valley rr bridge

A survey drawing of the Valley Railroad Stone Bridge located south of Staunton along Interstate 81.

Building bridges to greater understanding is always the goal here.

Q: Travelers from Staunton south to Roanoke on Interstate 81 are probably familiar with a narrow, rock bridge across a draw next to the interstate about 10 miles south of Staunton. We have always been curious about its history and use.

Sharon and Timm Seaman

Fincastle

A: The four-arch Valley Railroad Stone Bridge is a viaduct over Folly Mills Creek in Augusta County — a relic of a long-abandoned line between Staunton and Lexington. The bridge was added to the National Register of Historic Places Nov. 19, 1974.

Since then, it has been maintained as a scenic historic landmark by the Virginia Department of Transportation.

This and other information for this story comes to us through the assistance of Staunton Public Library Research Librarian Melissa Davidson.

Before we get to the bridge itself, it is instructive to understand a little something about the rail line it once was part of. For that, an excellent article on the long defunct Valley Railroad is at the website abandonedrails.com. Historian Bob Cohen of Rockville, Maryland, and contributor Clay Wiseman of Greenville put the piece together.

Cohen in the accompanying blog offered further reading in his volume about operations of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad in the Shenandoah Valley from Harpers Ferry to Lexington. Those interested in buying a copy are directed to ORL96782@yahoo.com.

In brief, the Valley Railroad, chartered by the General Assembly in February 1866, was part of a massive effort by the B&O to connect its mainline with southern markets. With B&O backing and investors from, among other places, the counties of Roanoke, Botetourt, Rockbridge, Augusta and Rockingham on board, a plan was launched in which a 113-mile line would be built between Harrisonburg and Salem to provide connection with the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad.

Track was laid and trains ran for a time, but the cash-starved Valley Railroad struggled from the start. Hope for a turnaround was hatched when outgoing Valley president Col. Michael G. Harman of Staunton recruited Robert E. Lee, then president of what would be his namesake college in Lexington, as Harman’s successor.

“Harman felt that Lee would provide confidence, reputation and credibility to make the VRR a rail giant of its time,” Cohen wrote.

Those hopes were dashed when Lee died in 1870.

Other factors hastened the Valley’s demise. One was rivalry between the B&O and powerful Pennsylvania Railroad, which had the same ambition to connect to southern markets. The Pennsylvania had invested in a parallel line called the Shenandoah Valley Railroad just to the east of the proposed Valley right of way.

Another crushing blow to the Valley came from the financial Panic of 1873, spurred in part by the crash of the railroad bond market.

Meanwhile, the Pennsylvania surged ahead with its southward march. In a story that continues to warm the hearts of Roanoke history buffs, local investors put together the final piece of last-minute financing that allowed the Pennsylvania to connect to the Virginia and Tennessee (soon to be Norfolk & Western) at the obscure and muddy burg of Big Lick — that 1882 hookup “forever sealing the fate” of the Valley, in Cohen’s telling.

The Valley was sold off in pieces but continued its strained chugging until 1942 when the last assets were sold and the tracks between Lexington and Staunton were pulled up and scrapped for use in the World War II effort.

As for the bridge at Folly Mills Creek, that was acquired by the state in 1965 as part of the right of way takeover for I-81.

According to the state Department of Historic Resources description, the bridge was completed “by” 1884, citing the completion of tracks from Staunton to Lexington that year. The construction date is disputed by a May 1992 story about the bridge in the Staunton Daily News Leader by Joe Nutt. There the construction date was set at 1874, citing that year being carved into a stone at the top center of the structure.

Nutt wrote that daily runs between Staunton and Baltimore were in progress by 1874 but implied that bridge was not in use until almost 10 years later when the Staunton-Lexington portion of the line was completed.

The bridge was built on a farm called Annandale that was bought by future state Sen. W. Stuart Moffett Sr. in 1905. According to his son and heir W. Stuart Moffett Jr., whom Nutt interviewed for the piece, the bridge was built by convict labor based at an 11-acre encampment on Annandale property on the north bank of the creek at the construction site.

The site of the encampment was known as “Penitentiary Field” in family lore.

The bridge measures 130 feet in length and 15 feet in width, according to figures the state provided on the 1974 nomination form to the National Register of Historic Places.

“It utilizes semi-circular arches set on gently splayed piers,” the nomination reads. “Slightly projecting imposts are located between the tops of the piers and the spring of the arches. Granite is used throughout as the construction material, and the facing is a rough-surface ashlar. The only change to have occurred to the bridge is the removal of the railroad ties and rails.”

VDOT in 1973 installed two concrete sub-footings at the waterline to protect the bridge’s piers exposed to the water.

“The superb stonework of the bridge, built to endure, requires no major maintenance,” Nutt wrote.

Looks like those outlaws on the construction crew ended up paying their debt to society.

If you’ve been wondering about something, call “What’s on Your Mind?” at 777-6476 or send an email to whatsonyourmind@roanoke.com. Don’t forget to provide your full name (and its proper spelling if by phone) and hometown.

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