There is little doubt the Franklin & Pittsylvania Railroad would never have been built had it not been for the joint effort of Franklin Co. supporters and John S. Barbour, Jr. The idea of getting the voters of Franklin Co. to approve a $200, 000 bond for the construction met with a lot of opposition. When Barbour and the WC, VM and GSRR signed an agreement to lease the line for thirty four years the county was assured of an income to pay for the railroad.
The spur from Elba to Pittsville had been highly successful and it was likely thought the F&P would do the same. In their zeal to build the railroad everyone seemed to overlook the fact the success of the Pittsville branch was due to large ore deposits in the northwest corner of the county whereas the F&P would have to depend more on the local economy. Over the years the local economy did improve due in part to the F&P RR but it wasn’t enough to sustain the short line so cars and trucks eventually took over.
A lot of chicanery was employed to assure the bond received the necessary 60% voter approval. The most outlandish method was the gifting of small tracts of land to some citizens so they would qualify as tax payers, a requirement for voting. This method of outright bribes was the cause of a lot of bad feelings among the citizens but at least some of them were placated when the county celebrated the bond issue approval with a picnic and ground breaking at Gentry’s field in Rocky Mount. In addition to long winded speeches they did furnish everyone attending with free food and whiskey. Likely at least some citizens forgot their grievances after this festive occasion.
The first official run of the F&P was made on April 16, 1880 and just two weeks later, May 1, 1880 the lease of the WC, VM and GSRR went into effect. By that time the name of the WC, VM and GSRR had been shortened to the Virginia Midland and some even referred to it as just “The Midland.”
At this point it might be good to repeat a short history of the town that today we call Gretna. When the Pittsville branch was built 1877-78 they constructed a depot there called “Franklin Junction.” When the town applied for a post office in the depot they couldn’t use Franklin Jct.because of other towns of similar names.
The rejection of their name choice evidently caused some resentment by people in the town of 75-100 people and there was talk of naming the little village “Metropolis” but they finally settled on the name Elba. It wasn’t until 1914 the entire process of changing the name took place and it was then called Gretna as it is today.
It was apparent from the start the F&P wasn’t going to be a profitable investment but it still received support as moving people and products by rail was such a vast improvement over horse drawn wagons. One major hurdle for the entire line from Rocky Mount to Elba was it had been made narrow gauge, three feet between the rails. When a train reached the main line at Elba they had to transfer freight to the main line.
This was done by a rather innovative method known as “The Ramsey System.” It involved a parallel set of rails on each side of a car. The car was supported on trucks on each side and a beam between them. When the car went forward the rails it was riding went down into a shallow pit and the trucks fell away leaving the car supported by the outside trucks and beams. It moved forward to a set of standard gauge trucks on their rails that moved up a slope and took on the weight of the car. It was said a car could change gauge in about ninety seconds.
This system was used in many places throughout the country as different gauges were common. It continued being used by the VM until the Richmond & Danville RR took over operations in 1886. About 1888 the R&D changed the gauge of both the Pittsville branch and the F&P to standard gauge. We will cover this change of gauge at another time.
The R&D also made one other major change to all of their operations including the F&P. They changed all the engines to coal fired from wood burning. While more efficient for the railroad it cause a hardship for some locals. Some farmers along the line had supplemented their income by cutting wood for the old system. It was stacked along the line and when the engine needed wood they stopped and loaded the tender.
The conductor would write the farmer a receipt for his wood for $1.50. When this income was lost it had a negative effect on many of the local people. In comparison a laborer for the railroad in those days made about a dollar a day. People were very poor and a few loads of wood sold per week made a big difference to most.
The R&D Railroad was limited by their charter in what other lines they could buy or control. To get around this they obtained other lines through the Richmond Terminal Company. In April of 1886 the R&D was running over eight hundred miles of rail. By the end of June the same year they were operating over twenty two hundred miles of rail. When they took over the Virginia Midland they inherited the lease of the F&P.
The R&D ran the F&P for seven years. In 1893 a series of events caused the national economy to collapse and put the entire country into a severe depression. Some even referred to this as the “Railroad Depression.” During this time many businesses went broke, among them the R&D. A year later in 1894 the R&D was taken over by some major investors, among them J.P. Morgan. When they took control the name of the railroad was changed to the “Southern Railroad.”
In the future we will continue the story of the F&P when it came under the control of the newly formed Southern RR.