Exploring New Kent County's Richmond & York River Railway

The Civil War-era railway was one of the first roadway artilleries



6:30 AM EDT, March 16, 2014


NEW KENT – The Richmond and York River Railway, located in New Kent County, played a vital role in the U.S. Civil War, during which time it served as one of the first, if not the first, recorded roadway artilleries in history.

According to historical documents from the Southern Railway Company, the Richmond and York River Railroad first constructed a trestle bridge near White House plantation over the Pamunkey River in the 1850s and built 39 miles of railroad line spanning Richmond’s Tobacco Row and West Point’s shipping port.

This was in an effort to link the nation’s capital, Richmond, with Chesapeake Bay steamer traffic.

The railway was opened for operation in 1861, the same year that the first trains made connections with the line’s steamer, named West Point, and the same year that Virginia seceded from the Union.

In 1861 the Southern Railway Company reported, the Richmond and York River Railway was “chiefly employed” in the war by transporting troops, supplies, and artillery.

However, the following year, President Abraham Lincoln gave Union General George McClellan command of the Army of the Potomac to siege the capital. McClellan’s supply line was the Richmond and York River Railroad.

In response, General Robert E. Lee requested on June 5, 1862 that the Confederates, “construct a railroad battery [with a fixed gun]…plated with iron to push along the road and sweep the country” because “the enemy cannot get up his heavy guns except by the railroad.”

Confederate Commander George Minor reported on June 24, two weeks later, Lee’s request had been filled and that the battery was ready to be shipped to Lee overnight.

The railroad artillery apparently arrived just in time, as the Union and Confederates fought at Savage’s Station in Richmond five days after Minor’s letter. The Seven Days Battles resulted in the Union troops moving southward towards the James River.

The Richmond and York River Railway didn’t come out of the battles unscathed, however, according to the Richmond Daily Dispatch.

The newspaper reported on July 2, 1862, that Union troops set fire to some of the train cars along the railway in an effort to burn the bridge. The locomotive, which was intended to Richmond, accidentally stopped close to White House, within a quarter of a mile of the Richmond and York River trestle bridge.

Upon their arrival near White House, railroad representatives found a burning locomotive and two platform cars on the track, which was also in flames.

“Fortunately, they found in the swamp some Yankee camp kettles, and attaching one of these to a long pole they succeeded in lifting water from the swamp, and after three hours of incessant labor they completely extinguished the fire,” reported the newspaper, which added that the engine saved by the men was Union-made and valued at $10,000 – $15,000.

Although 80 feet of trestlework and four or five cars loaded with ammunition had been “blown to pieces,” the newspaper reported that the Union troops had obviously left the roadway in haste, leaving their camp, clothing, and artillery.

“The importance of the preservation of the bridge cannot be over estimated,” it reported.

Although the railway company and Confederate personnel insisted that the Richmond and York River Railway be repaired as soon as possible, iron track was removed from the damaged railroad in 1863. The track was used to help construct the Piedmont Railroad, which ran from Danville, Va. to Greensboro, NC.

However, a small piece of track, about half a mile, was left for the purpose of passing trains into neighboring King William County.

According to Engineer Jno. A. Wilkines, he constructed a “Turnout” and “Turn Table” at White House in June 1863 to protect the property. Wilkines built the “Railroad Merrimac,” an artillery piece mounted on a flat car, similar to the one used in the Seven Days Battles in 1862.

Richmond and York River Railway President Alex Dudley reported in October 1863, “for the object of removing the rails and other materials from the track, temporary bridges were erected in March…over the Pamunkey River, at the White House and at Cohoke Mill Pond.”

In December, Wilkines wrote that after the Confederate troops retreated in June 1863, “the railroad property was destroyed or carried away by the enemy.”

“There was in the Turnout 33,094 lbs. of rails, and one Turn Table estimated to be worth before the War, $1,500,” he said.

The Richmond and York River Railroad remained largely unused and damaged until the Civil War ended in 1865.

Commercial navigation of the river increased in the late 1880s, though, when a 148-foot long truss swing span was built to allow boats to cross the area.

The Southern Railway Company purchased the railway and bridge in 1894 and still owns it today.

The current 183-foot truss was built in 1928 and is still opened and closed by hand. A hydraulic system was installed in 1983 to aid in the bridge opening and closings.

Steel replaced the wooden timbers trestles in 1990. The bridge has remained mostly untouched since then, aside from routine repairs to damage caused by ice, the drift, and exposure.

The trestle was recently opened last month so that Dock Masters Marine Construction owner Hank Thorndike, of West Point, could get his pile driver to King William County.

Martin can be reached by phone at 804-885-0040.