CSX, city both Huntington's legacies
CSX Transportation and the city of Huntington share something important in common -- both exist because a Yankee storekeeper had big dreams and the savvy to make those dreams a reality.
When gold was discovered in California in 1848, Collis P. Huntington was one of thousands who rushed to California to seek their fortune. Born on a Connecticut farm in 1821, Huntington was raised in poverty, left school at age 14 and became a Yankee peddler, traveling to small towns and farms to sell his merchandise. Later, he opened a general store at Oneonta, N.Y. When he heard about the gold strike in California, he quickly resolved to go there.
Unlike others who set off for California, Huntington had no intention of mining for gold. Instead he intended to mine the miners. He opened a store where he sold mining supplies and other goods. Business was brisk, and soon he was looking for somewhere to invest his profits.
Starting with an investment of $1,500, Huntington and partners Mark Hopkins, Leland Stanford and Charles Crocker -- known to rail historians as the "Big Four" -- built two giant rail systems, first the Central Pacific and later the Southern Pacific. In 1862, Huntington persuaded Congress to designate the Central Pacific as the western half of the long-dreamed-of transcontinental railroad. It was successfully linked with the rival Union Pacific with the driving of a golden spike at Promontory Point, Utah, on May 10, 1869.
The echoes from the driving of the golden spike had barely died away when Huntington moved to take control of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway.
Visionaries -- including George Washington -- long had dreamed of linking the James River and the Ohio River. At first, the thought was to do so via a series of canals. When that didn't prove feasible, the James River & Kanawha Turnpike was built. With the coming of railroads, this was an ideal route to build one. But the Civil War put a halt to construction, and marauding troops, Union and Confederate alike, tore up much of the track, dynamited the locomotives and torched the rail cars.
As a result, the Chesapeake & Ohio was all but bankrupt. The railroad desperately needed money to make repairs, pay its bills and extend its tracks from Virginia westward across the mountains to the Ohio River. Huntington supplied the money -- and installed himself as C&O president. Without his intervention, the C&O no doubt would have been forced out of business.
In 1871, Huntington personally inspected the proposed C&O right of way across the then-new state of West Virginia and picked out a vacant tract of Ohio riverbank just downstream from the mouth of the Guyandotte River to be the railroad's western terminus. There he set about establishing a new city -- one that bears his name.
Local legend says that Huntington originally intended to locate the C&O's western terminus in the village of Guyandotte but changed his mind and instead moved on down the river after getting in an angry dispute with the village mayor. As the story goes, Huntington and his traveling companions stopped at an inn in Guyandotte. There Huntington's horse broke free from where it was tied and climbed up on the inn's steps, blocking the doorway. When the mayor found the horse's owner, he fined him. Huntington paid the fine -- and soon the citizens of Guyandotte were disappointed to learn that their little town was not going to be the terminus of the C&O. It's a fun story, but there's not a shred of evidence to show it happened. More likely Huntington intended from the outset to build his own town.
Huntington placed his brother-in-law, Col. Delos W. Emmons, in charge of buying 5,000 acres of land for the new town. Some of the land was reserved for the railroad's use: for right of way, a depot, a repair shop and other necessary buildings. The rest was sold off as building lots for businesses and homes.
The canny Huntington had been seeking a good spot to transfer cargo and passengers between the C&O and the Ohio's steamboats (some of which he owned), and he chose well. His new city proved to be a gateway to the coalfields of southern West Virginia. Coal flowed to market via Huntington and all manner of goods flowed back the other way, a two-way traffic that over the years spawned thousands of jobs. Huntington also became a manufacturing center, generating more traffic for the C&O -- and more jobs for the city's residents.
In the 1880s, the C&O pushed its tracks west to Cincinnati. Huntington was no longer the C&O's western terminus but remained a busy rail hub, and the railroad continued to be an important presence in the city. Generations of Huntingtonians either worked for the C&O or had jobs that wouldn't have existed without the railroad.
Many older Huntingtonians will remember some aspects of the C&O's presence that have vanished over the years.
Originally opened in an old house, the C&O Hospital moved into a modern brick building on 6th Avenue at 18th Street in 1918. The railroad's employees had a modest fee deducted from each paycheck and in return received first-class medical care. By the 1960s the increasing availability of medical care negated the need for special railroad hospitals and the C&O hospitals were closed.
For many years impressive brass plaques on the tall office building on the southwest corner of 4th Avenue and 11th Street identified it as the "C&O Building." That was when the 14-story building was filled with busy railroad offices. When those offices were transferred elsewhere, the building's name reverted to its original -- the Coal Exchange Building.
In the 1960s and '70s, the C&O had its regional Operating Headquarters in the former Sylvania Electric Products plant on Madison Avenue. Railroaders called it the "OH" building for short. Today, the building is state-owned and provides offices for the Division of Highways and the Division of Motor Vehicles.
But two C&O facilities that remain highly visible and important parts of the Huntington scene are its former passenger station on 7th Avenue between 8th and 10th streets and its huge shop facilities in East Huntington.
In 1913, the C&O replaced its original Huntington passenger station with a large brick station of Georgian design that CSX continues to use for offices.
"The large station was in keeping with Huntington's status as West Virginia's largest city at the time," says Tom Dixon, chief historian with the Chesapeake & Ohio Historical Society Inc.
While the C&O was best known as a coal-hauling railroad, it lavished considerable attention (and money) on its passenger service, including such crack trains as the "George Washington." In the heyday of rail passenger service, the C&O boasted that you could "Sleep like a kitten" on its trains and Chessie, its sleeping kitten trademark, became one of the nation's best known. Today, photographs and other artifacts recalling that era can be seen in a mini-museum that's tucked into the former passenger station.
And standing outside the station is a bronze statue of Collis P. Huntington, erected in 1924 as a gift to the community by the Huntington family. The statue, by famed sculptor Gutson Borglum, the creator of Mount Rushmore, quickly became a city landmark. In 1977, it was moved to the Heritage Village complex but in 1999, at the request of CSX, was returned to its original site.
From the 1870s, the C&O did all its major locomotive repair and maintenance in Huntington. In 1927, the C&O invested $3.6 million in upgrading its Huntington shop, literally building a new shop around the old. At that time, it was the world's largest railroad repair facility under one roof.
"In the early 1950s," says C&O historian Dixon, "the Huntington shop was converted to diesel maintenance in a highly publicized program where the employees were allowed to design the new facility themselves."
Today, the Huntington shop is still a major repair facility for CSX fleet of diesel locomotives.
It was big news in Huntington in 1963 when the old C&O took over the financially troubled Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. The C&O/B&O merger was the first of what would become a wave of railroad mergers. Those mergers drastically reshaped the nation's railroad industry. Today's CSX is a result of that merger era. A true transportation giant, its track network covers 23 states and serves more than two-thirds of the American population. And CSX remains very much part of Huntington.
Huntington is home to CSX's divisional headquarters and dispatching center, as well as it rail yard and locomotive shop, and the community is home to more than 550 CSX employees.
James E. Casto is the retired associate editor of The Herald-Dispatch and the author of a number of books on local and regional history, including "The Chesapeake & Ohio Railway," a photo history of the railroad.
CSX chairman will keynote Huntington Chamber dinner
Michael J. Ward, chairman, president and chief executive officer of CSX, will be the keynote speaker at the 122nd annual dinner of the Huntington Regional Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday, April 30, at the Pullman Plaza Hotel.
A 34-year veteran of the company, Ward has served as chairman, president and CEO of CSX since January 2003. His long railroad career has included key executive positions in nearly all aspects of the company's business, including sales and marketing, operations and finance. He was stationed in Huntington in 1995-96.
According to Mark Bugher, president of the Huntington Chamber, the annual dinner is sold out, with more than 350 guests expected to attend. CSX is the lead sponsor for the dinner, which has also attracted nearly two dozen other corporate sponsors.