Norfolk & Southern Railway Historical Society

Brief History of the First Norfolk Southern Railroad

By Robert C. Reisweber, February 23rd, 2005

What would eventually become the first Norfolk Southern Railroad was chartered on January 20th, 1870 in North Carolina as the Elizabeth City and Norfolk Railroad. It was intended to run between its namesake cities, a distance of 46 miles. Construction did not begin until 1880. The track was completed on May 12th, 1881, and the first train from Norfolk to Elizabeth City ran on May 26th, 1881. The line was extended 27 miles southward to Edenton, NC in December 1881. The first train to Edenton ran on December 13th of that year.

Owners of the EC&N soon formed plans to extend the line southward. They changed the name of the company to Norfolk Southern Railroad Company on February 1st, 1883 to indicate this. The company entered receivership in 1889 and emerged as the Norfolk and Southern Railroad Company in 1891. At the same time, the Ablemarle and Pantego Railroad became part of the new company. That railroad ran from Mackey's Ferry, NC (now known as Mackeys) through Pantego to Belhaven, NC. It also operated a ferry service from Mackey's Ferry across Albemarle Sound to Edenton, where it connected with the N&S.

In January 1900, the N&S expanded again by absorbing the Norfolk, Virginia Beach and Southern Railroad. That company operated a line from downtown Norfolk to the Virginia Beach oceanfront, where it owned and operated the Princess Anne Hotel. In 1904, the N&S took over the Chesapeake Transit Company, which had opened a competing line from Norfolk to Virginia Beach via Cape Henry in 1902.

In March 1904, the N&S purchased the Washington and Plymouth Railroad, which ran between those North Carolina cities. The N&S extended this line from Plymouth to Mackey's Ferry to create a main line 135 miles long, but which required a nine-mile ferry trip from Edenton to Mackey's Ferry.

The N&S expanded southward again on November 23rd, 1906, when it merged with four other railroads. By building connections between these lines, a system was created which ran from Norfolk to Raleigh, NC, with branches to New Bern, Beaufort, Morehead City, Kinston, Goldsboro, Columbia, Oriental, and Belhaven, NC, and Virginia Beach and Suffolk, VA.

This system was still hampered by the slow ferry across Albemarle Sound. The company immediately began to remedy this by beginning construction of a five-mile-long timber trestle across the sound. While this was under construction, the company again went into receivership in 1908, emerging as a new Norfolk Southern Railroad Company on May 4th, 1910. Work on the new trestle had continued during the receivership, however, and the first train across it ran on January 1st, 1910.

In 1911, the NS purchased the charter of the Raleigh, Charlotte and Southern Railroad Company, which had been formed to build a railroad from Raleigh to Charlotte, NC. Once again, the NS found it expedient to buy four existing railroads and connect them together to accomplish this objective. These railroads also possessed trackage to the cities of Fayetteville, Aberdeen, Asheboro, Ellerbe, Carthage, and Jackson Springs. These lines became branches of the new NS. In May 1920, the NS leased the Durham and South Carolina Railroad, which became its Durham branch. At this point, the total milage of track operated by the Norfolk Southern reached 942 miles, its greatest extent.

Several branches were abandoned in subsequent years, including those to Suffolk, Columbia, Oriental, Asheboro, Ellerbe, Carthage, and Jackson Springs. Also abandoned was lease of trackage to Beaufort, Morehead City, Kinston, and Goldsboro. On January 1st, 1974, the Norfolk Southern was merged into the Southern Railway System. At that time, just over 600 miles of NS track remained in service.