Wednesday, December 21, 2016

"You Are Endangering Life": Finley Houston and the Valley Railroad

Finley Willson Houston (1852-1926)

     Like some other railroads built in Virginia after the Civil War, the Valley Railroad was bedeviled by weak financing, bad luck and overly optimistic assumptions of financial success. Although this stretch of railroad was never completed to its originally planned length, it did get built, and it survived in one form or another until the 1940s.
     The Valley Railroad had its origins in the competition between the Baltimore & Ohio and the Pennsylvania Railroad companies to build a link to the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad in Salem, Virginia. Philadelphia and Baltimore, the home cities of these two corporations, were also major seaports. After the Civil War, they vied with each other to build links to southern markets, including the coal-rich mountain regions of the South.
     The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad was chartered in 1827. In 1858, John Work Garrett was named president of the railroad, a position he held until his death in 1884.

John Work Garrett (B & O Railroad Museum)

     The B & O planned to build a 113-mile span of track from Harrisonburg to Salem. To accomplish this ambitious feat, at a projected cost of five million dollars, the Valley Railroad was chartered by the Virginia General Assembly on February 23, 1866. The first president of the Valley RR was Colonel Michael Garber Harman (his son, Asher Waterman Harman, Jr., would one day become the State Treasurer of Virginia).
     From its earliest days, the Valley RR was plagued by inadequate financing. A discouraged Colonel Harman stepped down from the presidency in July 1870. Harman convinced Robert E. Lee, then president of Washington College in Lexington, to take his place. It was thought that the Valley RR would benefit from Lee's administrative abilities, and his name would likely attract additional investors. Unfortunately for the Valley RR, Lee's tenure with the company was cut short by his death in October 1870. Lee was replaced by Robert Garrett, son of the president of the B & O.
      Surveys and engineering work got underway, rights of way were purchased and financing was arranged. But time and circumstance were already conspiring against the Valley RR. The Pennsylvania RR built a competing track roughly parallel to the Valley RR, and ultimately won the race to successfully link up with the Virginia and Tennessee RR. In addition, like many businesses in America at the time, the Valley RR was crippled by the financial panic of 1873. The Valley RR would get no further south than Lexington.

Map detail of Rockbridge County, c. 1863 (Library of Congress)

     In the map detail of Rockbridge shown above, the red line running obliquely from upper right to lower left is the Valley Turnpike, modern Route 11. The fainter line running parallel to the Turnpike just above it is the proposed route of the Valley Railroad. Below the Turnpike can be seen the village of Fairfield. Directly across the road is the property of George Washington Houston, indicated as "G. W. Houston." This was Mt. Pleasant, the farm established by the Willson family in 1756, and purchased by George Houston after his marriage to Annette Louise Willson in 1850. In December 1873, George Houston conveyed by deed to the Valley RR a right of way through his property. Later, another acre would be condemned by the railroad for the construction of the Fairfield depot.
     Due to the problems outlined above, progress on the railroad from Staunton to Lexington proceeded slowly. Work commenced at Mount Pleasant in 1882. George Houston would not live to see much accomplished on his land, however; he died on February 18, 1882.

Red House

     Upon his father's death, Finley Houston became the de facto head of the Houston family. Finley had married Grace Alexander at Red House in 1875. Known as "Veranda" to the Alexander family, this place is marked on the map above as "Dr. Alexander" on the Turnpike south of Fairfield. Finley and Grace lived at Red House with the Alexander family. By the autumn of 1882, Finley and Grace were looking forward to the birth of their fourth daughter (their third daughter, Grace Agnes, had died the previous year).
     Still living at Mt. Pleasant after the death of George Houston were his widow, Annette, her teen-aged children Ann Eliza and Will, and two servants, James and Malinda McClung. By October 1882, progress on the rail bed had reached a section behind the Houston house. That is when the trouble began.
Courtroom sketch of Mount Pleasant (Library of Virginia)
     A section gang of 10-15 workmen, employed by Baltimore & Ohio contractors Hardin & Young, were preparing the rail bed and laying track through Mt. Pleasant. As they neared the area at the rear of the Houston house, about 150 yards distant, they encountered a long stretch of rock just beneath the surface of the soil. Hardin & Young were then obliged to use dynamite to blast the rock out of the way.
     In the course of blasting, rocks of various sizes were thrown into the yard in the rear and sides of the house. A number of these rocks were dangerously hefty, some estimated to weigh as much as 35 pounds. Rocks also sailed over the house and landed in the front yard, Inevitably, the house itself was struck.
     Rocks smashed through at least two windows, "and in one particular instance, a rock was thrown from where the defendants were blasting. . .through the window of the house which smashed the  window panes, shattered the blinds into many fragments and narrowly escaped striking one of the servants." The farm's fencing was also much damaged, and fruit and limbs had been knocked off the trees in the orchard.
     The Houstons pleaded with Hardin & Young to exercise greater care in the conduct of their business so as not to endanger the Houstons and their servants, "but so far from receiving a civil or an ordinary courteous answer they were rebuffed and trifled with and their grievance. . .laughed at and made sport of."
     Finley drove over to Mt. Pleasant to see what he could do for his beleaguered family. Finley approached Mr. Young personally and explained the dangers the blasting posed to his family, their servants, the livestock and their property. In an exasperated tone, Mr. Young said, "The Baltimore & Ohio will pay for all damage done." "You wound me, sir," Finley replied. "Mr. Young that won't do. You are endangering life." At that Young thundered, "By God, sir, The Baltimore & Ohio will pay all damage."
     After Finley's conversation with Mr. Young, things got worse for the Houstons. The railroaders stopped giving the family any warning when blasting was about to take place. The rocks rained down on the house and outbuildings and in the yard with increased ferocity, and in one instance a railroad tie was spitefully launched in the direction of the house with what seemed to be a deliberate attempt to do further harm, Finley thought.
     This time, Finley did not bother speaking with Mr. Young. Instead, he drove to the law office of Colonel Edmund Pendleton, counsel for the Valley Railroad. After hearing Finley out, Colonel Pendleton exclaimed that the behavior of the contractors was outrageous. He gave Finley a letter to take to one of the engineers overseeing the project. Finley hoped that this would have the desired effect of having the work at Mt. Pleasant carried on in a manner to ensure the safety of the Houstons, their employees and their property.
     Instead, the letter had quite the opposite effect. Now the dynamiting of the rock was carried on at a furious pace, "like cannonading." Livestock had to be kept sheltered, field hands could not do their work and the Houstons were compelled to remain inside the house, although there was no guarantee of safety there, either. Finley had had enough.

Order to Sheriff to summon Hardin & Young to appear in court (Library of Virginia)

     Finley retained the services of Lexington attorneys W. A. Anderson and W. T. Shields. A complaint was filed in the circuit court. Named as plaintiffs were Finley, his mother, his sister Annie and brother Will who were living at Mt. Pleasant, and his sister Mary Elizabeth "Lizzie" Houston Row and her husband, George Washington Estes Row, who lived in Spotsylvania County. Although Hardin & Young were not prohibited from carrying on with their work, the court issued an injunction on October 12th, 1882, commanding the railroaders to do their job without endangering the Houstons. The court ordered the Sheriff to issue a summons to Hardin & Young to appear in court on the first Monday in November. Deputy Sheriff David A. Ott personally delivered the writ on October 13.
      Lexington attorney Francis William Henderson was appointed by the court to act as special commissioner and to take depositions in his office. The attorney who would represent the interests of Hardin & Young was 25 year old Ephraim Morgan Pendleton, the son of Colonel Pendleton.

Ephraim Morgan Pendleton (1857-1919)

     What with the usual routine of delays and continuances, the process of taking depositions took many weeks. By the time the case was concluded, Hardin & Young had finished their work on the Houston property and had continued south toward Lexington. During all this turmoil, Finley's youngest daughter, Mary, was born at Red House on December 16, 1882.
     The Houstons did not seek monetary damages, and they were awarded none. The court ordered that the defendants pay the Houstons their costs and attorney fees, which came to $40.91. The case was finally concluded on February 28, 1883.


Barringer, Paul; Garnett, James; and Page, Roswell. University of Virginia--Its History, Influence, Equipment and Characteristics, vol. 2 (New York: Lewis Publishing Company, 1904)

Stover, John. History of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad (West Lafayette, Indiana: Purdue University Press, 1987)

Library of Virginia, Rockbridge County Chancery Causes. Index number 1883-015 (


  1. Congratulations on the launch of Rockbridge Memory. I enjoyed your first post very much and look forward to the next installments! Cheers, Lynne

  2. Thank you for the kind words, Lynne.