The year was 1894 and the Richmond & Danville RR had just been taken over by the newly formed Southern Railroad. J.P. Morgan and his investor friends were strictly in it for the return on their money. It didn’t take them long to see the F&P was a section of their newly acquired line that wasn’t likely to ever make money.
By 1897, just three years after taking over the F&P, the Southern was attempting to abandon the line. Services were cut back or eliminated entirely. The Southern even offered to give away their right to operate the F&P along with a cash incentive to anyone that might want to run the line. Their actions resulted in Franklin Co. filing suit to force the Southern to honor their contract.
The Southern countered on the grounds they had purchased the R&D outright and weren’t obligate by the original contract. All this resulted in the case being argued in the Hotel Roanoke. A decision was reached in 1899 favoring the F&P and forcing the Southern to honor the original contract put into effect by the Virginia Midland Railroad. In addition the case was kept open and the court had oversight to make sure the Southern did in fact operate the line as agreed.
Evidently there was some enforcement to the ruling. After that the Southern built a series of depots along the F&P route even though they were operating at a loss. The depot construction was said to have been spread out over a ten year term ending about 1910. By then the Southern was nearing the end of the thirty four year lease set to expire in May 1914.
When the lease finally expired the Southern seemed to want to part company on good terms. They took the old equipment of the F&P and had it cleaned and painted before returning it to Franklin Co. In addition they gave the county a very generous lease on the Pittsville branch.
They had use of the seven mile branch between Pittsville and what had just become Gretna for the sum of fifty dollars a month. They also agreed to sell the F&P coal, water and sand at Gretna if it was needed to complete a run. The F&P also got use of the turntable in Gretna as long as they maintained it.
These were very generous terms but the Southern no doubt thought they would not likely see the money anyway and felt it useless to charge a standard fee.
It was May, 1914 and the F&P was finally under total control of its owners, Franklin County. A group of local men of the community took control of operations. They were the leaders and businessmen of the county and Nathaniel P. Angle was the new president of the F&P.
By now the mines had played out in the area around Pittsville and the F&P was dependent on local business, farmers, wood cutters and passengers for their income. To make matters worse the track and rolling stock was showing its age. Derailments were common, often daily. Most wrecks weren’t serious as the train seldom attained speeds that would cause much damage.
Just a few months after the county got the F&P back one of the worst accidents occurred at a place called Mattox Curve. It was a cold evening in January, 1915 near the Mattox family cemetery the train and some passenger coaches entered the “S” curve or Mattox Curve. The length of the coaches, the small radius of the curve and the speed of the train all gave the worst possible result. A photo shows the rails were moved out of their bed and some passenger cars left the track and rolled down a grade.
It was said the F&P didn’t use ballast in their track and the photo would indicate that was likely correct. Several people were injured but there were no fatalities. This wreck was about half way between Glade Hill and Union Hall. The injured had to be taken to the home of Dr. Giles, a distance of about three miles.
The track and rolling stock continued to deteriorate which caused many more accidents and derailments. Up to this time the F&P had never shown a profit, always operating in the red. Despite the loss of revenue the county continued to operate the line. They had little choice. Without the F&P they would have to return to the days of carrying goods by wagon and no one wanted to do that, least of all the businessmen operating the line.Their businesses would suffer the most so everyone looked the other way while the debt piled up.
Eventually some creditors grew tired of waiting for their money and went to court to collect their bills. It was November 1921 and the court ordered a receiver to be appointed to oversee operations of the F&P. Chapman Dudley was named receiver for the line and told to report its condition to the court. After reviewing the books and the actual physical condition of the line Dudley reported back to the court. It was no surprise to anyone he found the F&P was in a declining state with little hope of turning things around. Upon his report the court ordered the line to be sold at auction. The sale occurred April 22, 1922 on the steps of the Franklin Co. courthouse.
The high bidder that day was Nathaniel P. Angle. He bid six thousand dollars but some creditors objected to the low bid. Angle raised his bid to twelve thousand dollars and agreed to put the line back in operating condition. By then everyone knew no one was going to raise that bid and the court accepted the offer in August, 1922.
Angle sat about upgrading the track, adding some rolling stock and attempting to get an agreement from the Southern RR to use the Pittsville branch. Likely to his surprise the Southern didn’t want to lease the line to him and the F&P. Instead they leased the seven mile Pittsville Branch to the Lavino Furnace Co. If the Southern thought that was the end of their problems with the branch they soon found out they were wrong. In November 1923 the Lavino Furnace Co. brought suit against the Southern for not maintaining the old branch which by then was forty five years old. A year later, November 1924, the court found in favor of the Southern RR.
Less than two months later the Southern sold to the F&P about 2,900 feet of track at the Pittsville depot so the F&P would not come onto Southern tracks when they operated in Pittsville. To further eliminate any future problems with the F&P the Southern removed almost two miles of their track starting at Pittsville and going east as far as the mine branch. With the two mile section of Southern tracks removed the F&P would never again make a run to Gretna. Trucks were beginning to take over the moving of freight and farm produce.
The F&P was now depending mostly on the motor car for hauling passengers. It ran from Pen Hook to Rocky Mount each morning then back to Pittsville. From there it made a return of the same route and spent the night at Pen Hook. It was much better at maintaining a regular schedule than the train. Much of its success was due to the fact it didn’t jump the track like the train. . Unlike the train the motor car was dependable both in safety and being on time. Several men were known to have operated the Edwards Motor car. It didn’t require the skills of a locomotive engineer to drive.
The motor car or the “Motor” as it was called by the locals was manufactured by the Edwards Motor Car Company in Sanford, N.C.
The company started out making the cars for the Atlantic and Western RR that ran from Sanford to Lillington, N.C. Like the F&P the A&W RR was a short line steam railroad that was losing money and the motor car was their hope of turning around the loss of revenue.
Things were looking up for the passenger service until December 1928. A local farmer, Ike Shoemaker, was crossing the tracks in his wagon and was struck by the oncoming motor car. Both sides debated in court if the motor car had in fact given a warning signal with contradictory testimony from both sides. The verdict favored Shoemaker but was followed by a series of appeals and delays that continued even after the F&P ceased operations in April 1932. At that time the attorneys for Shoemaker went into court and presented a list of seven reason the court should appoint receivers to sell off the assets of the F&P.
In 1932 Nat Angle was 70 years old and everything was going against the F&P. Condition of the rolling stock and track was well worn and competition from trucks and improved roads was growing. What was once the only way to travel was becoming a thing of the past. Cars, electricity and the telephone were now common in the towns. The railroad that had started out as a glamorous way into the future had fallen into disrepair and insolvency. It was being replaced by a better way.
Hugh Momaw and B.A. Davis were named receivers and a final inventory of the property owned by the F&P was sent to them by R.E. Ferguson. Much of the rails and other metal went to a scrap dealer in Roanoke. Over time some of the depots were purchased by individuals for use as a private business. A few were used as a private dwelling. Two are still in use today. A few depots have been torn down. The ones at Union Hall, Pen Hook and Pittsville are gone now. One depot thought to have been torn down was the one at Toshes. Recently it was found to have been moved and used as a private home. It still stands near Gretna today.
By December 1932 the final paper work was being done to abandon the line and sell off all its assets. Within a year most of the lines equipment and property was gone. The only real remains of the line was the memories and stories told by all in the area. Even to this day family of F&P employees relate the happenings along the much loved railroad, the F&P.
We hope you enjoyed this brief history of the F&P Railroad. A more complete and detailed version in book form is being planned and be out within the year.