The company was famous for manufacturing steam locomotives in-house at the Roanoke Shops as well as their own hopper cars. Around 1960, N&W was the last major American railroad to convert from steam to diesel motive power.
In the mid 20th century, N&W merged with long-time rival Virginian Railway in the Pocahontas coal region and grew even more in size and profitability by mergers with other rail carriers including Nickel Plate Road and Wabash in adjacent areas to form a system serving 14 states and a Canadian province between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mississippi River and Great Lakes with more than of trackage.
William Mahone (1826-1895), a Virginia Military Institute (VMI) engineering graduate of the class of 1847, was hired by Dr. Francis Mallory build the Norfolk and Petersburg Railroad beginning in 1853 and eventually became its president in the pre-Civil War era. Mahone's innovative corduroy roadbed through the Great Dismal Swamp near Norfolk, Virginia, employs a log foundation laid at right angles beneath the surface of the swamp. Still in use 150 years later, it withstands immense tonnages of coal traffic, a very effectively engineered 19th century track.
Mahone married Otelia Butler, from Smithfield in Isle of Wight County who was said to be a "cultured lady". Her father, the late Dr. Robert Butler (1784-1853) had been Treasurer of the State of Virginia.
Popular legend has it that Otelia and William Mahone traveled along the newly completed Norfolk and Petersburg Railroad naming stations along the tangent between Suffolk and Petersburg from Ivanhoe a book she was reading written by Sir Walter Scott. From his historical Scottish novels, Otelia chose the place names of Windsor, Waverly and Wakefield. She tapped the Scottish Clan "McIvor" for the name of Ivor, a small Southampton County town. When they could not agree, it is said that the young couple invented a new word in honor of their "dispute", which is how the tiny community of Disputanta was named. The N&P railroad was completed in 1858.
Of small stature, dynamic "Little Billy" Mahone became a Major General in the Confederate Army during the American Civil War. He was widely regarded as the hero of the Battle of the Crater during the Siege of Petersburg in 1864-1865. Otelia Mahone served as a nurse in the Confederate capital of Richmond.
The Norfolk and Petersburg Railroad was severed by the war, with the portion east of the Blackwater River at Zuni, Virginia in Union hands for most of the War. The eastern portion of the City Point Railroad played a crucial role for Union General Ulysses S. Grant during the Siege of Petersburg, and was operated by the United States Military Railroad. The South Side Railroad was also heavily damaged.
In the early 1870s, the AM&O operated profitably for several years but, as did many other railroads, ran into financial problems as a result of the Financial Panic of 1873. Mahone retained control for several more years before his relationship with English and Scottish bondholders soured in 1876, and other receivers were appointed to oversee his work. After several more years of operating under receiverships, Mahone's role as a railroad builder ended in 1881 when northern financial interests took control.
At the foreclosure auction, the AM&O was purchased by E.W. Clark and Co., a private banking firm in Philadelphia (with ties to the large Pennsylvania Railroad) which controlled the Shenandoah Valley Railroad then under construction up the valley from the Potomac River and seeking a southern connection. The AM&O was renamed Norfolk and Western, perhaps taken from a 1850s charter application filed by citizens of Norfolk, Virginia. Although his leadership of the railroad was over, Mahone, also active in Virginia politics and a leader of the Readjuster Party. He was thus able to arrange for a portion of the state's proceeds of the AM&O sale to go for community purposes near his home at Petersburg, including the funds to begin what is now Virginia State University (VSU), as well as a nearby mental health facility which is now Central State Hospital. Mahone helped arrange the election of William E. Cameron of Petersburg as governor of Virginia, and was later elected himself to a term as a Senator in the U.S. Congress. He suffered a massive stroke in Washington, D.C. in 1895 and died shortly thereafter. Otelia lived on in Petersburg until her death in 1911.
Although the railroad primarily transported agricultural products in when it was formed from the A,M & O in 1881, Kimball, who had a strong interest in geology, led the railroad's efforts to open the Pocahontas coalfields in western Virginia and southern West Virginia. In mid-1881, the N&W acquired the franchises to four other lines: the New River Railroad, the New River Railroad, Mining and Manufacturing Company, the Bluestone Railroad, and the East River Railroad. Consolidated into the New River Railroad Company, with Kimball as President, these lines became the basis for Norfolk and Western's New River Division, which was soon built from New Kanawha (near East Radford) up the west bank of the New River through Pulaski County and into Giles County to the mouth of the East River near Glen Lyn, Virginia. From there, the new line ran up the East River, criss-crossing the Virginia-West Virginia border several times to reach the coalfields to the west near the Great Flat Top Mountain.
Coal transported initially to Norfolk soon became the N&W's primary commodity, and led to great wealth and profitability. Kimball became president of the entire Norfolk and Western system, and oversaw continued expansion. Under his leadership, N&W continued west with its lines through the wilds of West Virginia with the Ohio Extension, eventually extending north across the Ohio River to Columbus, Ohio. Acquisition of other lines, including the Shenandoah Valley Railroad (which it had long supported and leased) extended the N&W system west along the Ohio River to Cincinnati, Ohio, south from Lynchburg to Durham, North Carolina and south from Roanoke to Winston-Salem, North Carolina. This gave the railroad the basic route structure it was to use for more than 60 years by the time of Kimball's death in 1903.
Author Nelson Blake noted in his biography of William Mahone that, while the former General had lost control of "his" (and wife Otelia's) railroad and its future by 1881, he retained personal ownership of considerable land in the new coal regions. By his death in 1895, the N&W's expansion and coal traffic had helped him become one of the wealthiest men in Virginia.
In 1885, several small mining companies representing about 400,000 acres (1,600 km²) of bituminous coal reserves grouped together to form the coalfields' largest landowner, the Philadelphia-based Flat-Top Coal Land Association. Norfolk and Western Railway bought the Association and reorganized it as the Pocahontas Coal and Coke Co., which it later renamed Pocahontas Land Corp, now a subsidiary of Norfolk Southern.
As the availability and fame of high-quality Pocahontas bituminous coal increased, economic forces took over. Coal operators and their employees settled dozens of towns in southern West Virginia, and in the next few years, as coal demand swelled, some of them amassed fortunes. The countryside was soon sprinkled with tipples, coke ovens, houses for workers, company stores and churches. In the four decades before the Crash of 1929 and subsequent Depression, these coal towns flourished. One example was the small community of Bramwell, West Virginia, which in its heyday boasted the highest per capita concentration of millionaires in the country.
In 1886, the N&W tracks were extended directly to coal piers at Lambert's Point, which was located in Norfolk County just north of the City of Norfolk on the Elizabeth River, where one of the busiest coal export facilities in the world was built to reach Hampton Roads shipping. A residential section was also developed to house the families of the workers. Many early residents of Lambert's Point were involved in the coal industry.
The opening of the coalfields made N&W prosperous and Pocahontas coal world-famous. By 1900, Norfolk was the leading coal exporting port on the East Coast. Transported by the N&W, and later the neighboring Virginian Railway (VGN), it fueled half the world's navies and today stokes steel mills and power plants all over the globe.
The Norfolk & Western's Roanoke Shops employed thousands of craftsmen, and did extensive work on other types of rolling stock in addition to manufacturing locomotives. Over the years, the N&W refined its products. The later famed classes A, J, and Y6 locomotives were the result. Designed, built and maintained by N&W personnel, these three types made the company known industry-wide for its excellence in steam power. N&W's commitment to steam power was due in part to its investment in the manufacturing capacity and human resources to build and operate steam locomotives, and partially due to the major commodity it hauled, coal. In 1960, shortly after it acquired the Virginian Railway by merger, N&W was the last major railroad in the United States to convert from steam to diesel-electric motive power. Even after manufacturing of steam locomotives ended, the Roanoke Shops continued to build and repair other form of rolling stock, work which continued under N&W successor, Norfolk Southern (NS), in the early 21st century.
Several of N&W's famous steam locomotives, including J class # 611 and A class # 1218 were used in steam excursion trip services into the 1990s under the leadership of Norfolk Southern's first president, Robert B. Claytor.
They are now on static display at the Virginia Museum of Transportation (VMT) in Roanoke. N&W class Y6a #2156 resides at the National Transportation Museum in St. Louis, Missouri. Class M #475 continues to operate at the Strasburg Railroad in Strasburg, Pennsylvania.
Norfolk and Western also operated safely in this time, being the recipient of the Gold E. H. Harriman Award for 1938. In a promotional booklet published in 1939, Norfolk and Western wrote "For the second time in 12 years, the American Museum of Safety has awarded the Harriman Memorial Gold Medal to the Norfolk & Western Railway for the outstanding safety record during 1938 among class I railroads of the United States." It is further noted that the railway carried one million passengers more than 86 million miles without incident in the period from 1924 to 1938.
Engineered by Page and financed almost entirely from Rogers' personal resources, the VGN was built following a policy of investing in the best route and equipment on initial selection and purchase to save operating expenses.
Mark Twain spoke at the dedication of the new railroad in Norfolk, Virginia only 6 weeks before Rogers died in May, 1909 following his only inspection trip on the newly completed railroad. That June, Dr. Booker T. Washington made a whistle-stop speaking tour on the VGN, traveling in Rogers' private car, Dixie, and later revealing that Rogers had been instrumental in funding many small country schools and institutions of higher education in the South for the betterment of Negroes.
For 50 years, the Virginian Railway enjoyed a more modern pathway built to the highest standards, providing major competition for coal traffic to its larger neighboring railroads, the C&O and N&W. The VGN followed Rogers' philosophy throughout its profitable history, earning the nickname "Richest Little Railroad in the World." It operated some of the largest and most powerful steam, electric, and diesel locomotives.
The VGN installed a large -long railway electrification system between 1922 and 1926 at a cost of $15 million, and had its own power plant at Narrows, Virginia. It shared electrical resources with the Norfolk and Western between 1925 and 1950, when the latter discontinued its own shorter electrified section through the Elkhorn Tunnel and Great Flat Top Mountain region. The larger electrification of the VGN was also discontinued under Norfolk & Western management in 1962, following the merger.
When the Virginian Railway was finally merged into Norfolk & Western in 1959, it is widely believed that the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) approval began a merger movement and a modernization of the entire US railroad industry. In 1964, the former Wabash; Nickel Plate; Pittsburgh and West Virginia Railway; and Akron, Canton and Youngstown Railroad were brought into the system in one of the most complex mergers of the era. This consolidation, enhanced by the addition of a more direct route to Chicago, Illinois in 1976, positioned Norfolk & Western as an important Midwestern railroad, providing direct single-line service between the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the Great Lakes and Mississippi River on the other.
In the late 1960s, Norfolk & Western also acquired Dereco, a combination of the Delaware and Hudson, Erie Lackawanna Railroad, Boston and Maine Railroad, Reading Railroad, and Central Railroad of New Jersey. However, this subsidiary consisting of troubled northeastern US railroads was not merged into the Norfolk & Western. Most of Dereco later became part of Conrail. Some of those portions later also became part of Norfolk Southern when in it acquired the major portion of Conrail in 1999. On September 1, 1981, Norfolk & Western acquired Illinois Terminal Railroad. N&W was also a major investor in Piedmont Airlines.
During the 1960s, autoracks took over rail transportation of newly-completed automobiles in North America. They carried more cars in the same space and were easier to load and unload than the boxcars formerly used. Ever-larger auto carriers and specialized terminals were developed by N&W and other railroads.
The railroads were able to provide lower costs and greater protection from in-transit damage (such as that which may occur due to vandalism or weather and traffic conditions on unenclosed truck trailers). Using the autoracks, the railroads became the primary long-distance transporter of completed automobiles, one of few commodities where the industry has been able to overcome trucking in competition.
Today, much of the former Norfolk and Western Railway is a vital portion of Norfolk Southern Corporation, a Fortune 500 company which has its headquarters in Norfolk, only a short distance from the coal piers at Lambert's Point.