Park and visit Glencoe Museum to learn more about the history of rail in Southwest Virginia.