Huntington C&O Railroad Depot
Backstory and Context
The roots of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway can be traced to earlier railroads founded during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In 1850, the Virginia Central Railroad extended west to Charlottesville and was pushing westward to the Alleghenies. To complete the line across the mountains, officials chartered a state-subsidized railroad called the Covington & Ohio, later the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad. Following the war, however, railroad officials had to look outside the South for the funds to continue building their railroad. They eventually attracted the attention of Collis P. Huntington, one of the “Big Four” involved in building the Central Pacific portion of the Transcontinental Railroad. Huntington purchased the struggling Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad and provided the money needed to complete the line to the Ohio River. He selected a plot of land along the river to be its terminus, which was incorporated as the city of Huntington in 1871.
Along with being the railroad’s western terminus, Huntington was chosen as a location for the railroad’s passenger station and repair and service facilities. Located on the south side of Seventh Avenue between Ninth and Tenth Streets, the C&O’s three-story passenger depot was completed in 1872, even before the new rail line was finished between Huntington and Richmond, Virginia. The first passenger train arrived at the station from Richmond on January 29, 1873. The occasion was a cause for joyful celebration, according to a Richmond newspaper: “Punctual to the hour, the headlights of the engine appeared around the bend and she rushed screaming into the town. The first train from Richmond to Huntington! To say that the occupants of the train were welcomed would be a feeble way of expressing the enthusiastic display. A yell burst forth as they came up to the platform and the passengers were almost dragged out by eager hands.” The depot would welcome passengers for the next forty years, as the new city grew around it.
In the early twentieth century, the C&O Railway built nine new passenger stations along its route, all designed in an impressive, red brick Colonial Revival style. Huntington’s station, which was showing its age by that time, was one of the nine depots to be replaced with a newer building. Once the station was completed in 1913, the original depot from 1872 was demolished. In September of 1918, a few months after the United States had entered World War I, the Huntington Red Cross Canteen was established at the station. From then until September 1919, the canteen provided traveling troops with supplies and food. As the flu pandemic surged through Huntington in the fall and winter of 1918, the canteen also generated reports and illness cards concerning the infected soldiers who passed through the depot. Around 1924, Collis P. Huntington’s widow Arabella and his nephew Henry commissioned artist Gutzon Borglum, who later received recognition for designing Mount Rushmore, to create a statue of the city’s founder. The eight-foot bronze statue was unveiled on October 23, 1924 in a ceremony attended by approximately seven thousand people. The C&O station was again the site of a crowd in 1948 when candidate Harry Truman gave a speech there during his “Whistle Stop Tour.” Following a 31,000-mile train ride across the country, and over three hundred speeches during the tour, Truman won the presidential election against Thomas Dewey.
As the city of Huntington developed over the years, the C&O Railroad did the same. During the 1880s, the railroad’s coal resources began to be developed and shipped eastward, as the company acquired and constructed smaller coal-hauling railroads across West Virginia. Although this expansion proved unsustainable and the company briefly faced foreclosure, it had recovered by the turn of the twentieth century and more than doubled the mileage that it operated. The railway continued expanding its holdings throughout the Midwest and was able to complete the previously mentioned remodelings of its major stations. Thanks to its coal traffic, the C&O was less affected by the Great Depression than other rail companies, and it continued growing for decades after. In 1963, the company acquired control of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, the country’s oldest railroad at the time. In 1972, the C&O, B&O, and Western Maryland Railroads became known as the Chessie System, and eight years later, the Chessie System merged with Seaboard Coast Line Industries to become CSX Transportation.
Although the C&O Railroad expanded throughout the twentieth century, passenger rail service entered a decline in the years after the Second World War due to rising competition from airlines and the highway system. After years of declining business, the last C&O passenger train left the Huntington station on April 30, 1971. In the years that followed, CSX Transportation used the former passenger depot to house administrative offices for its Huntington Division. In January 2016, however, CSX announced that it was reducing its operations from ten to nine divisions, and that the Huntington Division’s administrative responsibilities would be reassigned. The announcement left the depot’s fate uncertain, along with that of a mini-museum located in the eastern end of the building. While there was much speculation at the time about how to preserve the historic depot, plans have not yet been announced and the building is still owned by CSX. In addition, although the station has not regularly served passengers since 1971, it currently serves as the departure site for a tourist train to the New River Gorge area each fall.
Casto, James E. Lost Huntington: The First C&O Depot, Huntington Herald-Dispatch. October 11th 2016. Accessed August 6th 2020. https://www.herald-dispatch.com/special/lost_huntington/lost-huntington-the-first-c-o-depot/article_d8773aa4-c5a6-5168-8d2f-27f9661dd904.html.
Casto, James E. Railroads built West Virginia, and still play a vital role, Daily Mail WV. August 23rd 2018. Accessed August 7th 2020. https://www.wvgazettemail.com/dailymailwv/daily_mail_features/railroads-built-west-virginia-and-still-play-a-vital-role-daily-mail-wv/article_85b12f25-a3b8-5ed2-9463-62fdf8368e28.html.
Davis, Clark. What's Next for CSX's Huntington Property?, WV Public Broadcasting. March 22nd 2016. Accessed August 7th 2020. https://www.wvpublic.org/post/whats-next-csxs-huntington-property#stream/0.
Dickinson, Jack L. and Alison K. Summer-Ramirez. Historic Huntington Businesses: The Birth of Huntington, W.Va. 1871-1900. Huntington, WV: Marshall University Libraries, 2016.
Frey, Robert L. "Chesapeake & Ohio Railway." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 09 October 2018. Web. 06 August 2020.
History of the C&O Railway, Chesapeake & Ohio Historical Society. Accessed August 7th 2020. https://cohs.org/history/.
Pace, Fred . CSX Huntington office likely to stay open through July, Huntington Herald-Dispatch. June 22nd 2016. Accessed August 7th 2020. https://www.herald-dispatch.com/news/csx-huntington-office-likely-to-stay-open-through-july/article_04ef1201-26c1-51ef-b706-a8d9aa55a50e.html.
Withers, Bob. Rails once brought presidential candidates to region, Huntington Herald-Dispatch. August 30th 2016. Accessed August 7th 2020. https://www.herald-dispatch.com/news/rails-once-brought-presidential-candidates-to-region/article_1459abe4-e56d-5898-9948-3124cc284550.html.