Southern Railway History


Like many large railroad systems, the Southern Railway System grew by acquiring other railroads. Its components continued to exist with their old names and corporate structures much longer than the subsidiaries of most other railroads. The Southern could trace its history back to the South Carolina Canal & Rail Road Co., chartered in 1828 and by 1857 part of the longest connected system of railroads in the world, reaching from Charleston, South Carolina, to Memphis, Tennessee.

Richmond & Danville and Richmond Terminal

The nucleus of the Southern Railway, however, was the Richmond & Danville Railroad, which opened in 1856 between Richmond and Danville, Virginia, 141 miles. The Richmond & Danville's charter permitted it to control and acquire railroads with which it connected directly. R&D interests established the Richmond & West Point Terminal Railway & Warehouse Co. (the Richmond Terminal) in 1880 to acquire railroads that did not connect with the R&D. Later, in a series of transactions that crowded the dictionary definition of "shenanigan," the R&D's charter was amended, the R&D leased the subsidiary railroads directly, and the Richmond Terminal acquired the Richmond & Danville. In the following paragraphs, "R&D" means either Richmond & Danville or Richmond Terminal, whichever was in charge at the time.

In 1863, the R&D purchased control of the Piedmont Railroad, which was under construction between Danville and Greensboro, North Carolina. In 1871, the R&D extended its reach by leasing the North Carolina Railroad, which had a line from Goldsboro, North Carolina, through Raleigh and Greensboro to Charlotte. The R&D assisted with the construction of the Atlanta & Richmond Air-Line Railroad from Charlotte to Atlanta. In 1881, the R&D leased its successor, the Atlanta & Richmond Air-Line Railway.

At its north end, in 1881 the R&D purchased the Virginia Midland Railway to obtain a route to Washington that was shorter than the dogleg through Richmond. It was built between 1854 and 1874, and had been part of the Baltimore & Ohio and later the property of the State of Virginia. It briefly had one of the most resounding names in the history of railroading: the Washington City, Virginia Midland & Great Southern Railroad.

Five years later, in 1886, the R&D extended itself west from Salisbury, North Carolina, to the Tennessee state line and a connection with the East Tennessee, Virginia & Georgia by leasing the Western North Carolina Railroad. The R&D reached west from Atlanta by leasing the Georgia Pacific Railway in 1889. The Georgia Pacific was intended to connect Atlanta with the Texas & Pacific Railway at Texarkana. It got as far as the Mississippi River at Greenville, Mississippi. The State of Mississippi required that the portion of the line from Columbus, Mississippi, to Greenville remain a separate entity (it received independence as the Columbus & Greenville in 1920).

The East Tennessee, Virginia & Georgia Railroad (ETV&G) was formed in 1869 by the consolidation of two railroads out of Knoxville, Tennessee. The company’s main line ran from Bristol, Virginia, through Knoxville to Dalton, Georgia, and Chattanooga, Tennessee. Within a few years lines were built from Dalton southeast through Atlanta to Brunswick, Georgia, and from Dalton southwest to Meridian, Mississippi. The company forged alliances with several other routes—Chattanooga to Memphis, Selma, Alabama, to Mobile, and Lexington, Kentucky, to Louisville— and it came under the control of the Richmond Terminal. By 1890, then, the Richmond Terminal/Richmond & Danville’s influence reached from Washington and Richmond southwest through Charlotte, Atlanta, and Birmingham to the Mississippi River at Memphis, Tennessee, and Greenville, Mississippi, to the Gulf Coast at Mobile, and to the Atlantic Coast at Brunswick, Georgia.

Reorganization of the Richmond Terminal

Then hard times struck. The Richmond Terminal and the roads it controlled declared insolvency and entered receivership in 1892. The J. P. Morgan Co., a New York banking and finance company, stepped in and combined and reorganized the Richmond & Danville and the East Tennessee, Virginia & Georgia into the Southern Railway.

The new railroad began operation on July 1, 1894, under the leadership of Samuel Spencer, a close associate of Morgan’s. It continued to grow by acquisition, as its predecessors had. Among its early acquisitions were the Georgia, Southern & Florida Railway, which reached from Macon, Georgia, south to Jacksonville and Palatka, Florida, and the Louisville, Evansville & St. Louis Consolidated Railroad, which extended the Lexington-Louisville line west to St. Louis.


Queen & Crescent Route

Running from Cincinnati (the Queen City) to New Orleans (the Crescent City) were five railroads that advertised themselves as the Queen & Crescent Route: the Cincinnati, New Orleans & Texas Pacific (which leased and operated the Cincinnati Southern Railway, which was owned by the City of Cincinnati), the Alabama Great Southern, the New Orleans & Northeastern, the Alabama & Vicksburg, and the Vicksburg, Shreveport & Pacific. These railroads were owned by two British-owned holding companies, control of one of which was acquired by the R&D and the ETV&G in 1890. Ownership and control of these companies was particularly convoluted. The two Vicksburg companies became part of the Illinois Central system in 1927. The other three were firmly in the Southern Railway family by the end of the nineteenth century, and the corporate existence of the Alabama Great Southern and Cincinnati, New Orleans & Texas Pacific continued through most of the twentieth century.

Georgia Southern & Florida

The Georgia Southern & Florida Railway was incorporated in 1895 under Southern Railway control as a reorganization of the Georgia Southern & Florida Railroad, which had been opened in 1890 from Macon, Georgia, through Valdosta, Georgia, to Palatka, Florida. It was intended to be part of a route from Birmingham, Alabama, to Florida that would bypass Atlanta. In 1902, it purchased the Atlantic, Valdosta & Western Railway line from Valdosta, Georgia, to a point near Jacksonville, Florida. Southern acquired control in 1895.

Other Subsidiaries 

The Mobile & Ohio was part of the Southern Railway System from 1901 to 1938. It was never especially prosperous, but Southern went so far as to propose merger (it wanted M&O’s Gulf-to-St. Louis route). The merger was vetoed by the governor of Mississippi. During the Depression the Southern had sufficient financial difficulty of its own that it was unable to aid the M&O. The expanding Gulf, Mobile & Northern acquired the M&O to form the Gulf, Mobile & Ohio Railroad.

The Southern and the Louisville & Nashville jointly acquired control of the Chicago, Indianapolis & Louisville in 1902 as a route to Chicago. However, Southern and L&N both had faster connections to Chicago on other railroads and were of no help to the CI&L during its hard times in the 1930s and 1940s. Both large roads lost their financial interests in the CI&L’s 1946 reorganization.

Despite its coverage of the state of Georgia, the Central of Georgia Railway was for much of its existence part of the Illinois Central system. From 1956 to 1961 it was under the control of the St. Louis-San Francisco, with which it connected at Birmingham. The Interstate Commerce Commission rejected SLSF’s proposal to merge with the CofG and approved control by the Southern. That took effect in 1963. A few months later in the same year, a 56-mile portion of the Tennessee Railroad was incorporated into the Southern system.

Passenger Service

In 1925, the Southern joined with several other railroads to launch the all-Pullman Crescent Limited, a train that became the pride of the system. The train traveled from New York City to New Orleans on a schedule of 37 hours and 50 minutes. North of Washington it was operated by the Pennsylvania Railroad; the West Point Route and the Louisville & Nashville operated it between Atlanta and New Orleans. It was reequipped in 1929 with cars painted two-tone green to echo the green-painted specifically assigned locomotives that pulled the train. The Southern entered the streamliner era in 1941 with two diesel-powered streamliners, the Southerner between New York and New Orleans and the Tennessean between Washington and Memphis.

In the 1970s, the Southern was notable for staying out of Amtrak, continuing to run its remaining few passenger trains and gradually trimming its service to just the Washington-Atlanta—New Orleans Southern Crescent. Often the train’s primary purpose seemed to be moving company employees between the Southern’s offices in Atlanta and Washington. Amtrak took over the operation of the Southern Crescent on February 1, 1979.

Presidents of the Southern

For 12 years, the Southern Railway System was guided by Samuel Spencer, a close associate of J.P. Morgan. In 1906, Spencer was killed in a collision when the car he was riding was struck in the rear by another train. The Southern entered a period of slow growth over the next decade and a half. Some of the leased railroads were returned to independent operation. In 1915, the Southern began using an advertising slogan that it would use for decades. Vice President L. E. Jeffries drew a circle, tracing around a half dollar. Inside it, he drew a second circle, using a quarter. Inside the smaller circle, he placed a simple “SR,” and in the space between the two circles, he wrote “The Southern Serves the South."

Just before World War I, Southern president Fairfax Harrison established a foreign freight traffic department. Agents were assigned to Mobile and New Orleans in hopes of capitalizing on Southern’s strategic location on the Gulf, yet with quick access to Atlantic ports as well. The war postponed the implementation of the foreign freight department, but involved the Southern Railway System in a much broader future development.

In 1937, Ernest Norris took over as CEO from Fairfax Harrison and began a 14-year “turnaround” term; he was the first non-Southerner to hold the position. During Norris’s tenure, the Southern weathered the Depression, ushered in the diesel era for passenger service, and persevered through World War II. Forbes magazine reported the achievements of Norris when it stated, “Ernest Norris, energetic, capable and articulate, president of the Southern Railway System, has made both himself and his road a potent factor in the upbuilding of the South.”

In the 1960s, under the guidance of mercurial D. W. Brosnan, the Southern entered into a period of unprecedented growth. Brosnan’s research team developed a large covered hopper car for grain and numerous other specialized freight cars. Brosnan increased yard capacities and built new yards in Birmingham and New Orleans. He traveled extensively around the Southern system in a pair of business cars. As ideas came to his mind, he would sketch them on a cocktail napkin, often stopping at the next yard or station to telephone the idea to the mechanical department.

Brosnan could get his designers to focus on solutions rather than excuses. In researching the problem of returning coal-service cars to revenue service more quickly, Brosnan isolated his research team at a resort until they came up with a solution: the world’s first unit trains in which aluminum hoppers were dedicated to year-round delivery of one product, coal. An order was placed for 200 of the new cars, and the railroad soon discovered that they did the work of 740 smaller hopper cars.

Southern’s best-known and best-loved president was W. Graham Claytor, Jr., who in 1967 succeeded D. W. Brosnan. Claytor was an unabashed railroad enthusiast and a collector of antique toy trains. Under his direction, the Southern developed a steam locomotive program that included nine locomotives pulling excursion trains almost every weekend during nine months of the year. The steam program proved to be enormously successful public relations and had the effect of acquainting the public with the railroad and showing how modern railroading had evolved.

Claytor retired from the Southern in 1977 at the mandatory retirement age of 65, and served the federal government as secretary of the navy, acting secretary of transportation, and deputy secretary of defense. In 1982, Claytor returned to railroading as president and chairman of the board of Amtrak.


The Southern built a reputation for innovation. In an attempt to lure grain traffic back to the rails from barges, Southern’s research team developed a 5,000-cubic-foot covered hopper car (grain had traditionally moved in boxcars, which were difficult to unload). The Big John cars shocked the transportation industry, largely because the Southern proposed cutting rates by 60 percent—the new rates would save farmers and consumers approximately $40 million a year. Howls arose from barge companies and from the Tennessee Valley Authority, which felt that it would lose barge business to the railroads. The Interstate Commerce Commission intervened. Southern’s president D. W. Brosnan was the first witness in a hearing that lasted 30 weeks and produced 16,000 pages of testimony and 765 exhibits. The Southern prevailed, and the new rates went into effect. The victory gave the Southern the confidence it needed to handle the ICC in the future, and the perceived invincibility of regulators was forever gone.

The Southern was the first railroad to employ a computer system to relay information from the field to a central processing computer, and, in June 1965, the railroad was the first railroad entity to conduct any phase of its operations with computers. The railroad installed a microwave communication system between Atlanta and Washington. Within a decade, the system had been expanded to 4,500 path-miles, giving the Southern the most extensive private communication system in the world at the time.

The Southern was also noted for quickly implementing innovations that other railroads had originated, but were slow to implement. The Southern waited until other railroads had perfected the product, and it benefited because it did not have to outlay the research and design costs. The railroad pioneered the use of crosstie-removal and replacing equipment. It installed hotbox detectors along its routes and replaced most of its jointed rail with rail welded into quarter-mile lengths.


To combat the near encirclement of the Southern by the newly formed CSX system, the Southern entered into merger negotiations with the Norfolk & Western Railway. On June 1,1982, the Norfolk Southern Corp., a new holding company, acquired the Southern and the Norfolk & Western railways. At the end of 1990, the N&W became a subsidiary of the Southern Railway, and the Southern changed its name to Norfolk Southern Railway.

In 1988, shortly before the creation of the new Norfolk Southern Railway, the Southern Railway operated 9,757 route-miles, with 1,416 locomotives, 58,929 freight cars, 2,678 company service cars, and 16,496 employees. Freight traffic totaled 50,627 million ton-miles in 1988, and paper (19.9 percent), chemicals (17.6 percent), and coal (17.3 percent) were its principal traffic sources. Southern operating revenues totaled $1,756.6 million in 1988, and the railroad achieved a 75.7 percent operating ratio.


Davis, Burke. The Southern Railway: Road of the Innovators. Chapel Hill: Univ, of North Carolina Press, 1985.
Prince, Richard E. Southern Railway System: Steam Locomotives and boats. Salt Lake City: K/P Graphics, 1970.


By Cary Franklin Poole and George H. Drury, from the Encyclopedia of North American Railroadsedited by William D. Middleton, George M. Smerk, and Roberta L. Diehl; Copyright 2007 by Indiana University Press, Bloomington, IN.

Timeline of Significant Events

Dec 25, 1830

South Carolina Canal and Rail Road Company begins service

The South Carolina Canal and Rail Road Company, Southern’s oldest predecessor line, begins the first scheduled passenger service in America.

May 06, 1847

Richmond and Danville Railroad opens

The Richmond and Danville Railroad, chartered originally in 1847, opens for traffic between its namesake cities.


East Tennessee and Georgia Railroad opens

The first segments of the East Tennessee and Georgia Railroad opens in 1852 from the Western & Atlantic Railroad interchange in Dalton, Georgia, to Loudon, Tennessee.


East Tennessee and Virginia Railroad completed

The East Tennessee and Virginia Railroad finished the construction of its line from Bristol to Knoxville.


ET&V and ET&G connect

The East Tennessee and Virginia and the East Tennessee and Georgia Railroads connect in Knoxville in 1859 after the completion of the Tennessee River Bridge in Loudon, Tennessee. The ET&G also opened its connection from Cleveland, Tennessee, to Chattanooga at this time, when the Missionary Ridge Tunnel was completed.

Nov 26, 1869

East Tennessee, Virginia, and Georgia Railroad begins

Following the Civil War, the ET&V and ET&G were consolidated into the East Tennessee, Virginia, and Georgia Railroad.

Jul 01, 1886

East Tennessee, Virginia, and Georgia Railway organized

The East Tennessee, Virginia, and Georgia Railroad was reorganized into the East Tennessee, Virginia, and Georgia Railway.

Jul 01, 1894

Southern Railway created

Following the purchase of the Richmond and Danville Railroad and East Tennessee, Virginia and Georgia Railway, the railways were reorganized and consolidated to form the Southern Railway.

Jul 01, 1895

Georgia Southern and Florida Railway is acquired

The Georgia Southern and Florida Railway is acquired by the Southern offering the railway expanded reach from Macon, GA, to its southernmost points in Jacksonville and Palatka, FL.

Nov 06, 1895

Southern acquires control of AGS

Southern acquires control of Alabama Great Southern Railroad, another member of the Queen and Crescent Lines.

Nov 11, 1895

Asheville & Spartanburg Railroad acquired

Asheville & Spartanburg Railroad acquired. The line featuring the famous Saluda Grade comes under Southern Railway control.

Oct 01, 1899

Southern acquires control of the CNO&TP

Southern acquires control of the Cincinnati, New Orleans, and Texas Pacific Railway, the operator of the Cincinnati-owned Cincinnati Southern Railway spanning from its namesake southward to Chattanooga, TN.

Sep 27, 1903

The Wreck of the Old 97

Mail train 97 derails on Stillhouse Creek Trestle north of Danville, Va., due to excessive speed, inspiring the song “The Wreck of the Old 97”

Nov 29, 1906

First President Samuel Spencer killed in accident.

First President Samuel Spencer and seven colleagues tragically killed near Lawyers Station, Va., when a following train runs into his office car

Dec 02, 1906

William W. Finley becomes President of Southern Railway

William W. Finley becomes second President of Southern Railway following death of Samuel Spencer in office car accident.

Nov 02, 1913

Royal Palm inaugurated Cincinnati-Jacksonville

Southern’s Midwest to Florida service, the Royal Palm, inaugurated with a Cincinnati-Jacksonville route.

Dec 01, 1913

Fairfax Harrison becomes President

Fairfax Harrison becomes President of Southern Railway after William W. Finley dies in office the previous month.

Mar 01, 1920

United States Railroad Administration control of Southern Railway ends

The WWI-era wartime mandated control of the Southern Railway by the United States Railroad Administration ended.

Apr 26, 1926

Crescent Limited debuts

The Southern’s flagship train, the Crescent Limited, Trains 37-38, inaugurated with New York-New Orleans Pullman service.

May 01, 1926

Queen & Crescent Limited debuts

The premier train of Southern’s Western Lines, the Queen & Crescent Limited inaugurated with Cincinnati-New Orleans service along the route of the Queen and Crescent route: the recently acquired subsidiaries, CNO&TP, AGS, and NO&NE.

Oct 21, 1937

Ernest E. Norris becomes President

Ernest E. Norris becomes fourth President of the Southern Railway, replacing Fairfax Harrison, who retires.

Sep 24, 1939

First diesel powered passenger train

Southern’s first diesel powered passenger train begins service between Columbus, Mississippi, and Mobile, Alabama, as the Goldenrod. Followed later by the Joe Wheeler from Oakdale, Tennessee to Tuscumbia, Alabama, via Chattanooga, the Cracker from Atlanta to Brunswick, Georgia, and the Vulcan from Chattanooga, Tennessee, to Birmingham, Alabama.

Nov 30, 1940

First passenger diesels on the Southern ordered

The first passenger diesels on the Southern, Electro-Motive Division E6s and ALCO DL-109s ordered.

Mar 31, 1941

The Southerner inaugurated, Southern’s first streamliner

The Southerner, Southern’s first streamlined passenger train, inaugurated its New York-New Orleans all coach service on an all Southern route in 1941.

May 17, 1941

The Tennessean debuts

The Tennessean inaugurated Washington-Bristol-Chattanooga-Memphis streamliner. A primarily all-coach train that also carried through Pullman service.

May 26, 1941

Southern purchases first diesel freight locomotives

Southern purchases first diesel freight locomotives, the EMD FT numbered 6100, a four-unit 5400hp diesel-electric set, which was the demonstration units for EMD.

Apr 18, 1945

Southern hosts President Roosevelt’s funeral train

President Roosevelt’s funeral train departs Warm Springs, GA at 11:13 a.m, April 18, 1945. He died on April 12, 1945 of a cerebral hemorrhage. The train arrived at Washington’s Union Station at 9:50 a.m on April 19. The train was pulled by double-headed sets of Southern’s famous green Ps-4 Pacifics, including 1401, which is currently housed at the Smithsonian.

Jan 01, 1952

Harry Debutts becomes President

Harry Debutts becomes the fifth President of the Southern Railway. Ernest E. Norris retired the previous day.

Jun 17, 1953

Ceremonial End of Steam

CNO&TP Ms-4 6330 ceremoniously pulls the last steam train into Chattanooga.

Nov 25, 1961

Ps-4 1401 enshrined at the Smithsonian

Ps-4 class 4-6-2 locomotive no. 1401 is moved to its permanent home at the Smithsonian Institution.

Feb 01, 1962

D. W. Brosnan becomes President

D. W. Brosnan becomes the sixth President of the Southern Railway.

Apr 15, 1963

Southern wins “Big John” case in Supreme Court

U. S. Supreme Court upholds Southern’s bid to lower rates on grain transportation (“Big John” case).

Jun 16, 1963

Central of Georgia Railway is acquired

The Central of Georgia Railway is acquired in 1963. The Savannah-based railroad spanned across Georgia through Atlanta to Birmingham, AL, where it connected with the Illinois Central Railroad which held a controlling interest in the company for a significant period.

Jun 16, 1963

Georgia & Florida Railroad is acquired

Independent railroad Georgia & Florida Railroad is acquired in 1963.

Jan 01, 1974

Norfolk Southern Railway is acquired

The original Norfolk Southern Railway was acquired by the Southern Railway. Established in 1942, but dating as far back as 1880 with its predecessors, the railway served much of eastern North Carolina spanning from Norfolk, VA, to Raleigh and Charlotte.

Mar 01, 1976

L. Stanley Crane becomes President

W. Graham Claytor moves to Chairman and CEO, leaving L. Stanley Crane at the helm of the company as its eighth President.

Feb 01, 1977

W. Graham Claytor resigns as Southern Railway Chairman

W. Graham Claytor resigns as Southern Railway Chairman to become Secretary of the Navy in the Carter Administration.

Feb 01, 1979

Final Runs of the Southern Crescent

The Southern Crescent, Trains 1 and 2, final runs arrive at their terminals, ending privately operated, overnight passenger service in the U.S. and formally ended passenger service on the Southern Railway.

Jun 01, 1982

Southern Railway merges with the Norfolk and Western Railway

Southern Railway merges with the Norfolk and Western Railway on June 1, 1982, forming the Norfolk Southern Corporation.

Nov 22, 1986

SRHA chartered

Southern Railway Historical Association founded at Spencer, N.C.