Coal Field Extensions of the Norfolk & Western

In the mid-1880s, officers of the Norfolk & Western were looking to extend the line of the railroad further into the coal fields of southern West Virginia.

W. W. Coe, Chief Engineer of the N&W, reported the results of his investigation of potential routes of the line west, in a letter dated April 17, 1885, and sent to F.J. Kimball, Esq., President, N. &. W. R. R.

Coe reported "In our examination of the Great Flat-Top Divide, for the purpose of ascertaining a practicable railway approach to, and crossings of same, three lines suggest themselves, these I would designate as follows:

---- Line No. 1 ---- From Pocahontas up Laurel Creek through Moores Gap to the waters of North Fork of Tug River.
---- Line No. 2 ---- From present end of Mill or Simmons Creek Branches, with a tunnel in No. 3 coal vein through to waters of Elkhorn Fork of Tug River.
---- Line No. 3 ---- Down Bluestone River to Crane Creek, up Crane Creek to Peters Gap, thence along Pinnacle Creek to Guyandotte River."

Coe discussed several options and dismissed some of the suggestions because of distances involved or because the track would be above the coal seam for a great distance (important when considering tipple locations and loading coal). The line ultimately chosen was Line No. 2:

---- Line No. 2 ---- The success of this line and for its purposes, either Mill or Simmons Creek spurs can be utilized, depends upon the practicability of going through in the coal from either Mill or Simmons to waters of Elkhorn Fork of Tug. From a careful study and from the favorable opinion of mining experts, I feel assured that this is practicable. By utilizing No. 3 vein for the purposes mentioned we would be under ground for about 1 1-4 miles and would come out on the western slope in the coal and by following the stream would be immediately below the coal vein which is known to exist for many miles. I would estimate that a railway line would be at least five (5) miles shorter between common points, say Bluestone Junction on the East and the confluence of North and Elkhorn Forks of Tug on the West, by way of Mill or Simmons Creek than the line by way of Moore's Gap. The extreme elevation which we would reach on this line would be 2350 feet above tide which would be at portal of tunnel at eastern end and would come out on waters of Elkhorn at an elevation of say 2300 feet above tide. This much lower elevation would undoubtably put us on better ground for the purposes of a railway line that we would find in getting away from the high elevation required to pass through Moore's Gap.

Nothing had been decided yet a year later, when a consulting engineer, Mr. C.C. Wentworth was hired to examine potential routes. In May, 1886, Wentworth made his report, which said, in part,

It would perhaps be best, as the grades on the present Mill Creek Branch are too heavy for a through road, to rebuild the line from a point midway between the Bluestone Junction and the first tunnel on Laurel Creek, leaving the New River Division there and tunnelling through to the Bluestone River (the tunnel being about 500 feet long) and following the Bluestone River without crossing it, to the mouth of Mill Creek, there cross the present Mill Creek Branch above grade and rise to the tunnel at the head of Mill Creek with lighter grades. This would increase the length of line to be built from 101 miles to 103 1/2 miles and do away with the extreme curvature on the present Flat Top Extension." (See Notes)

Flat Top Tunnel Construction Contract

February 1, 1887

Contract with George Mills and Henry Fairfax, trading as Mills and Fairfax, for "Grading and Masonry required for the road-bed of the Elkhorn Branch of the Flat Top Extension beginning at or near the present end of track of the Mill Creek Branch and extending to a point at or near the confluence of Johns Knob branch with south fork of Elkhorn, a distance of about five miles . . . " to be done and finished on or before August 1, 1887.

"Note. Said work to include the tunnel through the Flat Top Mountain on the No. 3 coal bed for which work special specifications are hereto attached and made a part of this contract."

"Flat Top Tunnel Specifications

The tunnel is to be excavated to a finished section in a rectangular shape sixteen feet (16') wide and nineteen feet (19') high above sub-grade. Sub-grade unless otherwise directed is to be in a uniform line from one end of the tunnel to the other and may be fixed at not exceeding two feet (2') below the bottom of the No. 3 Coal bed as opened at each portal. The nineteen feet (19') of height of the section will be made up in its lower half partly of the No. 3 coal bed and in its upper half of the overlying slates, fire clay and sandstone.

The coal is to be excavated and delivered as good clean run of mine coal and is to be taken out of such part of the total thickness of the bed as is worked at the adjoining collieries. Such coal is to be taken out of the heading of the tunnel and out of the air way parallel thereto and is to be delivered on cars at Mill Creek and stacked in a waste bank at Elkhorn.

If the coal bed should become of a less thickness than four feet exclusive of the slates and coal not usually mined in run of mine coal in adjoining collieries, this will entitle the Contractor to a price of Three and one half dollars ($3.50) per cubic yard for the entire section of tunnel instead of the prices for coal and other excavation mentioned herein. The air-way parallel to the Main tunnel shall not be more than eight feet (8') in width and forty feet (40') of coal is to be left between the air-way and the Main Tunnel and cross passage ways, for the purposes of ventilation and for conveying of rock or coal from the main tunnel, are not to be less than seventy five feet (75') apart.

The excavation other than coal is to be measured in place and will be that material other than the coal mined and delivered as herinbefore provided and lying inside the section 16 x 19 feet.

Falls where, in the opinion of the Engineer, the same are not caused by negligence or fault of the contractor or his employes, will be measured in place and allowed for as other excavation.

The sides of the tunnel are to be left in a neatly smoothed condition and at no point come inside of the specified section.

Permanent timbering and filling up to solid material with rock if required is to be done by the contractor at cost with ten per cent. (10%) added to the labor account.

Tipples and all other machinery required for ventilation, drainage and delivery of excavated material is to be furnished by the contractor without cost to the party of the second part.

The work to be so prosecuted from each end as to insure that the heading meet in close proximity to the centre of the tunnel and the work of taking down the top shall closely follow that of making the coal excavation.

The party of the second part will furnish the cars needed to transport and remove the coal and other material excavated from the east end and will furnish the ground for the spoil bank and for stacking coal at West end.

Any clauses in the regular printed contract to which these specifications are attached shall be considered as a part of the same in so far as they may apply to this work."


For Grubbing and Clearing$35 per acre
Earth Excavation18¢ per cubic yard

Tunnel Excavation, except Flat Top$3.50 per cubic yard
Flat Top Tunnel excavation, coal85¢ per ton of 2240 pounds
Flat Top Tunnel excavation, Rock and other material$1.75 per cubic yard


The Wentworth report is referenced in a report to N&W President Frederick Kimball from W.W. Coe, Chief Engineer, dated May 31, 1886. The report is in Box 1.85, "1885-86, Line to Ohio River -- reports and estimates file" found in the Norfolk and Western Archives at the Newman Library at Virginia Tech

The firm of Mills & Fairfax was dissolved in June 1887. Henry Fairfax became responsible for Elkhorn Branch and George Mills became responsible for the contract for the Little Reed Island Branch, which was awarded to Mills & Fairfax on January 25, 1887.