By Doug Riddel
While Chester has had a railroad presence since before the American Civil War, the Seaboard Air Line Railroad (SAL) passed through town for only about 70 years. By contrast, the right-of-way through Chester, the former Atlantic Coast Line Railroad (ACL) – presently owned by CSX Transportation (CSX), and used by Amtrak trains as well as its own freight trains – is a descendant of the Petersburg Railroad, from Richmond to the Cockade City, one of America’s pioneer rail lines. The CSX route through Chester continues to be a vital link with the main line stretching from New England south to the tip of Florida and southwest into Georgia and Alabama.
A scrabble between the Southern Railway and SAL caused SAL to take a more western route from Richmond to North Carolina to Florida. When opened, this line skirted the western edge of Chester. The SAL jointly opened Richmond’s Main Street Station with the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad (C&O) in 1901 and continued using that station for nearly 60 years before moving its trains to Broad Street Station in 1959.
Both the SAL and ACL ran some of the finest and fastest passenger trains in the country, and competed for haulage of everything from citrus and forestry products to paper and steel. In the end however, truckers and leisure motorists – using the federally-built Interstate highway system – and airlines using government-built airports, and taking away lucrative U.S. postal contracts – proved to be detrimental to their solvency. In the late 1953s the SAL and ACL merged, in 1967 and the Seaboard Coast Line Railroad (SCL) was formed.
In 1963, consultants delivered recommendations as to which parts of the competing companies would best serve the new SCL railroad by presenting the most cost savings. The two leapfrogged one another no less than four times, so it was clear that a majority of trackage of one railroad or the other was redundant and thus had to be abandoned and dismantled.
The cost of obtaining and maintaining the SAL route was substantially greater than its competitor, so eventually, almost all of the former SAL from Norlina, N.C., to Richmond, was abandoned and dismantled. Mother Nature has reclaimed much of it. Tall pines and thick brush now hide some of the 100 mph passenger trains and long speeding freight trains ever made their way along that route, but through Chester, the right-of-way is very distinguishable. Linear Park rail trail on the west side of Chester is used by walkers, runners and strollers.
The former SAL merged with the former ACL at Centralia via a relatively short, mile-long connection track. While the entire SAL route from Centralia to Burgess, in Dinwiddie County, was marked for abandonment, steps were taken immediately to consolidate traffic between Acca Yard and Colonial Heights. The line through Chester would be the first casualty.
The SAL route, upon leaving Petersburg’s Commerce Street Station, crossed the Appomattox River on a very high steel and concrete bridge, ending on the campus of Virginia State University. From there, it traveled in an almost straight NNW line crossing Dupuy at its intersection with East River Road, and then Branders Bridge Road (for the first of three times before getting to Chester) in the City of Colonial Heights. To the west of the Colonial Heights Boulevard, the line crossed Swift Creek on a long earthen dam and concrete bridge and skirted the community of Lake View before again crossing Branders Bridge Road at grade.
Continuing NNW, the SAL crossed Long Creek Lane, and then began a slow arc to run directly north, parallel to Branders Bridge Road, alongside a large unnamed lake, in the vicinity of the present Timsbury Creek Subdivision. It quickly veered NNE and again crossed Branders Bridge Road, just north of Happy Hill. The former line, though on private property is clear and has beautiful views of the lake.
The SAL followed that straight away to Chester, crossing the tip end of Shop Street and Route 10/West Hundred Road, running parallel to Womack Road. with Lee Street. It would appear that the old SAL Chester depot was located at this point. The SAL made a flag stop at Chester, according to the 1944 timetable.
Leaving Chester, the right-of-way veered NE at the point where McAllister Drive and Chester Village Drive meet Womack Road, and begins a rising grade where it would have crossed follows former ACL (CSX) main lines, Chester Road (the abutments still exist), and Old Centralia Road, just north of its intersection with Mineola Drive. At this point, moving in an almost northerly direction, the right of way was and a subdivision built over it, obscuring it entirely, except for a small outcropping of vegetation between Hamlin Creek Parkway and Route 288. The right of way crosses Proctor’s Creek and would have intersected Chester Road at a point just north of the Route 288 exit ramps. There, the last segment of the abandoned SAL right of way turns NNE and reaches the present day CSX tracks, where the connection to Centralia originates, paralleling the right of way occupied by the high voltage electric lines, at a point at the intersection of Kingsdale and Chester Roads.
From that point north, through Bellwood, Falling Creek, South Richmond and Main Street Station, the former Seaboard Air Line still exists, although in a very economized fashion. Most of its double tracks were reduced to single tracks, and only freight destined to the many plants and factories along the right of way moves along at a top speed of 25 mph.
On October 26, 1986, the entire line to Norlina, N.C., was abandoned. I operated the last Amtrak passenger train, the Silver Star, over the Norlina Subdivision that night. Another few miles to Middleburg, N.C, has large trees growing between the two rails where once the Silver Meteor and Orange Blossom Special raced north and south.