[This article was published in the February 1997 issue of the Bull Sheet]
The Williamsport, Nessle & Martinsburg
By Allen Brougham
It was while biking a portion of the C&O Canal in the early autumn of 1995, about a mile east of Dam No. 5 in Western Maryland, I came across a very interesting discovery. There, standing immediately next to the towpath was what most certainly appeared to be an old bridge pier. In further looking around I found several more out in the river, neatly arranged to form a curve from the Maryland side, then across a small island in the middle of the river and into a tangent heading directly into West Virginia. Their size and shape quickly told me one thing -- that this had been a railroad bridge. I snooped a little further by combing through the brush on the opposite side of the canal from the towpath, and I found a fill, quite overgrown, with further hints that this had once been a single-track railroad.
My mind ran a mile a minute as I wondered the obvious -- from where to where it had run, by whom, when built, when abandoned, etc. I set out to find the answers, but in so doing I relished in the fun I was having in seeing and touching this part of history for which I was yet to find the answers.
Well, I didn't have to look very far. I called my friend Mike Welsh. His expertise in railroad history is exemplary, and, as expected, he had the answers I needed. The bridge across the Potomac near Dam No. 5 had belonged to the Williamsport, Nessle & Martinsburg, a subsidiary of the Western Maryland, used for a couple of decades to move limestone from a quarry near Marlowe in West Virginia's Eastern Panhandle to the junction with the Western Maryland at Charlton, a distance of about five miles. Not surprisingly, Mike had amassed a plethora of information on the line, all neatly filed away for ready reference. This included an engineering report drafted by the then-competing B&O in 1916 for its commercial development department as a record of what was going on.
I also called the Berkeley County (W.Va.) Historical Society, and they sent me a copy of its "Berkeley Journal" published in 1983 by historian Jeff Hollis of Martinsburg on local railroad history. It had a whole chapter on the WN&M.
The line was completed to the quarry in 1915, which it served until the quarry closed in 1931. The line remained intact, pending a possible expansion, but the flood of 1936 took with it the bridge across the Potomac, including one of the bridge piers which toppled and remains laying in the river to this day.
So the fun of finding the answers to the line's history had reached a speedy conclusion, but all of the fun was not over. Next I set out to find other traces of the line. To my surprise, virtually all of the right of way is still intact. The rail has been removed, and much of the right of way is overgrown, but there has been virtually no incursion upon what had once been the line. It is as if the future awaits the day that the tracks can be reconstructed for trains to begin running once again.
Such is the history of the Williamsport, Nessle and Martinsburg Railway. And it should be further noted that the line itself never did serve the end point cities Williamsport and Martinsburg included in its name. But for the little history it had, what was planned for the line in the form of expansion is a different story altogether. This, too, explains the real purpose in constructing so extensive a bridge to cross the Potomac, not one merely to serve a quarry. The line was intended to extend into Martinsburg. But there were further plans to extend to Charles Town, West Virginia, and eventually to Potomac Yard, Virginia, which would have given the Western Maryland a route to Washington to compete with the B&O. This, then, should explain the interest the B&O had in preparing the report on the line, excerpts of which are included below...
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PROPOSED EXTENSION OF WESTERN MARYLAND RAILWAY INTO MARTINSBURG, WEST VIRGINIA
[From Commercial Development Department, Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Company, September 11, 1916]
The Williamsport Nessle and Martinsburg Railroad was chartered February 22, 1913, with a capital stock of $250,000, with shares of par value $100. It was chartered by the following persons: Alex. J. Diedrich, Baltimore; John P. Michael, Baltimore; Alex. Clohan, Martinsburg; William Deale, Hamilton; Eugene Hoffman, Baltimore.
The Williamsport Nessle and Martinsburg railroad was to extend from a branch of Western Maryland railroad which leads from Charlton, Maryland, on the main line of the Western Maryland railroad, 4.2 miles west of Williamsport, 97 miles west of Baltimore, 216.5 miles from Pittsburgh. Its object was to reach the large deposits of flux limestone in the northern portion of Berkeley county, West Virginia, south of the Potomac river.
The Western Maryland railroad was built three miles from Charlton to the Potomac river and the concrete bridge piers erected, and the grading of the Williamsport Nessle and Martinsburg railroad extended a half mile on the West Virginia side of the river when an injunction suit was filed by the Standard Lime and Stone Company (Daniel Baker interests) against further work on a tract of land which crossed the supposed right of way of the Williamsport Nessle and Martinsburg railroad, but which in fact was owned by the Standard Lime and Stone Company having been purchased by the limestone company a short time before for the purpose of prevention of the Williamsport Nessle and Martinsburg railroad reaching the West Virginia limestone deposits. After some months of litigation, the railroad company was given the right of condemnation of lands by the West Virginia Court of Appeals, and the work of construction was resumed.
The bridge over the Potomac river was completed and track laid on the West Virginia side of the river for a distance of a half mile south, and a switch completed to the cliffs of flux limestone on the West Virginia side of the Potomac a half mile east of the railroad bridge during the summer of 1915.
In the meantime the Pittsburgh Limestone Company of Pennsylvania had leased these cliffs of flux limestone and the lands adjoining and had started to open quarries. Early in the Fall of 1915 shipments of this flux limestone were made to the Carnegie Steel Company at Pittsburgh.
About January 1, 1916, the Williamsport Nessle and Martinsburg railroad was merged with the Western Maryland system but operating under its own corporate name. The former president, John Carmichael, became Chief Engineer and General Manager, while Mr. Carl Gray, president of the Western Maryland railroad became president of the Williamsport Nessle and Martinsburg railroad.
At the present time, the tracks of the Williamsport Nessle and Martinsburg railroad extend three-fourths mile south of the Potomac river to the crossing of the Prospect Hill county road where the station of Nessle is located, and about a fourth mile further south of Nessle. The right of way is owned to the lands of the Security Cement and Lime Co., seven miles south of the Potomac river. The surveyed and staked line of this railroad extends on south to Martinsburg, eleven miles south of the Potomac river.
The chief engineer of the Baltimore and Ohio railroad states, "it is doubtful whether this railroad will build the entire line to Martinsburg as it is likely they would get very little business out of that town."
The chief engineer of the Baltimore and Ohio railroad also states, "As a matter of information it should be noted that from a point three-quarters of a mile east of the main line crossing at Martinsburg, the Williamsport Nessle and Martinsburg railway is identical with the adopted line of the Shenandoah Valley Traction Company recently chartered by C. W. Watson and associates."
The Williamsport Nessle and Martinsburg railroad is laid out with grades of 1.8 percent opposing west-bound movement, and 1.5 percent opposing east-bound movement.
COST PER MILE..
From an examination on the ground it appears that the line is of light construction and probably will not cost more per mile than ... $30,000.
STATUS OF CONSTRUCTION, SEPT 5, 1916..
The rails are laid and track in use to the Prospect Hill county road.
Road-bed graded ready for ties and rails for a distance of a half mile south of Prospect Hill road to a point 250 feet south of the lane; here 130 feet of rock cut not made, only work on line is on south and this cut. Roadbed graded for 2000 feet south of this cut to a fill of 4 to 5 feet which is not made for a distance of 200 feet; then comes a dirt fill completed for 900 feet, then no grading for 1050 feet south. Here a graded roadbed for 250 feet, then 140 feet no grading done, then 45 feet of graded road-bed. From this point no work has been done to the south, and the distance to the next county road is 430 feet. This county road is two and a fourth mile south of the bridge over Potomac River.
The working force on this construction consists of 8 laborers, 1 foreman, three carts, and this is said to be the same size force employed from August 1, 1915, to present time.
Stakes are set south to the Security Cement and Lime Co. property, and the right of way is said to be owned by this railroad company.
The station of Nessle at the Prospect Hill county road consists of a small raised platform and a shed about 6 by 8 feet in size. Apparently no freight is being received there as the track is blocked by two camp cars that have the appearance of not having been moved for some time.
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PHOTOS and MAP
Bridge pier (above) next to the towpath of the old Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, and piers (below) out in the Potomac River looking from the Maryland side toward West Virginia.
Lee Lane follows the precise alignment of the WN&M for about a mile in West Virginia from the Potomac River to Prospect Hill Road (now called Grade Road).