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The Changing Face of Virginia: The Heath Gravity Railroad


The sixth installment in The Changing Face of Virginia series is written by high school student and Blanton Scholar, Ciara Mills. Ciara tells the story of how she learned about the Heath Gravity Railroad in Midlothian. Do you have any interesting historical markers in your community?

The remaining blogs will be posted over the next few months! Be on the lookout for information about the 2011 Wyndham B. Blanton Scholar program! Enjoy!

~Jennifer Rohrbaugh Nesossis, Outreach Educator

Ciara at the 2010 Blanton Scholars award ceremony.

Wow, have times changed! Driving down the road of my neighborhood one afternoon, I caught a glimpse of a historical marker that I had never noticed before. I’ll admit it, I’m a history nerd. Needless to say, I felt compelled to pull over and read the sign. The bold gold letters of the title read “The Heath Gravity Railroad.” What? A railroad? And what in the world is a gravity railroad? I jumped out of my car and started to read.

It turns out that the Heath Gravity Railroad ran right through my neighborhood over 150 years ago and was in operation from 1838 to 1850. And yes, it was a railroad that didn’t use any locomotives. Apparently it was designed to operate as a system that used mules and gravity.

Let me back up. It turns out that the first commercially mined coal in America actually came from Midlothian, Virginia! In fact, the Heath Gravity Railroad assisted in one of the earliest systematic fossil fuel excavations in the United States! This six-mile railroad came about as the answer for frustrated miners who needed to get the coal from the mines to the docks at the James River. Coal was loaded into railcars and moved mostly by gravity downhill to the docks. There were a few places along the line where the track ran slightly uphill, which is where the mules pulled the cars. At the docks, the coal was loaded onto bateaux and carried across the river and east on the Kanawha Canal. Once the cars were unloaded, the mules were again used to pull the empty cars back to the mines to be reloaded.

Ciara standing by the Heath Gravity Railroad historical marker in Midlothian.

Coal from these mines was used in the city of Richmond to heat homes as well as for use in the Richmond iron foundries. The railroad operated until 1850, when it was replaced by the new steam-driven Richmond and Danville Railroad. The state legislature gave its permission to dismantle the railroad, and its rails and ties were “recycled” and used for repairs to other railroads that had suffered damage during the Civil War, as well as the construction of the Richmond and Danville Railroad.

Well, it was time for me to be heading home, and as I looked down the road at the joggers, bikers, and vehicles in the distance, I tried to picture what it would have looked like over 150 years ago. I could almost see the mules guiding the railcars, heavy with coal, on their way downhill to the river. I never realized the important role that the Heath Gravity Railroad played in the history of Virginia as well as the nation, and that it all happened in my own backyard!

Jennifer Nesossis is an outreach educator at the Virginia Historical Society.

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