In 1852, G.W.L. Bickley in his book History of the Settlement and Indian Wars of Tazewell County, Virginia asked the question: “When shall we have an outlet for this coal? Bickley’s question and his assessment of the intrinsic value of coal to Tazewell County were certainly an idea ahead of its time. An answer to his question would be offered over thirty years later with the first shipments of coal from Pocahontas.
Since the coal could not be transported to distant markets, the land was considered worthless by outside investors. Thus, the major hindrance to the development of the coalfields in Pocahontas was the lack of transportation for the coal. Although a system of railroads linked much of the nation by 1870, railroad companies had not penetrated the Appalachian Mountains.
Prior to the construction of the railroad, the Pocahontas coalfield region had little in the way of cities, towns, or villages. In 1872, the possibilities of such a railroad to connect coal resources to outside trade markets moved one step closer to reality when the New River Railroad, Mining, and Manufacturing Company received a charter from the Virginia State Legislature. The charter allowed the company to construct, operate, and maintain a railroad from the New River Depot in Pulaski County to Mercer County, West Virginia.
Meanwhile, Colonel Thomas Graham acquired a majority of the stock from the New River Railroad, Mining, and Manufacturing Company. He went to work securing the coal-laden lands, and used his influence to encourage the building of a railroad into the Pocahontas coalfield region. The construction of the railroad into the region during the 1870s was slowed by an economic depression.
However, in 1879, a narrow gauge railroad was constructed from the mainline of the Norfolk and Western Railroad in Radford, Virginia to the future town of Pocahontas, Virginia. Since there was interest on the part of the Norfolk and Western Railroad in connecting with the railroad systems of Ohio and the northwest, the extension into Pocahontas would soon become an integral part of that plan.
In 1881, Frederick Kimball, then Vice-President of the Norfolk and Western, became interested in expanding the railway into the Flat Top Coal Region of West Virginia. Kimball believed that the rich coal deposits could provide cheap fuel for his railroad and would allow the Norfolk and Western Railroad to compete in the profitable eastern coal trade. The single gauge line from Radford to Pocahontas was purchased by the Norfolk and Western Railroad, which began construction on a standard gauge railroad. Upon completion of the land survey, construction of the railroad into the Pocahontas coalfields was begun on August 3, 1881.
The installment of the line was both difficult and expensive. However, despite bad weather and mountainous terrain, progress on the new line went quickly. In March 1883, the 75-mile line reached Pocahontas, Virginia. The transportation of Pocahontas coal to the tidewater region had officially begun.
The first train arrived in Pocahontas on March 10, 1883 to begin hauling a pile of 40,000 tons of coal that had already been extracted from the mines. Mrs. Harriet Eliza Lathrop, the mine superintendent’s wife, described the historic arrival of the first train:
I was just plain excited the day it did arrive and could hardly settle down to do anything intelligently; finally we heard the locomotive whistle down the line, and I assure you no operatic music ever thrilled me as that sound did, and the freight train with a dilapidated looking passenger car on the rear was a beautiful sight. Everyone turned out to see and welcome it, with cheers and shouting.
The Norfolk and Western Railroad loaded the train’s first car with Pocahontas coal for its own use and a second car was decorated for transport to Norfolk, Virginia. This car was consigned to Mayor William Lamb for free distribution among the people in that city. There a band, flags, and numerous curious individuals greeted the train. Finally, after over three decades, Bickley’s question had been answered. An outlet for this valuable resource was found and a region had sprung to life.
Brewster, Thomas. An Historic Coal Mining Community and Its School: A Study of Pocahontas High School 1908-1991 http://scholar.lib.vt.edu/theses/available/etd-11272000-214847/unrestricted/Brewster.pdf