Growing Up in the Kanawha Valley


Photo courtesy

Just a short introduction here. The following has been contributed by a friend of mine F Douglas (Doug Bess) Jr., who grew up in the Kanawha valley. Doug has an extensive knowledge of the area, is a retired railroader with NS, and has an excellent website which I hope you’ll check out at:


On February 2, 1948 I was born in Huntington, WV at St Mary’s Hospital. My dad was a student at Marshall College (now University) and Mom stayed at home. We lived in my paternal grandparents home until 1950 when Dad graduated with high honors. He had an engineering degree with a minor in chemistry. So his first job landed him in the chemical industry in the Kanawha Valley town of Nitro located 40 miles east of Huntington. The company he began with was General Chemical Company which was a part of Allied Chemical located in the chemical complex in Nitro. It specialized in industrial acids. Among other industries there was Monsanto, Ohio Apex and FMC.

When we moved to Nitro in 1950 I was two years old. Mom and Dad’s first house was a rental on 9th Street. It was owned then by the Nitro Industrial Corp. Even at two years old I was already interested in railroading. Our rental home was about a block and a half from a railroad that I had not seen before. In Huntington there was the Chesapeake & Ohio and the Baltimore & Ohio railroads and in nearby Kenova was the Norfolk & Western. The railroad I’m referring to is the New York Central.

As I was growing up in Nitro, a town itself rich in history, I began to realize more about the NYC and its operation in the Kanawha Valley. The yard in Nitro stretched along 1st Ave from about 20th Street to 38th Street approximately 0.7 mile. There were also leads into the various plants and switching leads on the north end of the yard for another 0.5 mile. In addition a passing siding was installed in later years sometime in the 1960s and is still in place today for Norfolk Southern.

There were a few businesses along 1st Ave that faced the tracks and as a little boy I enjoyed anytime my parents would go the Valley Bell to eat or when my dad would take me to the barber shop to get our haircut. I would watch for any train movements or even enjoy watching cars being switched in the yard. I remember the sound as cars were being “kicked” in the yard to a coupling. It was almost like an explosion. Many of the cars switched were tank cars but I assume as I look back today that they hopefully were empty.

Of course the Kanawha Valley hosted several other railroads besides the NYC but the most notable was the Chesapeake and Ohio. It ran on the opposite side of the Kanawha from Nitro and was a mainline operation compared to the NYC which was a branch operating from central Ohio. I enjoyed watching trains from the old depot in St. Albans. Besides the many coal trains that traversed this line, there was also manifest freights and passenger trains. The only daytime scheduled passenger train through St. Albans after 1962 was westbound Train #3, the Fast Flying Virginian. That train made its last run on May 12, 1968. St. Albans was also a junction for the Coal River branch which ran into the southern West Virginia coal fields. Coal trains coming off the branch could travel eastbound or westbound which made for an interesting operation.

Going back to the other side of the Kanawha, the NYC operated a small yard in Charleston about 15 miles east of Nitro, and another 15 miles east of Charleston was Dickinson Yard. Dickinson was a gathering point for coal from mines located beyond Gauley Bridge and Swiss on the old Nicholas Fayette and Greenbrier. The NF&G was a railroad jointly owned by the C&O and NYC.

Dickinson Yard was also a servicing point where locomotives were fueled and sanded. There was also a Wye for turning locomotive that exists today. During the 1960s, Norfolk and Western had trackage rights over the New York Central between Dickinson Yard and DB Tower which was 18 miles to the east of the yard at the point of navigation of the Kanawha River. DB (Deepwater Bridge) Tower was the western end of the former Virginian. The trackage rights were inherited as a result of the merger of the Virginian Railway into the N&W on December 1, 1959. N&W time freights  #71 and #72 ran trackage rights on the NYC until sometime in 1968. Apparently there wasn’t enough traffic to continue operating these trains. I was fortunate to have seen and photographed the trackage rights operation while it still existed.

I mentioned the C&O and NYC. The B&O also had a branch line into Charleston along the Elk River, a tributary of the Kanawha but I did not see any trains on that line at least during daylight hours. Two short lines worth noting, the Kelley’s Creek and Northwestern out of Cedar Grove and the Winifrede Railroad at Winifrede Jct., which is located across the river from Dickinson Yard, were built to haul coal from mines they served to barge loading on the Kanawha River. The KC&NW was built a few years before New York Central predecessor Kanawha & Michigan Railroad built their line from Charleston to Gauley Bridge. Since the K&M was last to build through Cedar Grove, K&M trains had to stop at the crossing diamond in Cedar Grove for KC&NW trains moving to the barge loading facility on the Kanawha River. The Winifrede on the other hand ran under the C&O main line so there no issue there.

As a side note, it wasn’t until I was old enough to drive and get out on my own, with my parents’ permission of course, that I began taking photographs around the valley. I did not own a camera at the time but my dad graciously let me use his Graflex 35mm camera. He took time to show me how to use it. It was a challenge to take photos then compared to today’s digital cameras. The Graflex did not have a built-in light meter so Dad had purchased a separate light meter. After taking a reading on the meter you had to set the f-stop and shutter speed on the camera manually. Partly cloudy days made it hard sometimes to get a good photo with the sun peaking in and out of the clouds especially when a train was about to approach but most of the time I had good results.

In conclusion, as I look back, the Kanawha Valley was truly a great place to railfan in the years I lived there. You did not have to go great distances to see action around the valley. With chemical plants at Nitro, Institute, South Charleston, Belle and Alloy, and the C&O with its mainline and coal branches at St. Albans, Cabin Creek and Paint Creek and the short lines, there was no end as to what you could see and photograph.


F. Douglas (Doug) Bess, Jr.


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