Places & Things > Railroads

The Winchester and Potomac Railroad was a standard gauge railroad that ran 32 miles from Winchester to Harpers Ferry, Virginia. The road was built of very light 16.5 pound “strap” rail (a thin layer of rail laid atop lengths of wood). In addition to the main line there were two and a half miles of sidings.

At Harpers Ferry it connected with the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad via the famous Y-shaped railroad bridge, allowing freight to be shipped from Winchester to the port of Baltimore or to the Ohio River. At Winchester the railroad terminated at the intersection of Water and Market Streets.

Before the Civil War

The Winchester & Potomac was chartered in 1831. Surveying was done for the next two years by U.S. Army topographic engineers, and construction began in 1833. The road was complted in 1836, and operations began on March 14. The connection with the Baltimore and Ohio was completed in January of 1837.

In addition to its end points the ralroad had stations at Halltown, Charlestown, Cameron’s, Summit Point, Wadesville, and Stephenson. Because of concerns of traffic from the Valley being diverted north to the Baltimore & Ohio and on to Baltimore rather than Virginia ports, the railroad was not allowed to proceed south of Winchester.

By 1861 the railroad operated six locomotives, four passenger cars, one combined mail & baggage car, 40 freight cars and eight maintenance of way cars.

Civil War Years: 1861-1862

The railroad was used by the South at the very beginning of the war during the intial buildup of Virginia State Forces (and later Confederate forces) at Harpers Ferry. It was instrumental in hauling away the light machinery of the Harpers Ferry Arsenal. But it was of little use to the South after the Ferry’s abandonment by General Johnston. The locotives that “Stonewall” Jackson seized from the Baltimore & Ohio in his “Great Locomotive Robbery” used these tracks when they were brought south to Strasburg.

In the spring of 1862 the railroad was seized by Federal Major General Nathaniel Banks and used by the North to supply their forces in the Northern Shenandoah Valley. When Banks was forced to retreat north out of the Valley after his defeat at the First Battle of Winchester, Confederate troops burned the main bridges and tore up the tracks on the Winchester & Potomac. The railroad would not be repaired until June.

After the Battle of Antietam (Sharpsburg) in September of 1863 the South once again tore up the Winchester & Potomac as they withdrew up the Shenandoah Valley, removing the rails to use on other railroads.

Railroads of northern Virginia in the Civil War, with the Winchester & Potomac Railroad in red.


The north occupied Winchester in the first half of 1863, but the railroad was not repaired. When Lee recaptured the northern part of the Shenandoah Valley during his advance into Pennsylvania he ordered his chief quartermaster to collect any railroad materials from the Winchester & Potomac and the Baltimore & Ohio and move them south. This effectively finished the destruction of the W&P.


The Union reestablished control in the northern Shenandoah Valley in 1864. Winchester was captured for the final time after the Third Battle of Winchester on September 19 and became Union headquarters for the Valley under Major General Philip Sheridan. The Winchester & Potomac was rebuilt again to supply Sheriden’s army.

harpers ferry bridge

Railroad briadge over the Potomac at Harpers Ferry in 1865. The Winchester & Potomac comes into the photo from the right, connecting on the bridge with the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad.

After the War

Control of the railroad was returned to the owners in 1866, and the Winchester & Potomac continued in business after the war. The right of way was leased to the Batimore & Ohio. In 1870 a railroad was built between Winchester and Strasburg, connecting with the Manassas Gap Railroad. The line was eventually extended all the way south to Lexington, where it connected with the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad. The Winchester & Potomac was purchased by the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad in 1902. Today it is part of CSX Transporation.