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Monday, November 24, 2014

Death on the Virginia Central

Section hands of the PF&P Railroad (DC)

     For sixty one years the train used to make daily runs between Fredericksburg and Orange Court House. Near the end of the checkered history of this now long abandoned railway there occurred a devastating accident in Spotsylvania which made the front page of the Free Lance Star eighty six years ago. Thanks to Dena Cooper, fellow researcher and a friend of Spotsylvania Memory, this dimly remembered tragedy can now be shared with a modern audience. Photographs from her family's collection which appear in today's post are designated '(DC)'. All images in my blog may be clicked on for enlarged viewing.

Route of the PF&P Railroad, 1894 (Wikipedia)

     In 1852 the city fathers of Fredericksburg, fearing the cumulative financial impact of the failure of the Rappahannock Canal and the sad state of the Orange Turnpike and Plank Road, hatched a plan to construct a railroad linking Fredericksburg with Gordonsville. The following year the Fredericksburg & Gordonsville Railroad Company was incorporated by an act of the General Assembly and surveyors were at work by fall of 1853.

Gold bond of the FO&C Railroad (

     Soon thereafter this ambitious plan was scaled back to a thirty eight mile track that would extend from Fredericksburg to Orange Court House. By 1861 much of the grading work to Parker's store in western Spotsylvania was complete. But the Civil War obliged the Fredericksburg & Gordonsville Railroad to stop work. On Civil War era maps, and in the memories of soldiers who fought at the battles of Chancellorsville and the Wilderness, this nascent rail bed would be forever known as "the unfinished railroad."
     In June 1866 civil engineer Carter Moore Braxton, who had been an officer in the Fredericksburg artillery and husband of famed diarist Fannie Page Hume, was elected president of the F&G Railroad. Fifteen miles of standard gauge track had been laid by 1872, but the F&G went bankrupt. A new company, the Fredericksburg, Orange & Charlottesville Railroad, was formed to complete the project. They sold bonds, like the one shown above, in an attempt to raise sufficient capital to see the job through.
     Despite the inauspicious beginnings of this still unfinished railroad, its construction was a boon to the local economy. Building the road provided employment to a small army of surveyors, engineers and laborers. The manufacture of the rails, ties, fencing stock and bridge material also kept local foundries and saw mills humming. One beneficiary of this railroad boomlet was my great grandfather, George Washington Estes Row. Another group profiting from all this activity were local attorneys, as lawsuits relating to ongoing financial difficulties filled the docket of the Circuit Court.

Chugging past T.S. Jones's store near Mine Run, Orange County

     Inevitably, the Fredericksburg, Orange and Charlottesville Railroad went bankrupt in 1876. The company's charter was returned to the original incorporators, the F&G Railroad. The directors immediately transferred title to the Royal Land Development Company, which changed the standard gauge (4' 8" between rails) to narrow gauge (3' between rails) to save on construction costs. Royal purchased two engines, four flat cars, four box cars and two passenger cars from the Centennial Fairgrounds in Philadelphia.

Freight receipt of the PF&P Railroad, 1883

     That same year the company was renamed the Potomac, Fredericksburg & Piedmont Railroad and would be known by that name for more than fifty years. The first trip on the newly completed road was made from Fredericksburg to Orange Court House on 26 February 1877. A mere twenty five years had elapsed from conception to completion.
    Soon the PF&P railroad would be wryly referred to as the "Poor Folks & Preachers Railroad," reflecting both its clientele and its hand-to-mouth existence. There is the apocryphal story of a fellow who wished to get to Orange one day. Exasperated by a long and futile wait for the train to show up, he set off on foot, following the track to his intended destination. At long last the train slowly crept up behind him. As it slowly passed by, the engineer asked him if he wished to get on. "No thanks," he replied. "I'm in a hurry."

PF&P ticket, 1927

     The railroad always struggled financially and in 1925 the company decided to abandon the road. A small group of investors bought it and changed the name to the Orange & Fredericksburg Railway. They, too, soon went under and a year later the company was reorganized as the Virginia Central Railway. The increasing popularity of the automobile and the wasting effects of the Great Depression proved to be too much, however, and the railroad permanently ceased operating in 1938.

William Andrew Williamson (DC)

William A. Williamson, wearing a straw boater, far left

     William Andrew "Willie" Williamson and his brothers worked for the railroad. Three of them can be seen in the photograph at the top of today's post. Standing on the front of the engine, center, is Stephen Davis Williamson (1886-1965). Standing on the engine at far right is Reuben Franklin Williamson (b. 1885). And standing by the track at far right is Hugh Meredith Williamson (b. 1882).

Charles and Lucy Williamson (DC)

     Willie Williamson (born in Spotsylvania on 25 May 1881) and his brothers and sister were the children of Charles Allen Williamson and Lucy Jane Parker. Charles was born in Prince Edward County in 1851 and spent his early years in Manchester. In September 1878 he married Lucy Parker of Spotsylvania, a daughter of John Franklin Parker and Annie Haney, who owned the general store and post office on Brock Road known as Brockville, a stop on the PF&P Railroad. Annie Parker ran the post office for years.

Registry receipt written at Brockville, 1885

     Frank and Annie's daughter in law, Wilhelmina Hirth Parker, succeeded Annie as postmistress there and held that job until 1942. Wilhelmina's son Grafton Parker was postmaster until 1956.

Mary Wallace (DC)

     Willie Williamson married seventeen year old Mary Elizabeth Wallace in May 1914. Mary was the oldest daughter of Spotsylvania farmer Festus Wallace and his wife Margaret Jane Owens. Mary's sisters married two of Willie's brothers. Leah married Samuel Estes Williamson and Mattie Merle married Stephen Davis Williamson.

Festus and Margaret Wallace (DC)

     Willie and his brothers were hard working men. In addition to working on the family farm near Brockville, they also worked for the railroad. By 1910 Willie, Stephen, Samuel & Hugh were working as car loaders for the PF&P. During the 1920s all of the Williamson brothers worked as section hands on the railroad. Their draft registration forms submitted in 1917 give some indication of the physical stresses and dangers of their work. Reuben reported a broken hand and breastbone; Sam had an afflicted arm and shoulder; Willie said he had a weak constitution; and Hugh suffered from rheumatism attacks.
     Just how dangerous work on the railroad could be was demonstrated on the morning of 20 April 1928. With sudden violence the life of Willie Williamson came to an abrupt end and five others, including his brother Stephen, sustained severe and even life threatening injuries. This sad incident was the lead story in that afternoon's edition of the Free Lance Star.

The Free Lance Star, 20 April 1928 (DC)


William Williamson Dies in Crash of Motor Cars on Virginia Central. Another unconscious.


     One man was killed and five injured in varying degrees, one perhaps fatally, when a motor car on the Virginia Central railroad crashed into the lever-car preceeding it when the latter jumped the tracks fifteen miles west of Fredericksburg this morning shortly after 8 o'clock.
     William Williamson, 40 years old, of Brock Road, was killed outright in the accident. Moses Jones, of Chancellor, received a fracture of the skull and had not fully recovered consciousness this afternoon at 2 o'clock; H.D. Craig, Chancellor, was badly hurt about his shoulders and hips; Steve Williamson, of Brock Road, a brother of the dead man, received serious injuries to his left leg; William Powell, of Chancellor, had his right knee cap badly fractured, and W.M. Lane, of Chancellor, foreman of this group of workmen, was severely injured about the back. Five other men, whose names could not be learned, jumped at the moment of the crash and were not hurt.

Injured Rushed Here

     The injured men were rushed to the Mary Washington Hospital as soon as possible after the accident where they were given emergency treatment by Drs. S. L. Scott, J.N. Barney and T.W. Dew. After the first treatments more  thorough examinations were given the injured. All of them, with the exception of Jones, probably will recover, physicians stated today. Jones has a dangerous fracture and his condition is bordering on the critical though he has a very good fighting chance for life. Physicians stated today that they were unable to operate on him because of his weakened condition.
     Attempts to obtain an exact detailed account of the accident failed this morning when members of the administrative force at the Virginia Central railroad offices here said they had not received any official account of the accident and that the did not know the names of all those on the car. The injured men could not be interviewed and none of those who escaped injury could be located in town.

Cars Jammed Together

     From unofficial sources, however, it was learned that the accident happened just beyond the fifteen mile post, half way between Brock Road and Parkers Station. The men, in charge of foreman Lane, were proceeding west on two cars, a lever car attached to and preceding a motor car which was pushing it. The lever on the old type car was not being used but the car merely was in service to provide sufficient room for the gang of workmen.
     The two cars, it was said, had picked up members of the force at various points along the route and were traveling at a nominal rate of speed when the accident happened. Just what caused the accident is not known, but it may have been due to defective or spreading rails, although this had not been absolutely ascertained this afternoon.

Lever Car Jumps Rails

     Something, however, caused the lever car to leave the rails and immediately that wheels caught on the ties or in the gravel between them, its acceleration was sharply reduced and the motor car crashed heavily into the rear of the car in front. The two cars buckled, it is said, and Williamson was thrown off, falling directly under the motor car which crushed down on him. He was killed instantly.
     The other men were thrown off the colliding cars at different angles and in different ways. The injured men were picked up and placed on the side of the road by fellow workmen.
     As soon as possible after the accident the injured were rushed to the local hospital where they received treatment.
     Due to the distance at which the accident happened it was nearly 11 o'clock before the men reached the local institution.

Survived by family

     Williamson, who was killed in the accident, is survived by his wife and three children, all of whom reside in the Chancellor neighborhood. Williamson's wife was notified of the accident and arrived before the body was removed. Wives of some of the injured men came immediately to the local hospital after hearing of the accident.
     Spotsylvania County authorities will hold an inquest and probably an investigation of the causes of the accident.

     Details in today's post about the history of the railroad come from Robert Hodges' article, The Narrow Gauge Railroad, which can be found at LibraryPoint, the website of the Central Rapphannock Regional Library.
     A special thank you is also in order to Spotsylvania researcher and genealogist Wil Bowler, who provided background information on some of the families mentioned today.

PF&P engine and tender (Courtesy of CRHC)

A postscript -   

Noel Harrison, historian with the Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park, has shared with me the fact that in the last year of its operation, the railroad utilized a self-propelled passenger car with subway seating (that is, with the seats facing each other).

 Since I wrote this piece three more photographs of the historic Virginia Central Railway have been shared with me by fellow researcher Dena Cooper. Dated 1936, these pictures were taken just two years before the VCR went out of business for good. According to Noel Harrison, the first and third images shows the train standing in the yards at its terminus in Orange. The other picture is a stark reminder of how dangerous conditions on this line could be:


  1. Love this story about the Fredericksburg RRNA. Moses Jones is my Grandfather, I've heard of this story but this is great documentary proof of it. If you wouldn't mind Paul can I have permission to post some of this story and photos on my tree on
    Thanks for all the great history.

  2. Yes, Gene, you certainly may use what you like on Ancestry. I added Moses to my tree after I wrote this, and I have some of your pictures attached to his profile.

  3. My grandfather was the William Powell from Chancellor named in the article. The accident had a profound effect on the family, which occurred when my father was 6 years old. My grandfather was unable to return to work, because of his injuries, and every member of the family worked to support the whole. My father milked cows, at a neighboring farm, beginning at the age of 7 or 8. It is amazing to me that all this occurred prior to the Great Depression. Lastly, I would like to note that the VC did not actually cease operations until 1984. By that time it was a very small industrial switching road in one corner of Fredericksburg. I have a PDF of an article chronicling the history of the VC by Ames Williams for National Railway Bulletin (vol 50 No 1). The article does not mention the accident.

    1. Thank you for sharing this about your grandfather. The accident had a devastating effect on all concerned. You are correct about the continued operation of the VC at the F'burg yard (I used the Ames Williams article as one of the sources for my blog). 1938 was the year the railroad ceased operations between F'burg and Orange.

  4. I'm currently staying next to the old Parker stop. We've been curious regarding the history of the old rail bed running adjacent to the property. We would particularly love to find some old photos of the station.

    1. The only vintage picture of a stop on the old PF&P railroad that I have seen is one taken at Mine Run in Orange County. However, there is an excellent photo essay of the modern view of the old rail bed:

    2. We've located a foundation beside the old track bed on the property. We assume it was either a stop or water tower seeing as to how small it was. We looked through the pictures and were amused at the fact it was our front yard.