The Train That Might Have Been
by Lonnie Jones and Brodrick Shepherd
The Virginia Creeper, and the Abingdon line of the Norfolk & Western Railroad came to Ashe County in 1914. The rail line came for the natural resources of timber and iron ore. At the time, Jefferson was the largest town in Ashe County. But as tracks were laid for the Virginia Creeper, lawyer and businessman Tom Bowie and others successfully lobbied for the train to come through the area where West Jefferson is now located. As a result West Jefferson was built and is now the largest town in Ashe County.
But did you know there was an earlier rail line planned for Ashe County at the turn of the 20th century? This rail line was to take a completely different route than the one eventually taken by the Virginia Creeper. If these plans had come to fruition, there may never have been a West Jefferson, or other towns in Ashe that grew up around the Virginia Creeper such as Lansing, Warrensville or Todd (Elkland).
In 1889 the largest industry in Ashe County was iron ore mining with the Helton community near Grassy Creek at its center. The Ballou Mines, then own primarily by Napoleon Ballou, were the sites of great interest to the outside world. These mines contained of rich iron ore deposits, with several mines having operated there since the early 1800’s.
The ore mined there about from about 1900 to 1905 was sold mostly to the Virginia Iron, Coal and Coke Company in Radford, Virginia. But it was hauled by wagons down along the river towards Independence and on to Radford, Virginia. The largest cost to this industry was this slow and hard transportation. In fact, the transportation costs were so exorbitant that it caused the mines to be closed several times in the 1800’s.
Mining interests had long been chomping at the bit to get a rail line into Ashe County, to get at the Ballou Mines’ iron ore deposits. Napoleon Ballou was reportedly offered as much as $50,000.00 for his holdings (about 1.3 million in today’s dollars). Ballou refused all offers and died in 1897 leaving a will in which he tried to make sure that the land and mineral rights were kept intact for his family down to the lifetimes of his grandchildren. (Napoleon Ballou Will may be found in Deed Book E, page 310, Ashe County Register of Deeds)
An article in the Statesville Landmark on October 6, 1899 has the following quotation: ”The Norfolk and Western people for years endeavored to secure it (the mines) during the life of Napoleon Ballou, but he refused fabulous sums, and died leaving a will, the construction of which would have completely tied up the mine for at least a hundred years. After quite a contest, it was broken. Messrs. Todd and Pell, Doughton, and Fields represented the caveators, and Messrs W.H. Bowers and G.L. Park the respondents.”
After a long legal battle, Ballou’s will was broken in October, 1899. According to articles published in the Columbus Daily Inquirer, The New York Times and other newspapers, “The breaking of the will assures a railroad line for Ashe County.” (Emphasis added)
In 1901, Norfolk & Western began securing easements for a rail line that would follow the North Fork New River from Grassy Creek to the primary Ballou property just above the mouth of Helton Creek. (Easements located in Deed Books QQ and RR, Ashe County Register of Deeds).
There were many people who are interested in leasing the mines and mining the ore. Here are some of the names of people who were interested in those mines: the Cambria Steel Company’s Baltimore Syndicate, John Skelton Williams, and of course, the Virginia Iron, Coal and Coke Company. Minutes of the business meetings of the Virginia Iron, Coal and Coke company show they hoped to mine here in Ashe County at the Ballou mines, but the transportation costs were prohibitive. They could and would mine only if a railroad line came near the mines to cut transportation cost.
The closest railroad was in Galax or in Sugar Grove, both in Virginia. The Norfork & Western Railroad had a line through Marion, and also to Galax, but they could not be persuaded to look at building a line into Ashe County without having the lease themselves on the mines. The line in the Sugar Grove area, which was the Marion and Rye Valley Railroad, had been extended all the way to Sugar Grove, Virginia from Marion, Virginia, to where it intersected with the Virginia Southern Railroad. Eventually the Virginia Southern railroad line in Sugar Grove was extended to Troutdale Virginia, then on up to Fairwood, Virginia, and eventually part way up the White Top Mountain.
Eventually the only company interested in building a railroad into Ashe County was the Marion and Rye Valley Company. But they were a small company and needed to raise the funds to build the line. Their interest was due to the availability of rich timber resources which also existed in Ashe County and the iron ore, making a rail line profitable for whoever built it into the area.
In the 1905 in 1906 minutes of the Board of Directors of the Virginia Iron, Coal and Coke Company show a line projected to be extended to near Mouth of Wilson, Virginia, then up the river to Helton in North Carolina ending near the mines in Ashe County, was indeed being considered. Apparently, the Marion and Rye Valley Railroad line was considering this extension into North Carolina, but the final decision was not to build the railroad because of the cost involved. As time passed, the interest in the iron ore in Ashe County waned as large iron deposits in Minnesota became more accessible.
If Norfolk & Western had followed through with their original plans — think about the possibilities. Could the area around the mouth of Helton Creek have become a town in Ashe County? It was already a large and thriving community with businesses such as the Paisley Iron Forge, Ballou’s Mill, a blacksmith shop and a store. With a railroad, this area could very well have grown into the major town in Ashe County, or at least something like Lansing.
Would the rail line have been extended on up the North Fork to Jefferson eclipsing the establishment of West Jefferson? Would Jefferson have then continued to grow and became the largest town in Ashe County? What impact would this have had on the makeup of Ashe County, its towns, industries, and population? This rail line would likely have changed the entire complexion of Ashe County as we know it today.