On January 29, 1873, railroad officials gathered at Hawks Nest in Fayette County to drive the last spike on the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway. The C&O, as it was known, connected the Ohio River with the Atlantic Ocean and gave birth to the modern coal and timber industries in southern West Virginia.
The southern West Virginia leg of the railroad was one of the great engineering feats of the late 19th century. More than 7,000 men—including many African Americans—laid track through the New River Gorge and cut tunnels through the mountains between Hinton and Covington, Virginia. One of America’s most popular folk songs emerged from construction of the C&O’s Great Bend Tunnel in Summers County. It recounts how the “steel-drivin’ man” “John Henry” defeated a steam drill in a contest of man versus machine.
After its initial completion, the C&O kept expanding and connected West Virginia resources with markets in the Midwest and the Great Lakes. Thanks to its coal traffic, the C&O continued to thrive in the 20th century while many other railroads failed. Today, the remaining C&O lines are part of CSX Transportation.