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The C&O's Loup Creek Branch

By 1888, the C&O had established a western expansion from Huntington to Cincinnati, Ohio, but the road's rails had yet to reach into the vast coal field located along the banks of Loup Creek. By 1889, the completion of a railroad bridge across the New River at Thurmond and the building a railroad branch line down the south side of the New River permitted the opening of several new mining operations along the south side of the New River Gorge. It was during this time that Thomas G. McKell, the owner of a vast tract of land, amounting to approximately 20,000 acres, that stretched between Thurmond, Glen Jean and Mount Hope began to actively pursue the development of his coal lands.

C&O passenger train ready to head up the Loup Creek Branch from Thurmond, WV
A C&O passenger train preparing to make the trip up Loup Creek to Macdonald, a run made as many as twelve time per day during the very early years, circa early-1900's
Click to view enlarged

Although McKell owned coal lands with ready access to the railroad near Thurmond, that he could have quickly developed, McKell desired to establish new mining operations in the area located in the region of the upper Loup Creek coalfield. With the seams of coal thicker in the plateau, and more flat land available to build coal plants, housing for workers and other structures, McKell wisely chose to begin development of his coal lands along the upper area of Loup Creek rather than opening mines near the Gorge. McKell was fully aware of the challenge his faced to accomplish his goal, for in order develop these lands, the building of a branch line railroad extending from the C&O's bridge at Thurmond about 8-miles into the Loup Creek plateau would be required.

In 1892, McKell wrote to Melvin E. Ingalls, President of the C&O, seeking his advice and possible assistance with the building of a railroad needed to develop his coal lands. Ingalls quickly replied to McKell, indicating the C&O's willingness to build and operate the railroad McKell required, provided that McKell would give the company the right-of-way required to build the line. As a result of an agreement reached between McKell and Ingalls, the C&O began construction of the branch line later that year. By late-1893, the rail line was completed from Thurmond to Glen Jean, and in January of 1894, the coal-hauling branch line railroad, officially known as the Loup Creek Branch, was completed to Macdonald. The shipment of coal via the branch had begun a few months earlier, on November 7, 1893, when the first car of coal was shipped from the Collins Colliery Company at Glen Jean.

The volume of passengers and coal being hauled off the Loup Creek Branch during its first decades of existence was absolutely huge for the era. During these very early years, even the most "modern" and powerful locomotives were able to haul only a few railroad cars over the winding grades of the Loup Creek Branch. By 1906, 200 car-loads of coal per day were rolling off the Loup Creek Branch, an incredible amount of tonnage for the time. During this period, the C&O reported that 1/3 of all the coal being moved eastward on the railroad's mainline was coming off the Loup Creek Branch. It wasn't long until this huge volume of traffic on the tiny branch line began to present a very real operational challenge for the C&O. By the early 1900's, the C&O began expressing it's desire to double-track the branch, claiming it could not possibly haul all of the passengers and coal, off the Loup Creek Branch, using just a single track -- the volume was simply too great!

The C&O's expansion plan was greatly opposed by T. G. McKell, who saw the situation quite differently than did the C&O. In McKell's mind, the C&O really wanted to expand its line into other areas, rather than simply taking care of the customer they already had (namely McKell's coal properties.) McKell also feared that such expansions would in-turn allow other coal operators to begin shipping coal. Because the C&O had informed McKell early in 1895 that they could no longer take all of the coal McKell was able to ship from his coal leases, McKell felt that he was being unfairly "squeezed" by the C&O. If the C&O began allowing other coal operations to open via an expansion of its line, the C&O would then be in a position to force McKell to sell his coal at a lower rate, since the C&O could simply threaten to take the coal from the other coal operators if he didn't accept whatever rates the C&O offered him. Although the C&O Railway was not "officially" in the business of selling coal, it a common practice for the C&O and other railroads to actively participate in negotiations for the sale of coal. Typically, the railroads exerted pressure on the coal operators to sell their coal as the lowest rate possible.

Making matters worse from McKell's point of view was the fact that in 1895, another railroad, the Glen Jean, Lower Loup & Deepwater Railroad (GJLL&D) had started construction of a rail line between Glen Jean and Deepwater. Oddly enough, this happened just shortly after the C&O had told McKell they could not take all of his coal. With the threat of another railroad (that would haul other company's coal) being built, McKell quickly had his lawyers draw up the papers to create his own railroad, the Kanawha, Glen Jean & Eastern Railway (KGJ&E) so that he could built a railroad through Glen Jean to Deepwater before the GJLL&D could complete its railroad. If anyone was going to be hauling coal to market (and making money doing that), McKell wanted to make sure it was him that was doing it.

It wasn't long until fist fights were threatening to erupt in Glen Jean, between the two railroad construction crews, of the KGJ&E and the GJLL&D, each crew insisting they had the right to work on grading the exact same piece of land. The County Sheriff stopped the argument more than once, but the matter spilled over into Fayette County Court, and was finally settled by the West Virginia Supreme Court, with a ruling against McKell some years later, in 1899. The lose in court angered McKell, but when the C&O bought out the GJLL&D, not long after the matter was settled, McKell felt he really had reason to be angered. The C&O was now in the position to built rail lines into many new areas of Fayette County. This expansion would allow the opening of many new coal mines, none of which would be on McKell's coal lands.

As the C&O lines began to slowly creep into previously undeveloped regions of the great coal fields of the plateau, many new coal mining operations began to be opened during the early 1900's, primarily between Glen Jean and Oak Hill. But McKell did not give up the fight, and over the years that followed, a lengthy legal battle between McKell and the C&O began. It was not until 1915, some years after T. G. McKell's death in 1904, that the case would be settled, with C&O losing the argument and the McKell heirs being awarded $300,000 in damages. Even before winning the lawsuit, the McKell clan had won another victory over the C&O, with the completion of a branch line of the KGJ&E Railway to Pax, in 1910. At Pax, the McKell owned KGJ&E Railway made a connection with the newly completed Virginian Railway, a railroad that was quick to offer McKell a more favorable rate for shipping his coal than had the C&O. The KGJ&E's connection with the Virginian effectively ended the C&O's monopoly of the coal mines of the Loup Creek Coal Field.

But despite the competition from the KGJ&E and Virginian, the C&O continued to haul massive quantities of coal from the mines along the Loup Creek Branch during the 1920's and 1930's. In 1940, one year after the death of William McKell, the C&O purchased the KGJ&E and absorbed the line as part of the Loup Creek Branch. With the U.S. entry into World War II, in 1941, the Loup Creek Branch was soon pressed to full capacity due to its ability to provide a steady stream of coal needed to build tanks, guns, planes, ships and other war materials.

Following the end of the war, the importance of coal as a fuel began to slowly decline. When the nation's railroads switched from coal-burning steam locomotives to diesel locomotives in the late 1950's, a major market for coal disappeared forever. By this point in time, the C&O owned practically all of the mines along Loup Creek via its control of the New River Company. In the years that followed, the good amount of coal continued to be moved off the branch, through the 1970's, but by the 1980's, the once huge flow of coal from the branch had dwindled to a mere trickle. But this point in time, practically all of the coal that could be mined cost-effectively had been removed from the mines along Loup Creek.

The Loup Creek Branch Today

By the late 1980's, the last coal mining operation on the branch had closed, and rumors soon began to circulate that CSX planned to rip up the track and abandoned the just-under 100-year-old branch line. But, in 1994, the Loup Creek Branch was unexpectedly given a new lease on life. The planned opening of a plant, by Georgia-Pacific (GP), in Mount Hope assured that the branch line would have a future as the plant planned to ship and receive freight via rail. It wasn't long before the new GP plant (see photo, below) began to take shape, on the hillside above the former location of the New River Company's Siltix tipple.

Today, colorful CSX trains roll along the Loup Creek Branch delivering and picking up freight from the Georgia-Pacific plant several times each week. Not long after the GP plant opened, another industry located along the branch line, at the very location of the old Siltix tipple. At this spot, CSX trains no set off and pick up railroad cars on a routine basis.

C&O passenger train ready to head up the Loup Creek Branch from Thurmond, WV
A CSX train rumbles through Mount Hope, 1998
Click to view enlarged

At present (1999) the future of the Loup Creek Branch seems very secure. It seems fitting that the Loup Creek Branch has survived, reaching (and passing) the rip old age of 100-years-old. It also seems appropriate that the present-day Loup Creek Branch follows the original route of the C&O into town, and from there to the GP plant, it follows the route of the old KGJ&E Railway, once a fierce competitor of the C&O. Whether many people realize it or not, Georgia-Pacific has helped to preserve two different elements of Mount Hope's past.

Georgia Pacific Plant - Mount Hope, WV
The Mount Hope Georgia-Pacific Plant
Click to view enlarged

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