No. 106: Petersburg, Virginia on the Seaboard Air Line

One of my all-time favorite railroads is the old Seaboard Air Line, which ran from Richmond, Virginia to Miami, Florida and a whole lot of places in between.

I grew up in Georgia and researched, railfanned and modeled the SAL for decades.  When I bought my first house in 1992 I set aside a small bedroom to model the SAL route through Petersburg, Virginia, which I thought was a perfect prototype for a small, one-town model railroad.  I collected a lot of information about Petersburg over the years and I thought a blog post about the place would be inspiring and fun.  

Below.  A northbound SAL train about to pass underneath the ACL overhead bridge in Petersburg.  Four motors are pulling a long train with a whole lot of head-end traffic. 

SAL in Petersburg

Below.  Here’s an aerial photo of the compact, very modelable SAL route through Petersburg, circa 1957.  The major features, from right (north) to left (south):

  • A very long steel viaduct over the Appomattox River and the N&W
  • A short branch into town (to warehouses, a suitcase factory and SAL’s Market Street Station)
  • A short stretch of factories along the main track
  • A small, two-track yard along the main line
  • A “new” depot built in 1944
  • More warehouses
  • An ACL overhead crossing (no interchange)
  • And just out of view, a small yard to interchange cars with the N&W

…and that’s it.  The long Appomattox River bridge and the ACL overhead bridge serve as bookends, with a station and a bunch of industries jammed in the middle.

SAL Petersburg Central 1956 2

Here’s a rotated view of the photo above, calling attention to the some details.  

Petersburg Highlights

Below.  This aerial photo from around 1959 that shows the N&W “old main line” running along the top of the photo from left to right.  Seaboard’s long bridge across the Appomattox River and the N&W can be seen diagonally on the far right.  The shadow cast by the bridge is prominent.  

Petersburg 1958 Aerial 1

A quick Google search of “Seaboard Railroad, Petersburg, Virginia” will reveal a few more photos I couldn’t add here.  There are a few nice ones in the online J. Parker Lamb photo gallery at  Check ’em out if you have a chance.  

Below.  A southbound SAL train charging over the bridge.  The date and photographer are unknown, but looking at the consist this appears to be The Orange Blossom Special.  

Petersburg, Eval Silvar

My old friend Walt Gay kindly allowed me to use some of his photos for this post.  Walt has lived in the Petersburg area his whole life and railfanned the SAL extensively.  Here are two of Walt’s photos from the early-SCL era, showing how tall the viaduct was over the river and the N&W.  Thanks Walt!

SCL1307-1 1969

SCL607 Petersburg

SAL’s first station in Petersburg station was built in the 1880s and was a stub-end terminal located on Market Street near city-center.  A single-track branch left the main track at Dunlop Street and stub-ended at the Market Street Station.  The branch also served the massive Seward Luggage Co., an SAL freight house and a few other small customers on the way to the station.  The branch was less than a mile long and can be seen in the large aerial photo shown above.  Last time I checked, around 2002, the old Market Street station was still standing.


Below.  Along the branch to Market Street, SAL installed a small diesel fuel facility for local switchers.  The huge Seward Luggage Company complex is in the background.  Photo courtesy Bob’s Photos.

Petersburg, Bob's Photos

To eliminate slow back-up moves to the Market Street Station downtown, SAL sold it and built a new depot on the main line on Dunlop Street around 1910.  A wonderful photo from the online Barriger Library collection is included below.  It is the only known photo of the Dunlop Street Station.  The view is south.  In the left foreground you can see the branch to Market Street leaving the main track and curving away from the main track. 

The Dunlop Street Station was located on the sharp curve leading to the viaduct, and trains stopping here–in either direction–would often leave cars hanging uncomfortably over the bridge.  Starting and stopping heavy trains on the sharp curve was also a problem.

Old Petersburg Depot, VA

Below.  I have a mountain of slides and prints taken in this area going back to the early 1980s, but they are all in storage back in the U.S.  The few images I do have include this view of some small factory buildings at the site of the old Dunlop Street station.  The main track to the viaduct curved sharply to our left.

VA Photos Mar 2006 (26)

On the other side of Dunlop Street were a few factories.  A larger warehouse complex has been saved and turned into loft apartments.  Another factory–the Titmus Optical Supply Company–is still extant but it in a poor state of repair.  I have a ton of pictures of Titmus but they too are all in storage.  Here’s a good view of the small plant thanks to Google Earth.  The view is distorted a little because of the 3D image software; interestingly the software makes it almost look like a painting.  SAL used to run along the grassy side of the building at left.  There were at least three or four car spots.

OPtical Co

Next to Titmus is the Long Manufacturing Company, seen below.  Long had spots for 2-3 cars on a slightly lower level adjacent to the main line.  The factory consisted of two long warehouses, a couple of large Quonset huts, and another steel fab building.  This is another Google Earth view.

Long Mfg Co

In 1944 SAL built another new station about a half-mile south of the old station on Commerce Street, adjacent to the Long Manufacturing Company site seen above.  This was SAL’s last depot in town, and was a small, classy, colonial-style depot with a long platform.  SAL retired and razed the Dunlop Street station after the new depot was placed in service.

Good photos of the 1944-built station on Commerce Street are hard to find.  On the track side, the station was obscured by the long platform and photographing the depot itself was practically impossible.  On the street side, well…nobody bothered taking pictures.  The station itself was small–just a few rooms.

Walt’s best photo of the depot is this one below.  Walt took this photo to record one of the last runs of the old Silver Star passenger train.   That’s SCL 515, a former ACL E-6, in the lead.  This view faces north.  


Here’s one of my all-time favorite Walt Gay photos, below.  This view is also at Commerce Street but facing the opposite direction.  This view shows a northbound SCL train ready to hoop up orders at Commerce Street.  The lead engine is a former SAL E-7, originally SAL 3017, now in SCL paint.  Love the rainy, late afternoon ambiance.


Below.  Here’s another cool Walt Gay photo showing an SCL-era train, southbound, passing Commerce Street—just barely out of view at the far left—and the quarter-mile long row of warehouses next to the depot.  In a moment this train will be heading under the ACL overpass.  This image was probably made around 1970.  The engines display a neat mix of early SCL liveries.  In the lead is an SCL GP-40 in the “bumblebee” scheme (the former ACL colors).  Next is a former SAL GP-35 in dark green, and third is another former SAL engine, a GP-40, in “Jolly Green Giant” paint. 


If your a diesel-era guy there’s a decent ACL-SAL-to-SCL conversion roster online at  That’s the site I used to figure out which SCL e-units are in Walt’s photos.

A few hundred yards south of the 1944 station the SAL ducked underneath the double-track main line of rival Atlantic Coast Line.  There was no ACL interchange here, just an overhead crossing.  However, just past the bridge was a connection with the N&W, whose line ran along the Appomattox River valley nearby as seen on the aerial photos.  SAL and N&W shared a three-track connection here. 

This photo, below, courtesy Bob’s Photos (it may originally be an H. Reid negative) shows SAL 1109 moving tonnage under the ACL bridge.  For decades SAL operated a local “Petersburg Turn” from the road’s main classification yard in north Richmond to Petersburg and back.  This could be the turn, picking up cars from the N&W connection. 

SAL 1109, by the way, was one of 50 F-7 class 0-6-0s built in 1930.  They were widely regarded as the most modern and powerful 0-6-0s ever built.  I was paging through the old Richard Prince SAL book last night and found a photo of 1109 in Richmond, so I suspect this engine was assigned there until the end of steam in 1951 or so. 

Petersburg Barriger Library (2)

Below.  This Walt Gay photo in the exact same area, about 25 years later, shows an SCL-era passenger train overhead on the former ACL overhead bridge.  As the photo says, we’re looking “railroad south” on the SAL lines.


The photo below is from 1957, showing the SAL at center and the N&W line at top.  The interchange yard is the diagonal trackage seen on the top left of the photo.  Coast Line can be seen going from top to bottom of the photo on the right side.  The SAL Commerce Street Station is just out of the view to the far right.  If you blow up the photo, you can also see that the fair is in town.  See all the tents and rides and things on the bottom right?

Petersburg 1958 Aerial 2

My friend Herman Wilkins grew up in Petersburg and was an SAL fan, and he wrote to me often.  He once wrote, Incidentally, that is the circus in your photo that is seen on the field to the right of the ACL mainline. When the circus came to town, it always set up on that field.  Look at the line of white cars on the SAL track between the SAL mainline and the interchange track to the N&W.  I am almost certain that is the circus train.  At one time, sometime after 1958, there was a Pepsi bottling plant built at that location.  After the SCL merger, the old SAL mainline was cut north and south of Petersburg and a connection built off the old ACL to the old SAL line. It was called the Battersea Lane connection after the nearby, historic Battersea area of Petersburg.  That track served the Pepsi facility.  I haven’t been able to tie down the date that connection was built but it was definitely after the Seaboard-ACL merger in 1967.

South of the ACL overhead crossing and the N&W connection there wasn’t much else on the SAL.  There was a hospital that took a carload or two of coal for a heating plant, and a few miles further south was another N&W crossing at Ryan (seen below, with the SAL running top to bottom). 

At Ryan an SAL connection ran up alongside the N&W to reach a long yard to interchange cars with both N&W and ACL.  The interchange yard ran alongside the N&W and was called “Seacoast”–a combination of Seaboard and Coast Line, since N&W used it to transfer cars to both roads.  In later years a steel plant was built at Ryan and was served by both SCL and N&W.  NS has all that business today.

Ryan Aerial 1956.jpg

There wasn’t much else on the rest of the Richmond Subdivision all the way to Raleigh, which is a big reason why the whole line was torn up in the 1980s.

I built a small layout of the town scene but moved to a condo two years later, and the little layout came down for good.  The warehouses and luggage factory on the branch and the warehouses along the main track offered just enough switching.  The N&W interchange served as the major industry, so to speak.  I also modeled the Ryan connection as visible staging to add a little bit more switching.  The SAL viaduct and the ACL overhead offered some visual breaks and interest.  It was a fun layout.

For kicks, I’m adding an excerpt from a 1944 SAL employee timetable, which shows 24 scheduled trains a day on the single-track, CTC-controlled line through Petersburg, not including locals.  I hope you can download it.

SAL 1946 VA Div'n Pg 1

SAL 1946 VA Div'n Pg 2

Hope you enjoyed this little trip through Petersburg.  My personal thanks to Walt and Herman for sharing the memories.  – John G





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