Historic Structures

Gassaway Train Depot, Gassaway West Virginia

Date added: August 5, 2022 Categories: West Virginia Train Station

Prior to the coming of the railroad in Gassaway, the area that is now the town was farms for a few of the county's early settlers. Nearby were farms and a mill on the Elk River. The county and the vicinity of Gassaway was a small rural agricultural society. The county's population began to increase in the 1890 period, predominantly due to the timber extraction industry. In 1880, the population was 9,787. This grew to 13,928 in 1890, and 18,904 in 1900. Following the establishment of Gassaway the population of the county grew to 23,023 in 1910, and 23,973 in 1920. The 1920 figure is the highest for the county. Following this there was a steady decline to the present population of approximately 13,000.

The creation and development of Gassaway is attributed to one thing only. This is the development of the Coal and Coke Railway Company. The town did not exist as a town prior to the railroad. The company located the site, purchased the land, laid out the town, donated the public space in town, and constructed the major railroad structures. The Gassaway Depot is the only extant structure of the Coal and Coke Railway Company in Gassaway.

The Coal and Coke Railway Company was incorporated in West Virginia in 1902. It was created to provide a link between Charleston, the state capital, and Elkins, in Randolph County to the north east of Gassaway. The terminus at Elkins was the terminus of the Western Maryland Railway, which connected to the Baltimore and Ohio. At Charleston, the road connected with the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad which ran east-west to Huntington. The Coal and Coke would provide a vital link to the major transportation routes east and west out of the natural resource rich central mountains of West Virginia. Total track was two hundred miles.

The Coal and Coke Railway acquired the rights, property, track, etc. of the Clendenin and Sutton Railroad Co. in 1903. This company had partially constructed a line from Charleston to Otter and Elkins. The Coal and Coke also purchased the Little Kanawha Railroad Company in 1904, the Roaring Creek and Belington Railroad in 1905, and continued construction of the track to Elkins. In 1904 operations were in effect from Gassaway to Otter and freight lines opened to Frenchtown in 1905. A spur was constructed to Sutton, Braxton County seat, in 1910 and provided direct rail service from Sutton to Elkins in 1911.

Henry Gassaway Davis formed the Gassaway Development Corporation in order to complete the railroad lines from Otter, in Clay County, to Elkins. The Gassaway Development Corporation purchased 1100 acres of land including parts of two tracts belonging to James Anderson Boggs and Israel Friend. The Gassaway Development Corporation deeded additional land to the Coal and Coke Railway Company for their shops and dedicated streets and alleys to the public of the town of Gassaway in September and October of 1904.

The Development Corporation had James A. Paterson, an engineer for the Coal and Coke, lay out the town of Gassaway. It is interesting that the terrain of the valley is incorporated into the design of the town. It is laid out to fit the surrounding hill.

The Coal and Coke Railway quickly grew into a major freight transporter. The combined income of the railroad in 1904 was 303,410. This grew to 332,332 in 1905 and 503,689 in 1909, plus an additional revenue of 124,249 in passenger service that year. By 1918, the overall income of the railroad was 1,068,127. In 1917 the Federal government took over control of the railroad by proclamation, to support the war effort. The capitol equipment, rolling stock, stock and bonds, and real estate holdings of the railroad also increased proportionately to the income figures indicated.

In terms of tonnage shipped, the Coal and Coke transported 560,561 tons in 1906, with the major share being coal and coke, at 329,753 tons, with timber at 188,876 tons. In 1907 this figure had grown to 719,228 tons.

The railroad constructed shops, depots and facilities at the yards in Gassaway to accommodate this growth. Gassaway was significant as a yard facility for the railroad due to its location. It was midway between Elkins and Charleston. More importantly, it was at a junction in the route where the terrain changes. The road to Charleston follows the banks of the Elk River and is relatively flat. This allows the use of lighter gauge engines. The road from Gassaway to Elkins traverses hills and mountains and requires heavier duty engines. Gassaway was a natural terminal point for the two different divisions of the Railway. In addition, five separate branches of railway converged in Gassaway.

The first depot was constructed in 1906 and was a two-story frame structure with passenger accommodations on the first floor and offices on the second floor for the Supervisor and train dispatcher. Prior to this a relocated boxcar served as a depot. By 1906, the Annual Reports of the company indicate that the yards at Gassaway included a round house, machine shop, erecting shop, boiler shop, woodworking shop, coach and paint shop, and a store-house. By 1913, the railroad had outgrown its accommodations. The Annual Report for that year reported that a new depot was to be constructed and described Gassaway as "... the most important town between the termini of the road." In 1914 the new depot was begun. It was completed in 1915 at a cost of $25,000. The cut blue sandstone used in it's construction was quarried on Highland Street in Gassaway. The Coal and Coke Railway often utilized this source of native stone for their many abutments, bridges, etc. The Saint Thomas Catholic Church in Gassaway, which was commissioned by Ambassador Richard Kerens, is also built of this native stone, as well as the Gassaway Presbyterian Church, commissioned by Henry Gassaway Davis.

Freight tonnage increased throughout the period. In 1908, 763,129 was shipped; 1,022,285 in 1911; and 1,662,940 in 1915. The shops employed 150 men in 1915 and a high of 500 during the 1920's. This correlates with the general population figures of the county.

Passenger service was also a significant portion of revenue for the company. 1905 figures are 194,713 and 205,838 in 1906. The passengers were varied in their destinations and origins. Many were traveling through the county or arriving from distant places for business in Gassaway, Sutton and the county's extraction industries. They came from as far away as New York City, St. Louis, Detroit, and Atlanta and from as near as Gem, Frametown, and Centralia (all within Braxton County). A large percentage were local county residents traveling to or from their hamlets to the County seat or Gassaway for commercial or governmental business. Many an older resident fondly recollects traveling to Sutton on a Saturday morning by train to conduct business, catch up on the social activities and shopping for their goods, then returning home on the evening train. Access to remote areas of the county during those years was better than when the automobile replaced rail service.

That the railroad had an influence on the development of Gassaway is evident. From a farm field before the Coal and Coke to a major county municipality in 10 short years, the town grew to rival the county seat in population, activity and prominence. Early businesses constructed to accompany the railroad include the Bank of Gassaway, the Arthur Lee office building, Walker's Drug Store, churches and the Davis Grade School. The Gassaway Hotel was constructed in 1905, as well as A.L. Williams' hotel and general store. Physicians, bankers, merchants and others came to service the growing yards. These included Louie Rose's skating rink and theater, and bakeries and confectionery shops. In 1906, the Boggs Hospital and Sanitarium was opened.

All of these combined to make Gassaway a thriving community. The town was progressive in the development of seventy foot wide streets with gas lights, sidewalks, and sewers. Since its incorporation in 1905, the town has provided police and fire protection and entered into contracts for access to gas and telephone lines.

Not until the 1960's did a decrease occur. The B & O shopyards were sold in 1969. Passenger service continued through 1953 and freight trains continued to run through Gassaway through the 1980's. The Depot was maintained as a maintenance shop until 1988. The Gassaway Depot is the only remaining structure to represent the Coal and Coke Railway Company and its influence on Gassaway.

The Coal and Coke Railway Company is also associated with a prominent person in the state's and nation's history. This is Henry Gassaway Davis, noted West Virginia industrialist and US congressman. Davis was born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1823 and began his career farming and operating a small store. At the age of fourteen he began work with the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad as a brakeman. From here he became supervisor of the road between Baltimore and Cumberland, Maryland, then agent at Piedmont, (West) Virginia in 1853. He left employment of the railroad and began his extensive investment and development activities, including establishing a bank in Piedmont, establishing the H.G. Davis and Company general store, and land acquisition in the coal and timber rich western portions of Maryland and Virginia. The Civil War brought additional wealth to the Davis businesses with contracts to supply goods to the B&O and the federal government.

Following the war Davis continued to acquire land and entered political life, being elected to the House of Delegates of West Virginia from Hampshire County in 1865. Following his first term as a delegate he ran for the West Virginia Senate. He was elected to the US Senate in 1871, where he served for two terms. After his public service he once again returned to developing his lands and businesses in West Virginia and Maryland. One of his major activities was bringing the railroad to Elkins, West Virginia, tying onto the B&O at Piedmont. This enterprise brought him directly into the Gassaway project. In Elkins, with his son-in-law, Stephen B. Elkins, he established the town, the railroad and the extensive industry associated with the transportation system he was amassing. A natural extension of his activities in Elkins, was the development of the Coal and Coke Railway Company. He was actively involved in the development business at this time, leaving the politics and eastern business to his partner, Elkins.

Davis developed the Coal and Coke to take advantage of the extensive land, timber and coal holdings that he controlled in central West Virginia. These included more than 90,000 acres located in Braxton and Webster counties held in partnership with Johnson N. Camden. His journals from the period describe the day to day activities of inspecting and supervising construction activities on the Coal and Coke line from Elkins to Gassaway. One entry states that he "...hope to get road completed to Buckhannon River by January 1904." In the June 15, 1905 entry it states "...returned last night from horseback trip over Coal and Coke Railway as far as Gassaway. We expect to get road through by November. The town of Gassaway is improving fast. We are putting in foundation for engine house, and will soon start shops." These passages clearly indicate how intimately Davis was involved with the direct construction, not only management, of the railway.

Davis continued to remain politically active and influential. In 1904 he was the vice-presidential candidate on the Democratic ticket with Alton B. Parker. He was also active in civic projects, lending his name and financing to a number of schools, churches and clubs throughout the state and country. The Presbyterian Church in Gassaway was built with his funds, as well as the Davis Grade School. His mark on the town of Gassaway is indelible and the town. would not have existed if not for his involvement.

Following the death of his partner and son-in-law in 1911, Davis became less active in the business though he maintained contact. Up to his death in 1916, he was still active in securing financing for his railroad activities.

Also influential in state and national events and associated with the Coal and Coke Railway is Stephen B. Elkins, a former Attorney General and United States District Attorney when he relocated to West Virginia in 1878. In 1895 he was elected United States Senator from West Virginia and was twice reelected to that position, serving as such until his death in 1911. Senator Elkins became interested in coal mining and the railroad industry through his association with Henry Gassaway Davis. He was on the Board of Directors of several railroads throughout the state. He and Mr. Davis put into operation the Coal and Coke Railroad in 1906.

Another prominent citizen associated with the Davis's and Elkins' was Richard C. Kerens. Kerens also has a connection with Gassaway through his visits to the town and his involvement as a member of the Board of Directors of the Coal and Coke Railway Co. Kerens was born in Ireland in 1842 and came to the United States in his infancy. He associated with Elkins and Davis and was involved in the construction and organizations of many of their railroads. He served on the US Intercontinental Railroad Commission between 1892 and 1900. He also served as the ambassador to Austrio-Hungary between 1909 and 1913, this countrys' last ambassador prior to the outbreak of World War I. He was a part of the group of industrialists associated with Davis who constructed a home in Elkins adjacent to Davis's and Elkins'. His involvement with the Coal and Coke was as a member of the Board. He also commissioned construction of the Roman Catholic Church in Gassaway, which was named for his father, Saint Brendan. This structure is still extant in Gassaway and is constructed in a similar style to the depot and Davis' church, using native sandstone.