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Antebellum Transportation

With the growth of settlement and counties, western Virginians demanded better better services and internal improvements from the state of Virginia. Transportation was a critical concern as isolated western Virginians needed improved roads and waterways. However, the rivers and streams proved to be unpredictable, generally unnavigable due to low water in the summer, ice in the winter, and flooding in every season. As early as 1785, George Washington had planned a canal creating a navigable route connecting the Chesapeake Bay with the Ohio River. The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal finally reached Harpers Ferry in 1833 and ended at Cumberland in 1850, never intersecting the Ohio River. A similar plan to join the James River with the Kanawha River by canal also failed.

Berkeley Springs resident James Rumsey eliminated some of these problems with the invention of a steam-powered boat, first demonstrated at Shepherdstown in 1787. The success of Robert Fulton's steamboat in New York in 1807 made water transportation the fastest and most inexpensive form of sending goods to market.

Roads, often treacherous, were the most common form of transportation. By the end of the eighteenth century, the state had constructed and improved routes, connecting many parts of western Virginia. These roads often followed old Native American and pioneer trails and eventually became the routes of modern highways and interstates. In 1790, the Kanawha Turnpike, or Midland Trail extended to the Kanawha River, reaching the Guyandotte River by 1800, today's U. S. Highway 60. In 1818, the National Road, which became U. S. Highway 40, connected Cumberland with Wheeling. In 1838, the Northwestern Turnpike was completed from Winchester to Parkersburg, marking the route of present-day U. S. Highway 50.

Railroads did not extend beyond the mountains until the 1850s and did not play a major role in economic development until the end of the Civil War. The one exception to this was the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, which reached Wheeling in January 1853, providing an economic boost. The long-awaited B&O had reached Harpers Ferry in 1834, causing an economic boom in a town where the government armory had previously been the primary employer. Legal complications continually delayed its extension. Originally, the Virginia General Assembly prevented the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Company from constructing its track beyond Cumberland into western Virginia because it feared eastern Virginia would lose its western markets to the city of Baltimore. In 1847, western Virginian representatives forced the state to consent to extending the track to a point on the Ohio River several miles south of Wheeling.

The B&O employed cheap labor, often Irish immigrants, to complete construction of the track. During this same period, thousands of immigrants from Europe as well as people from Pennsylvania, Maryland, and New York settled in western Virginia, creating a heterogeneous population of English, Germans, Irish, and Scots, yet the eastern Virginia population remained primarily English and African American.

Antebellum Studies

West Virginia History Center