In 1905, New York financierFrank Jay Gould established the Richmond and Chesapeake Bay Railway. He had a vision for a high speed electric railroad, which would run from Norfolk up to Petersburg, Richmond, and Fredericksburg with branches to the Northern Neck. This would allow much easier transportation of summer produce and seafood from the Tidewater area to Richmond, instead of to the port at Baltimore. A few years before, Gould had purchased the Brook Turnpike, which was chartered in 1812 and originally the only road leading north out of Richmond. In the 1830s, it took a 38 hour trip by stagecoach along the turnpike to travel from Richmond to Washington. In 1834, the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad was chartered by the General Assembly. The railroad’s charter included a unique statute that prohibited any other railroads from being constructed anywhere between Richmond and Washington. Gould was initially denied a charter for his new railway based on this statue, but later granted the charter after a Virginia Supreme Court decision. The first and only part of the railway to be built, at a cost of $994,000, was the 14.8 mile section from Richmond to Ashland. The trolley officially began running on October 28, 1907.
The railway was very unique and innovative for its time. Instead of traditional trolley cars, Gould wanted large, comfortable luxury cars. The railway line used four 39 ton, 55 foot cars, which were manufactured by the St. Louis car company. These were similar to Pullman parlor cars with mahogany paneling, high-backed seats and frescoed ceilings. They were dark green and cream colored with gold trim. A 1908 schedule advertises “Cool – clean – comfortable electric trains. No smoke. No cinders. Elegant cars. Rock ballasted track.” Power for the trolley came to the Richmond Depot through an underground cable from a hydroelectric plant on 12th Street. The cars were designed so that they would only absorb the power needed to run the trolley and return the rest to the overhead wire. The leftover power in the line was used to provide electricity to the town of Ashland. The cars used 6,600 volts of electricity at 25 cycles per second, which was much higher than the 600 volts of direct current typically used by trolleys. At that time, it was the only interurban railway using more than 3,300 volts. Because of the high voltage, a special wooden insulator was designed for the place where the Ashland – Richmond line crossed the lower voltage Lakeside streetcar line. To keep the railway straight and level, it was necessary to construct a half mile long bridge across several streets, another railway line, and the Bacon’s Quarter Branch of Shockoe Creek. Gould planned to build the bridge of wood, but changed his plans when he saw a concrete viaduct while traveling in France. At the time of its construction, the concrete viaduct for the Richmond – Ashland trolley line was the largest in the United States. The trolley began at the Richmond Depot on West Broad Street and Laurel Street and ran north across Bacon’s Branch Ravine, and then north on Brook Road past Laburnum. It ended at the white and mustard-colored trolley station at the corner of Maple and England Streets in Ashland, where the Post Office now stands.
After the Richmond - Ashland section was completed, the plan was to begin building the line to Tappahannock, but this was never completed, due to a stock market scare in October 1907 and possible financial difficulties. The railway line remained open until December 1917, but was never very profitable. It was put up for auction and eventually purchased by Oliver J. Sands and Jonathan Bryan in 1919 for $135,000 and chartered as the Richmond – Ashland Railway. Instead of the 6,600 volt current, the line was converted to the cheaper 600 volt current, and more traditional trolleys were purchased second hand. Despite the efforts to revive it, the Ashland – Richmond trolley continued to encounter financial challenges and by 1936, the company’s deficit was over $171,000. On March 22, 1938, the last trolley departed Ashland at 11:10 pm, filled with nostalgic passengers, who took souvenirs from the station in Richmond. On the way back, the whistle blew continuously, waking nearby residents, and passengers sang “Auld Lang Syne.” The copper wire and 2,800 tons of rail were sold for $35,000. The railroad’s right of way was purchased by Virginia Electric and Power Company to run electric transmission lines.
The electric trolley holds many fond memories for local residents. Dorothy Jones remembered hearing the story of her parents wedding in 1911, when the whole wedding party rode the trolley from Ashland to Richmond, amidst much fanfare and ringing bells. Others remember attorney Rosewell Page riding the trolley. When they crossed the Chickahominy River on the way back to Ashland, he would rise, take off his hat and shout, “All stand! We are in Hanover County, God bless her!” Another Ashlander remembered riding the trolley when she was very young, and how terrified she was of the high bridge. Her family’s cook, who rode with her, would distract her by telling her to look down at the chimneys to see Santa Claus. A Richmonder remembers riding the trolley to visit a college in Ashland when he was fourteen, and how long the trip seemed to him.
Today, a half mile section of the old Richmond – Ashland Trolley line has been dedicated as greenway to preserve this unique and interesting part of our local history. The Ashland Trolley Line Park trail is an easy 0.5 mile walk (1 mile round trip) along a very straight & level path. The Richmond Audubon Society has a checklist of 76 different species of birds that have been seen on this trail. You can see the check list here. Enjoy the history, the birds, and your walk.
“ Rails in Richmond” by Carlton Norris McKenney (This is a great place to start if you’d like more information and pictures of the trolley. The book is about streetcars in Richmond, and there’s a whole chapter on the Richmond – Ashland trolley line. The Hanover and Ashland branches of Pamunkey Library have copies of the book.)
“Ashland, Ashland: The Story of a Turn of the Century Railroad Town” by Rosanne Groat Shalf
Richmond - The Alumni Magazine
Laburnum Park Historic District
National Register of Historical Places
Richmond Then & Now
Historic Richmond (A Look at the Richmond of Yesterday)
Ashland By Pale Paige Talley