Biography of Frederick J. Kimball

Frederick J. Kimball, born in 1844 in Philadelphia, was instrumental in the development of the Shenandoah Valley Railroad and the Norfolk and Western Railroad. Starting as a rodman with the Pennsylvania Railroad, he gained extensive experience in railway engineering and management. In 1878, Kimball revitalized the Shenandoah Valley Railroad, completing it by 1882. As president of the Norfolk and Western, he expanded the rail lines into the rich coal fields of southwest Virginia, notably discovering the Pocahontas coal seam. Kimball pushed for a westward extension, culminating in a line to the Ohio River by 1892. He served as president until his death in 1903, leaving a lasting legacy in the rail industry.

Frederick J. Kimball
Frederick J. Kimball

The skill of Frederick J. Kimball as a railroad builder, his knowledge of mineralogy and his ability to handle men, combined to make him the outstanding figure in the early histories of the Shenandoah Valley Railroad and the Norfolk and Western Railroad, predecessors of the Norfolk and Western Railway. He followed in the steps of General William Mahone in the founding of an empire of rails irrevocably tied to the region’s industrial advancement.

Kimball was born in Philadelphia in 1844 and at 18 went to work for the Philadelphia and Erie Branch of the Pennsylvania Railroad as a rodman. He learned railroad engineering from a variety of practical experiences. After four years with the Pennsylvania’s engineering department, he spent two years in British railway shops and then held several more railway jobs in this country. In 1870 he joined the firm of E. W. Clark and Company, which shortly afterward acquired an interest in the Shenandoah Valley Railroad, then being projected from Hagerstown, Maryland, down the Valley to serve farms and to open iron ore deposits.

The road had been started from the northern end in 1870 but building had been halted because of the depression of 1873. It was not until Kimball became active in its construction in 1878 that real progress was made. It was opened to a junction with the main line of the new Chesapeake and Ohio at Waynesboro in 1881, when he became its president and at the time vice-president of the newly organized Norfolk and Western Railroad. He completed his road to a junction with the N. & W. at Roanoke in June, 1882.

Kimball had made an extensive study of Virginia geology and he had more faith in minerals as rail traffic producers than in the products of agriculture. He studied reports of coal deposits in southwest Virginia dating back to that of Dr. Thomas Walker, who had explored portions of the area in 1750. He found an 1870 report of J. P. Lesley, a geology professor, which mentioned specifically an outcropping at Abbs Valley in the remote mountains southwest of New River.

So in May, 1881, Kimball reached Abbs Valley. It is recorded that he dug the first coal from the rich Pocahontas seam with his penknife. As he looked at the 12-foot outcropping he made a remark which might rank with other historic understatements of American tradition: “This may prove to be an important day in our lives.”

Kimball wished to name the seam for his wife but she suggested instead the name of the Indian princess, and her suggestion prevailed. Kimball saw immediate need for rails to that seam of coal. First, he completed the Shenandoah Valley road to Roanoke. Then his eloquence persuaded the N. & W.’s directors to start a 70-mile line at once from a point on New River near Radford to the field. Construction was not easy — even the preliminary surveys created arguments, as each proposed route seemed more difficult — but the road was completed to the new boom town of Pocahontas in two years. The first two carloads of coal which rolled from the mines in March, 1883, dramatized the two most important uses for the fuel.

The first was used in N. & W. engines which were consuming expensive coal from Pennsylvania and northern West Virginia. The second was consigned with ceremony to the mayor of Norfolk, the port from which so many millions of tons of black diamonds were to be shipped abroad and to New England.

Kimball became president of the Norfolk and Western in June, 1883, and continued to expand the lines in the coal fields. But he saw the necessity of a westward outlet and immediately began planning a line all the way to the Ohio River. It was not until 1888 that he received authority to build the 200-mile extension to Ironton. The decrepit Scioto Valley Railroad, which ran from Ironton to Columbus, was acquired in 1890, but both financial and topographical difficulties so beset the extension that a through line from Norfolk to Columbus was not in operation until November, 1892.

Kimball’s vision is proven today. Two-thirds of the Norfolk and Western’s coal tonnage flows westward to the lake ports and to Midwest industrial centers.

Another depression and the road’s tremendous construction expenses brought a short receivership in 1895. Kimball was named co-receiver and became chairman of the board of the newly organized Norfolk and Western Railway in October, 1896. He lived to see the N. & W. again become a prosperous carrier of fine bituminous coal. He was named president again in 1902 and died in office in July, 1903.

Thus passed the second of the great pioneers whose vision, faith and energy are memorialized in a monument of vast industrial importance: the present-day Norfolk and Western.

(Much biographical material contained in the foregoing is drawn from a paper on the history of the Norfolk and Western delivered by its president, R. H. Smith, before the Newcomen Society in North America, in October 1949.)


Couper, Wm. (William), History of the Shenandoah Valley, Family and Personal Records, vol. III, New York, Lewis Historical Publishing Company, Inc., 1952.

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