North Carolina Railroads - Portsmouth & Roanoke Railroad


Year Chartered or Incorporated

Year Line Operational

Year Service Ended

Original Starting Point

Original Ending Point





Suffolk, VA

Weldon, NC
* 1846 reorganized as the Seaboard & Roanoke Railroad.

aka Portsmouth & Weldon Railroad.

The Portsmouth and Weldon Railroad, chartered in 1832, was organized in 1833 to extend from the area of the rapids of the Roanoke River at its fall line near Weldon, NC to Portsmouth, VA - a total of seventy-eight (78) miles.

The goal was to provide a link for shipments of goods originating on the Roanoke River and its canal system from points west to reach port facilities in the Norfolk area on the harbor of Hampton Roads. Lumber was the largest commodity originating along the line, and the facilities of the Camp Company's lumber and paper mill operations in Franklin, VA were located there due to the new railroad.

With Arthur Emmerson as the first President, the town of Norfolk subscribed for $100,000 in stock, and the town of Portsmouth subscribed to $50,000 in stock. Benjamin B. Reynolds was the original contractor, and by August of 1833, the tracks had progressed from the depot at High and Chestnut streets in Portsmouth, four miles to the southwest toward Bowers Hill.

In January of 1834, the Virginia State Legislature granted aid to the new company, much to the dismay of the citizens of Richmond and Petersburg, the towns on the line's key competitors. By July of that same year, the tracks were extended through the western edge of the Great Dismal Swamp, seventeen (17) miles to Suffolk, and cars were being drawn over the rails by horses.

Passenger fare was 75 cents each way, and trains were scheduled to depart from each terminal at 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. On September 4, 1834, the first steam locomotive for the new road arrived at Portsmouth aboard the packet steamer Hand. This engine was christened the John Barnett in honor of the first white man to ascend the Roanoke River above the great falls. The engine had four wheels and weighed about five tons.

The trip to Suffolk required only one hour and twenty minutes at a speed of roughly fifteen miles per hour. The John Barnett began making two roundtrips a day, handling trains between Portsmouth and Suffolk.

After leaving Suffolk, the track proceeded through Nansemond County to Buckhorn Station (Purvis), Carrsville in Isle of Wight County, with a crossing of the Blackwater River at the edge of the current town of Franklin in Southampton County. By July of 1835, the Nottoway River was spanned and the road continued through Handsom, Newsoms, Boykins, and Branchville, to cross the Meherrin River near the North Carolina state line. A second locomotive named the General Cabell was acquired that year, permitting two steam trains to operate over the road.

In April of 1836, service went as far a Margaretville, about sixty-two (62) miles from Portsmouth. Trains left each terminal in the morning, arriving at the opposite end in the afternoon. A connection was made at the Blackwater River three days a week with the new steamboat Fox that was operated by Captain Middleton to points downstream on the Chowan River and to Edenton, NC, on the Albemarle Sound. From Edenton, the steamer Bravo crossed the Albemarle Sound and passed up the Roanoke River to Plymouth and Jamesville, NC. Back at Margaretville, a line of post coaches met the trains for the trip southward to Halifax, NC and other points.

In August of 1836, the road was extended to Blakely's Depot (soon to be renamed to Garysburg), where the tracks of the Petersburg Railroad were crossed via an overhead bridge. Finally, in June of 1837, the new bridge of the Portsmouth & Roanoke Railroad was completed over the Roanoke River, and trains began running over the remaining two miles of track into Weldon, NC on the south bank of the Roanoke River. Four years later, the Wilmington & Raleigh Railroad (later renamed to the Wilmington & Weldon Railroad), connected with the Portsmouth & Roanoke Railroad at Weldon, NC.

By the year 1838, the track and facilities of the road had reached a deplorable condition and a change in management was in line. A new president, William Joyner, was elected to head the company along with a new chief engineer. Tracks were rebuilt and four lighter locomotives were acquired over a two-year period from the Norris Locomotive Works in Philadelphia. One was named the Portsmouth, a 4-2-0 type, and one was named the Roanoke, a 4-4-0 type.

Typical of many early railroads in the country at the time, the Portsmouth & Roanoke Railroad had financial difficulties. On October 7, 1843, the company was sold at foreclosure to James S. French and James Magitt, who almost immediately assigned their bid to Francis E. Rives. Actually, Rives was considered an agent for the competing Petersburg Railroad, and immediately took steps to close down the Portsmouth & Roanoke Railroad.

On the night of January 6, 1844, Rives brough forty slaves to a point below Margaretville and began tearing up track. When this news reached the citizens of Portsmouth, a train was dispatched to repair the destruction and to stop further vandalism. Rives was arrested and fined $25 in the Superior Court of Law and Equity in Northampton County, NC.

The damage was soon repaired, and trains again operated temporarily until the legal battle could be settled in higher courts. Finally in the Spring of 1845, the North Carolina Supreme Court not only awarded Rives legal title to the seventeen (17) miles of the road in that state, but permitted him to dispose of this property as he saw fit.

Soon, however, the railroad was back in operations. But, this was not to last. It was again sold at public auction on September 5, 1846 to the State Board of Public Works for about $60,000, and immediately lease to the town of Portsmouth to be operated as the Seaboard & Roanoke Railroad, which was incorporated on September 4, 1846.

Towns on Route (in NC):

NC/VA State Line

Diamond Grove > Margarettsville (1836)

Seaboard (1853)



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