The big break needed for Blacksburg, VA’s railroad hopes came with the Great Coal Strike of 1902 in Pennsylvania. William J. Payne and his associates in Richmond had become persuaded of the good prospects in coal at Price and Brush mountains.
They, in turn, persuaded men they knew within disgruntled coal and coal railroad management in the Wilkes Barre-Scranton anthracite fields. Soon both capital and expertise came to non-union Virginia through the efforts of L.S.Randolph, president of Brush Mountain Coal Company, and Payne, who became the driving force of two new sibling companies.
The first of these was the Virginia Anthracite Coal and Railway Company (VAC & Ry. Co. or VAC&R), chartered by Virginia’s General Assembly on April 2, 1902. The very next day, the Virginia Anthracite Coal and Railway Company bought the already graded railroad right-of-way and other preliminary work at Price Mountain on Brush Mountain Coal Company land for $169,500.
Nine months later, on January 8, 1903, in Richmond, the Virginia Anthracite Coal Company (VAC Co. or VAC) also received its charter. This company took over the building and operating of the Merrimac Mines from the BMCC, which returned to landlord status, charging royalties on VAC Co. coal profits. Randolph’s VAC Co. owned 87 percent of the stock of his VAC & Ry. Co.
Meantime, on July 3, 1901, in Blacksburg, word was received that a horseless buggy, the first to be seen in the town, was approaching from Christiansburg. About forty cars were registered in the state at that time, and one of them was coming to Blacksburg! In the bigger cities of Virginia, most people had seen automobiles, although few had actually ridden in one.
But in Blacksburg, where less than two years earlier the town council had voted to allow cows to roam at large in town provided they were dehorned, Main Street was lined with excited observers eager to see a spectacle pass by.
In April 1902, the same month as the birth of the Virginia Anthracite Coal and Railway Company, the Montgomery County Board of Supervisors voted to postpone for three months any discussion of the proposed “Blacksburg Rock Road.” In other words, Blacksburgers’ wails for better transportation were beginning to be acknowledged by the county, albeit with dragging feet. Early talks about macadamizing the Blacksburg Road had begun.
Railroad building was hardly going any faster. It took seven months merely to buy and go to court over the necessary right-of-way. Building finally commenced in mid-November 1902. Five months later, when the tracks were laid all the way to the Merrimac Mines, construction ceased. Building a large mining operation and a railroad at the same time was straining the resources of the sibling companies. Meantime, the April 8, 1903, issue of the Roanoke Times reported, “The long talked of macadamized road from Christiansburg [to Blacksburg] is an assured thing now as the $20,000 bonds are about ready to be floated, and as soon as that is done the work will be let to contract at once.”
But by this time, Blacksburg’s citizens needed convincing. Town council had long petitioned the county to no avail, and various companies had, for fifty years, promised-then failed-to produce a railroad. The town’s people would believe in transportation when they saw it. In the spring of 1904, The Virginia Tech, a campus newspaper, mockingly commented that “a line of flying machines” had a better chance of fulfilling Blacksburg’s transportation needs than a macadamized road or any of the several promised railroads.
Meanwhile, at a time before radio, when entertainment beyond the homegrown was meager in the area, the biggest show around was just a buggy ride away: the building of the mining community at Merrimac Mines. The soil there is preferred by plants of the heath family, such as the wild-growing lowbush blueberry Vaccinium, which had become gloriously profuse in the new sunshine along the stalled railroad’s right-of-way and up the stripped mountainsides at Merrimac Mines. These “huckleberries” rapidly gained a wide reputation for the most delicious of pies, cobblers, and jams. It became popular in the summer to buggy out to the site, see how the building was coming along, and pick the berries.
Newspapers called the stalled railroad “the Christiansburg-Blacksburg Railroad” or “the Virginia Anthracite Line.” But after several summers of berry picking, the railroad became connected in people’s minds to the famous “huckleberries.” This was certainly true of the junior faculty members at the local college who wrote and edited The Virginia Tech in those years before the students did. For in May 1904, when the good news was announced that the railroad building would resume after all, one such writer could assume that his readership would know just what he meant when, in that time of such great railroad empires as the “Gould system” and the “Harriman system,” his news item read, “It appears that the ‘Huckleberry System’ will certainly extend their line into Blacksburg.”
Sure enough, it happened. The tracks were laid in Blacksburg by September 7. Blacksburg celebrated the opening of its railroad on September 15, 1904. “Only those who are compelled to travel the nine miles of almost impassable mountain road during the cold, bleak, dreary winter months can fully appreciate what the opening of this new road means,” said several newspapers.
Six days later, students arriving for the 1904-05 school year joined in the appreciative cheers for the new service. “Everywhere ’tis the same story, praises of the ‘Huckleberry.’ . . . Why, we are two hours closer to Christiansburg,” reported the first issue of The Virginia Tech that school year. It was an exciting, promising time for Blacksburg and the region.
Source: A Special Place for 200 Years, Chapter 7, “Blacksburg Transported: From Wagons to Jet Planes, ” by Patricia S. Neumann, 1998 by the Town of Blacksburg, Virginia.