< NWHS Virginian Introduction

(Opinions and choices of references here are those of the author, and not necessarily those of the N&WHS.)

The Virginian Railway was an amazing organization, with many unique features. Although it was merged into the N&W in 1959, interest in the VGN continues strongly today. Numerous books have been written, and in fact seem to be appearing more frequently in recent years. Photos are available from numerous sources, and scale models continue to be developed for this Class 1 outfit.

Here are a few comments to give you a taste of what The Virginian was all about, with references to some of the interesting books and other materials that have been published. A summary of recommended reading appears at the end. [Citations in square brackets refer to these books and resources.]

Company History

The creation of the Virginian is generally credited to one man, Henry Huttleston Rogers of New York and Fairhaven, Mass. Mr. Rogers amassed a substantial fortune as an executive of John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil Company, later investing in numerous coal, copper, oil, and railroad concerns. The Virginian was his last and arguably his greatest acheivement.

General References

Before we get into detailed areas of interest, here are a few general references.

For many years, the standard (and only) book was "The Virginian Railway" by H. Reid [Reid], published by Kalmbach. You may still be able to get a soft-cover copy through your hobby shop or directly from Kalmbach. Copies of the first (hardbound) edition are frequently seen through book sellers at model or railroadiana shows, and through online auctions. The first edition is to be preferred, as its photos are much clearer. (The later editions were reportedly mastered from a cut-up first edition rather than the original plates, and the reproduction suffered accordingly.) Other more recent general references include [Lewis/Era], [Riesweber], and [WileyWallace].

A column on the VGN appears regularly in the N&WHS magazine, The Arrow.

Steam Locomotives

The Virginian was often in the forefront of steam locomotive development, particularly in the area of LARGE articulated locomotives. The most (in)famous was the class XA Baldwin Triplex. This was built expressly for pusher service up the Clarks Gap grade. Unfortunately, its appetite for steam exceeded the capacity of its boiler. It was returned to Baldwin after extensive field trials, and was rebuilt into two smaller locomotives.

The best available reference on VGN steam power is Lloyd Lewis' book, "Virginian Railway Locomotives" [Lewis/Loco]. A set of VGN classification diagrams is available from TLC Publishing. [TLC/Loco].


In 1923, Virginian management instituted a project to electrify its main operational bottleneck, the limiting grade of Clarks Gap Hill. (The actual area electrified was from Mullens, WV to Roanoke, VA.) The initial installation was an evolutionary improvement of technology used on the much shorter N&W Elkhorn grade line. Power was supplied by a coal-fired power plant at Narrows, Virginia. The original boxcab-style EL-3A electric locomotives were built by a consortium of Alco (American Locomotive Company) and the Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company. Two later classes, EL-2B and EL-C, were built by General Electric in 1948 and 1956 respectively.

The electrification project was written up extensively in the railroad trade press at the time. (A listing of known articles can be found in [Swartz].) Many books cover the topic also, especially [Reid] and [Middleton].) The locomotives themselves are of course covered in [Lewis/Loco].


Many railroads engaged in long-term experimentation during the era of dieselization, ordering a few units from each of the several builders of the day. The Virginian went totally the other direction, ordering diesels from Fairbanks Morse almost exclusively. The lone exception was one General Electric 44-Tonner, purchased specifically for industrial and interchange service in the Suffolk, VA area.

Can you guess? The best references here are [Lewis/Loco] and [Reid]. A very recent book on the development and use of the Train Master is "The Train Master: The Most Useful Locomotive Ever Built". [Sweetland]

Freight Cars

This is a topic that generates a lot of interest, both by modelers and historians. Unfortunately, the amount of prototype information is not proportional to the level of interest. The most complete body of information is probably the freight car class diagrams. A reprint diagram book (circa 1948) is available from TLC. [TLC/Freight] A small smattering of paint diagrams has also come to light, these are also available (in a small format) from TLC. [TLC/Paint]

Passenger Cars

The Virginian did offer a modest level of passenger service along its main line and on several key branches. This very quickly collapsed once improved highways were developed after WWII.

A reprint book of VGN passenger car class diagrams is available from TLC. [TLC/Pass] Some photos, a roster, and some diagrams that are not in the TLC reprint can be found in [WileyWallace]. Several passenger cars only appear in the diagram books after they were converted to Maintenance of Way cars. [TLC/Maint]

Structures and Right-of-Way

Company structures have received a spotty level of coverage to date. The Virginian was not big on fancy structures: most were very utilitarian. Stations were predominately board-and-batten wood construction. (An overview of early station designs appeared in the May/June 1998 issue of The Arrow. Bridges and trestles were another matter. The VGN built these to the heaviest standards of the time in order to accommodate the heavy tonnage which it hauled.

The best overview of the right-of-way is Kurt Reisweber's book, Virginian Rails. [Reisweber] In regard to detailed information, a small but growing number of company drawings have come to light and can best be found through the Society's Archive program. US Geographical Survey maps are also a good source of high-level alignment information.


While never as popular as the Santa Fe or B&O, the VGN has attracted the interest of many model manufacturers through the years. Unfortunately, much of this activity took place in the days before the current trend toward prototype fidelity came into being. As a result, many commercial models are approximations of the prototype at best, or just plain "imagineered" at worst. The good news is that there are now many good to excellent models available that will suit all but the most discriminating modeler. (The one notable exception is the VGN's famous Battleship Gondolas. The two commercial models are "fair" to "poor". Any manufacturers listening?)

An extensive (and growing) list of commercial models is cataloged in the "Virginian Railway Bibliography and Resource Guide" [Swartz].


[Lewis/Era] "The Virginian Era", TLC Publishing, 1992

[Lewis/Loco] "Virginian Railway Locomotives", TLC Publishing, 1993.

[Middleton] "When the Steam Railroads Electrified", Kalmbach, 1974.

[Reid] "The Virginian Railway", Kalmbach Publishing. First (hardback) edition 1961, several subsequent softcover editions. (The hardback is much preferred, since the photos are much clearer.)

[Reisweber] "Virginian Rails", Old Line Graphics, 1995

[Swartz] "Virginian Railway Bibliography and Resource Guide", self-published.

[Sweetland] "Train Master: The Most Useful Locomotive Ever Built", Withers Publishing, 1997

[TLC/Freight] [TLC/Paint] [TLC/Pass] [TLC/Misc] Reprints of VGN "Classification Diagrams and Data" books, TLC Publishing ca 1997-1998

[WileyWalace] "The Virginian Railway Handbook", WW Publications, 1985 (believed to be out of print)

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