The Jan. 30, 1908 Comet proclaimed in bold letters: “New Railroad Will Be Great.” A subtitle further stated “South And Western To Be The Best Built, Means Much In The Development of East Tennessee.” This early railroad would later be labeled the Carolina, Clinchfield and Ohio Railroad (CC&O), eventually becoming known simply as the Clinchfield.
In early 1905, a small group of capitalists purchased 800,000 acres of coal land in Wise, Dickinson and Buchanan counties, Virginia and formed the Clinchfield Coal Corporation. These investors also acquired control of the property of the defunct Charleston, Cincinnati and Chicago (3Cs) Railroad. Backers included some of the richest men in the country, including George L. Carter, president, and M.J. Caples, general manager.
Rapid development in the Central South section of the country caused these entrepreneurs to soon recognize that their nearby coal reserves could help satisfy a growing demand for the fuel. These investors were determined to take advantage of the opportunities it afforded. To accomplish this, they realized that a new railroad line would be needed and they were determined to be the ones to build it.
The rail system, to be named the South and Western Railroad, was to operate from Elkhart City, KY to Spartanburg, SC, a distance of 284 miles. At Elkhorn City, it was to connect with the Big Sandy branch of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway, providing an outlet for the mines to the northwest. Allegedly, Carter did not want Southern Railway management to know the precise route of the new venture across the Blue Ridge Mountains. Consequently, he chose the generic name “South & Western” rather than listing city or regional names, as was the customary way to identify them.
The managers further realized that, to put their operation on equal footing with other major industrial sections of the country, steep grades had to be reduced, requiring an enormous outlay of capital. However, when completed, the new rail route would be able to haul as much coal from the mines to market in one train as could have been hauled in three trains over existing lines using locomotives of equal capacity. To accomplish this result, an amount of money was needed such as had not been expended for the initial construction of any other railroad in the country.
The connections, which it acquired with the Southern, Seaboard Air Line, Atlantic Coast Line and other railroads radiating through the Central South, enabled the Clinchfield coal to become a potent factor in the market throughout the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida. Cotton mills, furniture factories and a large number of industrial plants began to spring up everywhere and the number was expected to increase even more so.
In addition to the great amount of coal that it hauled, this rail system also carried loads of lumber for a number of years. A large quantity of virgin forest lay upon the line. An even larger acreage of timber was present with hundreds of millions of feet of merchantable timber standing awaiting a better route to market other than floating logs on the swollen waters of mountain streams. Expectations were high that the next few years would bring a large influx of people migrating into a region that was largely sparse back then.
The article’s optimism showed through in its visionary concluding note: “The future for even so expensive a railroad as the South and Western seems assured and the judgments of its backers and builders will no doubt be amply vindicated.” The statement would prove to be prophetic.