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Gordonsville

C&O Milepost 160.4


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Station Number: 160
Code Number: 0228
Telegraph Callsign: G

Gordonsville was named for Nathaniel Gordon. In 1787 Gordon purchased 1,350 acres of land at the crossroads of the Fredericksburg Road and the Richmond Road and built his house there. By 1794 he was running a tavern at the crossroads and the site soon became a stage coach stop. The Gordon establishment was famous for its chicken dinners. A Post Office was established there in 1813, with Gordon as the first postmaster. The new Post Office was called Gordonsville, though the original plantation had been called Newville.

In the 1840’s Gordonsville was the western terminus of the Louisa Railroad and the westernmost railhead in Virginia. Through the early part of the 1850’s it was Orange County’s largest and most populous town. This was due, in part, to the fact that the town was situated at the junction of the Virginia Central and the Orange & Alexandria railroads. In addition, the town stood at the intersection of two major turnpikes from the valley of Virginia. This location gave Gordonsville a strategic importance during the Civil War. Federal Troops tried several times to capture the town, but it remained in Confederate hands throughout the war.

During the 1860’s the Exchange Hotel in Gordonsville was a luxurious stopping place for Virginia Central passengers. It was built in 1859 and officially opened in 1860. During the Civil War, the Exchange Hotel was converted into a military hospital, the Gordonsville Receiving Hospital. Following the war, the hotel flourished again. The Exchange Hotel still stands, and today is a Civil War museum.

Gordonsville’s prosperity was adversely affected in the 1880’s when the Virginia Midland (formerly the Orange & Alexandria) built a line to the west of the town that provided a shorter route to Charlottesville for traffic from the north. The line was begun in 1879 and the first train ran from Orange to Charlottesville in January 1881. The towns of Barboursville and Somerset on the new Virginia Midland line pulled trade away from Gordonsville. As a result, the town’s fortunes declined, but it remained an important passenger and freight station for the C&O.

In the late 1860’s and early 1870’s, Gordonsville women sold food to C&O passengers through the open windows of the wooden cars. It was possible for the hungry traveller to purchase biscuits, coffee, fruit, hard-boiled eggs, bread, pies, and chicken without leaving the train. As a matter of fact, Gordonsville was known as the Chicken Leg Center of the Universe in the 1870’s. As late as 1914, hungry travelers could still buy food through the open windows of C&O trains. When dining cars became popular, dressed chickens were stock piled at Gordonsville and the Gordonsville name was used on menus.

In 1872, Scribner’s Monthly published an account of a train trip along the C&O from Newport News to Allegheny. In it, Jed Hotchkiss describes Gordonsville thus:

Here at mid-day the trains come from every point with an ear-shattering shriek of the steam-pipe...Gordonsville is a straggling village, built along a rocky turnpike by turns the dustiest and muddiest of highways, a jumble of carsheds, churches, and country stores. Its trade, apart from the fried chicken, is considerable in sumac, live-stock, agricultural implements, and Arctic soda-water drawn from Polar fountains (Hotchkiss, 1972, p. 149).

The C&O had steam locomotive servicing facilities in Gordonsville. These facilities include a 120 ton platform type coaling facility, two water tanks (one wood and one steel), and water columns. Changes were made to the water station in 1924 and 1925. A passing track (I’m guessing this was the one west of town) was built in 1927. A portion of the depot platform was retired in July, 1930. The coal house was retired in 1933. Bridge number 1605 over Main Street and its tracks were changed in June, 1937. The 1937 Side Track Record shows a large number of tracks in Gordonsville. There were 3 passing sidings: a 2871' one to the east (track number 877), a 5596' one to the west (track number 889), and a 4256 one to the north (track number 879). Gordonsville also had 2 commercial tracks. One (track number 878) was 1801' long. The other (track number 882) was 482' in length. Track number 888 was a wye track and track number 841 was an 841' set off track. The remaining tracks (numbers 880, 881, 883, 884, 886, 887, and 890) were all crossovers. A portion of the freight house was retired in 1939. In May, 1945 the brick signal tower, G cabin, was constructed. The wood tower remained until it was retired in February, 1946. The passenger station was remodeled in 1948. In 1949 further changes were made to the water station. According to the C&O’s 1950 Industrial Directory, Gordonsville had a team track, a shop track with a 4 car capacity, and a mill track (also with a 4 car capacity). The C&O also had two stock pens in Gordonsville. The team track served the Piedmont Knitting Company (a textile plant) and the Producers Cooperative Exchange (which shipped flour, feed, seed, and hay). Holliday Brothers (a coal and building supply company) had it’s own private siding and the Orange-Madison Cooperative Bureau was served from a house track. It’s unclear to me at this point which of the tracks described by the Industrial Directory correspond to which tracks from the Side Track Record. The water tanks were retired in place in 1956. I don't know when the wooden one was taken down, but the steel one is still standing in 2008. In February, 1956 the tool house from Green Springs was moved to Gordonsville and installed behind the freight house as a garage. In late 1958 a track (number 2782) was built off of the west passing siding to serve a pulpwood yard for the West Virginia Pulp and Paper Company. The cattle pen was retired in December, 1963. Crossover 886 and a portion of the passing track (number 879) were retired in 1975. One of the commercial tracks (number 882), crossover 881, and a portion of passing track 877 were retired in 1977. Crossover 880 and a portion of the remaining commercial track (number 878) were retired in 1988. Passing tracks 877 and 879, commercial track 878, and crossover 884 were retired in 1993.

Photos


The Passenger Station


The first passenger depot in Gordonsville was part of the current freight station (see below). That station was replaced around 1870 with a two-story depot inside the wye. The new station included a telegraph office and served both the C&O and the Orange, Alexandria & Manassas (successor to the O&A). That station was replaced in 1904 by this unique station, also built inside the wye. The new station resembles other stations built around the same time (e.g., Doswell, Va; St. Albans, W.Va). It served the C&O until the advent of Amtrak in 1972. The train sheds were removed in 1974 and the station itself was demolished in 1977. Photo A shows the station as seen from the rear of Amtrak train #98 in January of 1973. Photo B shows the station from Amtrak’s version of the George Washington in February, 1974. The train sheds were removed, I believe, in 1975 and the station itself was torn down in 1978. (Both photos by LaVerne Brummel, used with permission)
This view of the station is from a postcard dated September 20, 1910. The point of view is a common one. (From the collection of Larry Z. Daily)
This is another postcard view of the depot and is roughly contemporaneous with the previous image. That should be the St. John’s Hotel on the left. (From the collection of Larry Z. Daily)
These photos from August, 1978 show the Gordonsville station shortly before it was torn down. (Both photos by G. R. Harper, used with permission)

The Schedule Board


While the station itself is gone, the schedule board still exists and is housed in the Exchange Hotel. I thought it odd that it’s still showing the schedule for July 26, 1969. I recently received an email from Lynne Lewis who explains, “Back in December 2000 (as I recall) I was at the [Exchange Hotel] Museum for a Christmas activity and noticed the blank schedule board. I asked about it and the guide said that they had always wanted to post the schedule for the last trains on the last day of passenger service. Well, my father was in the RR business all his life, and so I posed the question for him. A few weeks later I had the answer and it is on the board as you photographed it, although with the caveat that there was no guarantee that either direction actually stopped that day - but it was certainly the last possible train one could have caught out of Gordonsville. Now all we have to do is find someone who remembers whether it stopped that day or not :-)” (2002 photo)

The Waiter-carriers


Perhaps one of the best-known images of the waiter-carriers is this woodcut originally published with Hotchkiss’ article in Scribner’s Monthly in 1872. It is the only image that I am aware of that even gives a hint of what the 1870 depot might have looked like.
This photo, one of the few taken of the waiter-carriers, is from an old postcard. There was no date of the photo on the card, but it was postmarked 1907. The photo must be older than that, though: notice the truss rods on the passenger cars.
I had never seen this image of the waiter-carriers until the postcard it is on was auctioned on eBay. I had to have it. Like the previous photo, this one is undated, but the card is postmarked 1911.

Signal Towers


The top photo is from a postcard dated October 18, 1916. The wooden signal tower in the foreground was later replaced by G cabin. The concrete foundation still stands inside the wye. For some time it was unclear when G cabin was built; most of my sources indicated a build date in the late 1930’s. Then I received an email from O. B. Omohundro, Jr, who wrote, “The wooden tower ... was in use up to the late 40s. When the brick tower (G Cabin) was built, a gentleman by the name of Tom Taylor, who owned the Old Oaken Bucket hotel on main street, bought the wooden tower and moved the upper part of it to form the office of Taylor’s Pontiac. This section of the old tower still exists today although if you don’t know the history, you probably would not recognize it.” He later spoke to Mr. Taylor’s son about the tower and then sent me this: “His son says that it was moved about 1945 and the picture is marked 1950. The address on North Main is 208, but the roof is about all you will recognize of the original building.” I’ve since been able to confirm this information: the C&O Valuation maps show that G cabin was built in 1945 and that the wooden tower was removed in 1946. The top photo is from an old postcard and shows the tower in use. (circa 1916, from the collection of Larry Z. Daily) The middle photo shows the top of the tower in its new location. (1950, from Garnett A. Taylor, used with permission) The bottom photo shows the tower as it appears now. (2003, Larry Z. Daily)
This is G Cabin as it appeared in 1995. It is a fine example of the C&O’s standard brick cabin. (1995 photo)
After 66 years G Cabin no longer officially exists. The Buckingham Branch RR has renamed it East Gordonsville. (2011 photo by Gary Smith. Used with permission)
This is the view from the top floor of G cabin. In this modern photo, all of the old C&O signals have been removed. There have also been a lot of changes to the town itself, visible to the left, since the days of the C&O. (2013 photo)
This concrete foundation is located along the Piedmont Sub side of the wye. It once supported the wooden signal tower that was used before G cabin was built. (2001 photo)

The Freight House


The C&O’s freight house in Gordonsville was very near the passenger depot. The station is one of a few former C&O structures still standing in Gordonsville. One interesting possibility that has been mentioned recently is that this building may have the original depot for the town. Historic Gordonsville members located a deed from 1840 that indicates a building “occupied as a freight depot” stood on this site. Further, the 1878 Grey map of Gordonsville shows that this building was once much larger than it is now. The “missing” section, which was on the side nearest the Exchange Hotel, may have been the original passenger depot. (1995 photo)
This circa 1990 photo shows the siding that used to serve the freight house and the mill (see below). By the time I was taking photos with an eye toward modeling Gordonsville, the siding had been removed. (Photo circa 1990 by Mark Herrmann, used with permission.)
Historic Gordonsville has successfully acquired the freight house from CSX. One condition of the sale, however, was that the building be moved 50 feet from active tracks. This is the station in its new location. The original location was where all the weeds are in the foreground. (2004 photo)

Bridge #1605


The C&O built this bridge over Rt. 15/33 in the 1930’s. It must have replaced an earlier structure because one of my references talks about the railroad overpass on Main Street in 1916. This photo was taken in 1988. In 1995 the bridge was raised to accommodate truck traffic. Shortly after that, CSX painted it powder blue. (1988 photo)
This drawing shows the general shape of the pre-1930’s bridge over Main Street. It was prepared from some C&O drawings that Gary Smith found and copied for me. One was dated 1930, the other (possibly) 1929.

Steel Water Tank


This water tank is evident in photos dating back to the 1950’s. There was also a wooden tank visible in those photos. Both tanks stood inside the wye. Water columns once stood along each leg of the wye. (1998 photo)

The Hotels


This is the Exchange Hotel as it appears today. It provided a resting place for C&O passengers throughout much of its existence and served as a hospital during the Civil War. Today it is a museum. (1998 photo)
The St. John’s Hotel was owned by James Keegan and was built in 1870. It was a long, four-story building with a wide, columned veranda facing the tracks across from the passenger station. The St. John’s Hotel was quite famous and operated as a hotel well into this century. This view is from a postcard from the early 1900’s. (From the collection of Larry Z. Daily)
Magnolia House was built as a hotel in the early 1870’s (it was definitely in business by 1873). It was bought by James Keegan in 1885 and, at some point after that, was converted to residence. It stands very close by the tracks, near the location of G cabin (to the left in the photo). (Top - 1997, Jerry Simonoff photo, used with permission. Bottom - 1999, Larry Z. Daily)

The Mill


The Gordonsville Milling Company opened in 1910. Its second owner renamed it Rocklands Milling Co. in 1917. According to Nancy Haney, the current owner, the mill was also once owned by Southern States. When her father bought it in 1985 it had reportedly been vacant for 17 years. C&O track charts indicate that the mill and the freight house once shared a siding. The siding is visible in this photo (and the freight house photo above) and its remains still exist in the Depot Street grade crossing. (Photo circa 1990 by Mark Herrmann, used with permission.)

The Town


These views of Gordonsville’s business district are from old postcards. The top one is post marked 1908. Note that bridge 1605 is just visible in the background of both; the top photo shows the old bridge while the lower image shows (I believe) the new one. In the lower view the bridge looks like it’s painted black with white lettering. (From the collection of Larry Z. Daily)

Maps


This map was prepared from U.S.G.S. topological maps, C&O track charts dated 1963, C&O Side Track Records dated 1937, a copy of the Side Track Records updated through the 1990’s, and C&O Valuation maps, also updated through the 1990’s.

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