William N. Page

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Historical figures

William Nelson Page ( January 6, 1854– March 7, 1932), was a United States civil engineer, entrepreneur, capitalist, businessman, and industrialist.

Born into an old Virginia family near present-day Lynchburg, Virginia about seven years before the American Civil War, William Page became one of the leading developers of West Virginia's rich bituminous coal fields in the late 19th and early 20th century, as well as being deeply involved in building the infrastructure to process and transport the mined coal. Educated as a civil engineer, he first came to the area as a surveyor to help build the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway in the 1870s and soon became involved in many iron, coal and related enterprises in the mountains of Virginia and West Virginia, many as a manager for absentee owners as such New York City mayor Abram S. Hewitt. Among his many projects, beginning in 1902, Page partnered with financier Henry Huttleston Rogers and others to plan and construct a modest project whcih grew to become the Virginian Railway (VGN), secretly built right between two of the country's larger railroads. The well-engineered and highly efficient VGN operated very profitably and came to be known as the "Richest Little Railroad in the World."

Page was also a civic leader, a mayor of his hometown of Ansted, West Virginia, served in the local militia during the Spanish American War and later the West Virginia National Guard, and helped found a hospital in 1889. In southern West Virginia, the coal and railroad towns of Page and Pageton were named for him. After his retirement in 1917, a ship which served the US Navy and the merchant marine during both world wars, the S.S. William N. Page, was named in his honour.


Early life, education, and employment

William Nelson Page was born at "Locust Grove" in Campbell County, Virginia on January 6, 1854. His parents were Edwin Randolph and Olivia (née Alexander) Page. He descended from historic roots, as the Page and Nelson families were each First Families of Virginia, prominent in the Virginia Colony long before the American Revolutionary War and statehood for Virginia. His first cousin was Thomas Nelson Page, who became the U.S. ambassador to Italy.

When young, he was tutored at home, and then attended Leesburg Academy in Leesburg, Virginia and special courses in engineering at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

William Page became a civil engineer and between 1871 and 1876, played a role in engineering and building the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway (C&O) under the leadership of Collis P. Huntington. Initially, he led one of the surveying parties charged with mapping out the route of the double-track railway ordered by Congress to extend between Richmond, Virginia and the Ohio River at what became Huntington, West Virginia via the valleys of the James River and Jackson River in Virginia, and the New River and Kanawha River in West Virginia. He directed the location and construction of several important C&O bridges. While working with the C&O, he became fascinated with the potential of the untapped mineral resources of the more rugged portions of West Virginia.

Family and children

On February 9, 1882, Page married Emma Hayden Gilham. Emma had been born in Lexington, Virginia in Rockbridge County in 1855. She was the daughter of Major William Gilham, Commandant of Cadets and an instructor at Virginia Military Institute (VMI). Emma was one of 7 children he had with his wife Cordelia A Gilham. In 1860, her father prepared a well-known training manual for recruits and militia at the request of Virginia Governor Henry A. Wise, and was involved with early training of cadets at Camp Lee in Richmond, Virginia as the American Civil War broke out the following year. Her father became president of fertilizer company in Richmond after the War ended in 1865. Emma spent her teen-aged years at Richmond, where she was a débutante at one of Richmond's earliest "Germans", which were formal social gatherings for the young people (the name of these events had no relationship to Germany). She was the sister of Julius Hayden Gilham (April 6, 1852 - March 10, 1936) who is also buried in Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia.

It is not widely known how William and Emma met, but they both had roots and family in the Augusta County and Rockbridge County area of the upper Shenandoah Valley. It is known that they had four children:

  • Delia Hayden Page, born 1882
  • Edwin Randolph Page, born 1884
  • Mary Josephine Page, born 1886
  • Randolph Gilham Page, born 1893

Entrepreneur and developer

Bituminous coal
Bituminous coal

A knowledgeable man with training and experience as a civil engineer, and the spirit of an entrepreneur, Page was well-prepared to help develop West Virginia's hidden wealth: huge deposits of "smokeless" bituminous coal, a product exceptionally well-suited for making steel. Former West Virginia Governor William A. MacCorkle described him as a man who knew the land "as a farmer knows a field."

Page became a protégé' of Dr. David T. Ansted, a noted British geologist with large land holdings in southern West Virginia. As his career developed, Page busied himself with many enterprises to develop the natural resources which lay all around him, primarily working with iron and coal operations, often as the manager for absentee owners. Of course, with his background with the C&O, Page was also into railroads, and gained even more practical experience when he won the contract to convert to standard gauge the C&O branch line track from the New River main line up the mountainside to Ansted around 1886.

He was the general manager of the Hawks Nest Coal Co. between 1877 and 1880, Superintendent of the Victoria Blast Furnace at Goshen, Virginia from 1880 to 1885, and located and built the Powellton bridge for the C&O between 1885 and 1889. After developing the Mt. Carbon Collieries, he organized and developed the Gauley Mountain Coal Co, and he became a consulting engineer for other coal-producing firms as well. Other involvements were Virginia and Pittsburgh Land Association (a land development company), and Pittsburgh and Virginia Railroad Company. He was later a principal of Page Coal and Coke Company.

The "Idea Man from Ansted"

The Page family settled in the tiny mountain hamlet of Ansted, a town with a population of 2,000 (named for Dr. Ansted) located in Fayette County, West Virginia. Ansted sits on high bluffs on Gauley Mountain near an outcropping of rocks called Hawk's Nest overlooking the New River far below, where the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway tracks occupied both sides of the narrow valley. There, in 1898 while he was president of the Gauley Mountain Coal Company, Page had a palatial white Victorian mansion built by company carpenters on a knoll in the middle of town.

"Colonel" Page, as he became known, was in truth an uniformed major in a locally recruited Spanish-American War militia. ("Colonel" was an honorific title used informally in the South for many notable men in the years following the American Civil War). A colorful character by all accounts, he was described as a slight man who was known for his handlebar mustache, pince-nez glasses, iron bowler derby, and elegant suits. He was considered to be somewhat aloof by the local population, and could frequently be seen riding a bicycle on the sloping lawn of the mansion, where eight servants were employed.

Described years later by author H. Reid as "the Idea Man from Ansted," Page spent long hours working in the den just off the main entrance to his resplendent home. In addition to pursuing business interests, Page also found time to serve as the mayor of Ansted for 10 years and rose to the rank of brigadier inspector general in the West Virginia National Guard. He was also an incorporator and director of Sheltering Arms Hospital in neighboring Kanawha County.

However, of all of his many activities, William Nelson Page is probably best-known for the founding and building of the Virginian Railway (VGN). It started much like just another of his many projects, but would ultimately grow far beyond its original scope. The story of the building of the Virginian Railway has been described as a textbook example of natural resources, railroads, and a smaller company taking on big business (and winning) early in the 20th century.

Building the Virginian Railway

Forming a partnership

While heading Gauley Mountain Coal Company, Col. Page made the acquaintance of financier and industrialist Henry Huttleston Rogers ( January 29, 1840– May 19, 1909), who was a business associate of New York City mayor Abram S. Hewitt.

Rogers was a millionaire who had made his initial fortune as one of the key men with the Standard Oil Trust. He was an energetic entrepreneur much like the younger Page, and was also involved in many rail and mineral development projects.

Col. Page knew of rich untapped bituminous coal fields lying between the New River Valley and the lower Guyandotte River in southern West Virginia in an area not yet reached by the C&O and its major competitor, the Norfolk and Western Railway (N&W). While the bigger railroads were preoccupied developing nearby areas and shipping coal via rail to Hampton Roads, he formed a plan to take advantage of the undeveloped coal lands. As his plan evolved, he got Rogers and several others to invest in it. A powerful partnership had been formed.

Deepwater Railway vs. the big railroads

Col. Page and his investors purchased the remote land in the name of Loup Creek Colliery. To access it, in 1896, he formed a small logging railroad, the Loup Creek and Deepwater Railway (LC&D). In 1898, he filed a new charter for the LC&D to become the Deepwater Railway. It was originally planned to run only a short distance. In 1902, the Deepwater Railway charter was amended again to provide for the short-line railroad to connect with the existing lines of the C&O along the Kanawha River at Deepwater and the N&W at Matoaka. After the extension provided by the 1902 amendment, the total distance involved, all within West Virginia, was about 80 miles.

By planning interchange points with the two large railroads, Page could anticipate competition and negotiation of fair interchange shipping rates with the only two big railroads nearby. Or, perhaps one or the other would feel it desirable to purchase the short-line railroad, a business tactic Henry Rogers had earlier used successfully with other short-line railroads in West Virginia.

As Col. Page developed the short-line Deepwater Railway, he ran into an unexpected brick wall when attempting to negotiate with either of the larger railroads. He realized they had considered the territory to be potentially theirs for future growth. But he got nowhere with either of them when attempting to negotiate rates to interchange his coal.

It was only later revealed that the both the C&O and the N&W were essentially under the common control of the even larger Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) and New York Central Railroad (NYC), whose leaders, Alexander Cassatt and William Vanderbilt respectively, had secretly entered into a "community of interests pact." The C&O and the N&W had apparently agreed with each other to refuse to negotiate with Col. Page and his upstart Deepwater Railway.

Page didn't give up as must have been anticipated. Instead, he stubbornly continued building his short-line railroad through some of the most rugged terrain of the Mountain State, to the increasing puzzlement of the big railroads. They were unaware that one of Page's investors (who were silent partners in the venture) was the powerful Rogers, who wasn't about to have the investment foiled by the big railroads. Instead, he and Page set about secretly planning and securing their own route out of the mountains and across Virginia to Hampton Roads.

Tidewater Railway: from the mountains to the sea

In 1904, Page and Rogers had Staunton, Virginia attorney Thomas D. Ranson form another intrastate railroad company. The Tidewater Railway was to be used for the portion of their mountains to the sea project to be in Virginia. As intrastate railroads, the Deepwater and Tidewater were each under jurisdiction of their respective state. Thus, they were not obviously linked to each other by the various (and usually different) attorneys handling rights-of-way cases in the local courts of each state.

Planning and land acquisition for the Tidewater Railway were done largely in secret. In his book "The Virginian Railway" (Kalmbach, 1961), author H. Reid described some of the tactics. On a Sunday in February, 1905, a group of 35 surveyors from New York disguised themselves as fishermen and rode to a location which was particularly crucial to the project aboard a N&W passenger train. While they stood in icy water apparently "fishing" with their transit poles, the surveyors successfully mapped out a crossing of the New River at Glen Lyn, as well as the adjacent portion of the line through Narrows to a point near Radford.

After leaving the valley of the New River, the new line was surveyed to cross the U.S. Eastern Continental Divide in a tunnel to be built near Merrimac, Virginia. After descending on the eastern side of the mountain, the new line for the Tidewater Railway essentially followed the valley of the Roanoke River past Salem and Roanoke and through the water gap formed by the river in the Blue Ridge Mountains. As the terrain changed to the more gentle rolling hills of the Piedmont region, the plan was to run almost due east to Suffolk, within just a few miles of the goal: the harbour at Hampton Roads.

Deals were quietly struck with the various communities all along the way. Many were small towns and villages that had been passed by when the big railroads were building 20-25 years earlier, and the new railroad was welcomed. Even the leaders of Roanoke, home to the headquarters of the N&W, were accommodating, authorizing a path through their city along the north bank of the Roanoke River.

A coup at Sewell's Point

Perhaps most notable of all of the communities which helped make the new railroad possible was the City of Norfolk, Virginia. N&W's coal pier and huge storage yards were at Lambert's Point near downtown Norfolk. Other big railroads, C&O, Seaboard Air Line, Atlantic Coast Line, and a Pennsylvania railroad subsidiary, had established facilities nearby as well.

Access to Hampton Roads frontage and space to build a new coal pier was crucial to the whole scheme. However, it was also very important that the big railroads not learn of the plans, or surely they would attempt to interfere.

The solution was found at an unlikely location: isolated and somewhat desolate Sewell's Point in a rural area in Norfolk County near the mouth of Hampton Roads.

To reach Sewell's Point from Suffolk, the Tidewater Railway was plotted to run about 15 miles due east, staying well south of the downtown Portsmouth and Norfolk harbour areas (and the other railroads). After reaching South Norfolk, the new railroad would begin a wide 180' counter-clockwise loop to the north. Trains would actually heading west when reaching Hampton Roads.

To enable the necessary routing, Norfolk's civic leaders provided a 13 mile (21 km) long right-of-way around their city. Page-Rogers' interests purchased 1000 feet (300 m) of the waterfront and 500 acres (2 km²) of adjoining land. There would be plenty of space for the new pier, storage yards, tracks, and support facilities at Sewell's Point.

The common enemy with deep pockets

In West Virginia, Page went to court to secure right-of way for the Deepwater Railway to proceed east past the earlier planned terminus (with the N&W) at Matoaka. In what may have been a near-miss with a perjury charge, upon interrogation by N&W attorneys in a West Virginia legal confrontation over right-of-way, Page representing the Deepwater Railway identified the estate of the late Abram S. Hewitt (a former mayor of New York City) as one of his investors. Page never mentioned Henry Rogers, who it is now known had been an associate of Hewitt and may have been acting through the Hewitt estate. The N&W attorneys were unsuccessful in learning more at that time, or during other confrontations as they attempted to stop the progress of the Deepwater in West Virginia.

Meanwhile, over in Virginia, with the land and route secured, in 1905 the Tidewater Railway began construction. By the time the larger railroads finally realized what was happening, and that Col Page was involved in both the Deepwater and Tidewater Railways, their new competitor could not be successfully blocked in the courts.

As the construction continued throughout 1905, Col. Page continued to meet with each of the big railroads to attempt to negotiate rates and/or perhaps sell off his growing enterprise. The leaders of the C&O and the N&W exchanged correspondence sharing their mutual concern about the "common enemy." Page did not appear to be financially capable of the project and they were skeptical that the new Deepwater and Tidewater railroads could be financed and completed. After all, they reasoned, there had been no public offering of bonds or stock, which were the way such enterprises were customarily financed at the time. The big railroads saw to it that the "negotiations" were always unproductive, and Col. Page always declined to indicate the source of his "deep pockets".

Norfolk and Western Railway President Lucius E. Johnson tried a different tactic to block (or at least slow) construction and increase costs. He filed papers with Virginia's State Corporation Commission to attempt to force costly overpasses at proposed at-grade crossings with the N&W in Roanoke and South Norfolk, citing great concern about the potential safety hazards which would allegedly result. The state authorities ruled against N&W at both locations, and construction of the new Tidewater Railway continued.

Henry Rogers steps forward

The leaders of the big railroads heard many rumors regarding possible sources of the mysterious funding. Henry Rogers' name had been mentioned, along with just about every other wealthy industrialist. The names of many companies, including Standard Oil, had also been discussed as well as those of many other large companies.

There was a lot at stake, as the C&O and the N&W through the secret "community of interests" pact were carefully controlling coal shipping rates. Such collusion was the very game that helped Rogers make his fortune at Standard Oil.

Rumors notwithstanding, there seems to be no credible evidence that the leaders of the N&W/C&O had any confirmation of the Rogers involvement until he and Page were ready for them to know.

Finally, well into 1906, at the request of Rogers, famous industrialist turned philanthropist Andrew Carnegie brought President Johnson of the Norfolk and Western Railway to Rogers' office in the Standard Oil Building in New York. According to Norfolk and Western's corporate records, the meeting lasted less than five minutes. Some tense and less-than-pleasant words were exchanged, and Rogers' backing had finally been confirmed.

Of course, the head of the C&O soon also received the news, as did the leaders of the Pennsylvania and New York Central railroads. There would be an old and experienced hand at rate-making as a new player in their game.

This aerial shot of Victoria was taken in 1954 looking west. It shows the turntable and roundhouse in the lower left, and the passenger station and Norfolk division offices to the right of the tracks.
This aerial shot of Victoria was taken in 1954 looking west. It shows the turntable and roundhouse in the lower left, and the passenger station and Norfolk division offices to the right of the tracks.

Victoria is created

Late in 1906, near the halfway point on the Tidewater Railway between Roanoke and Sewell's Point, a new town with space set aside for railroad offices and shops was created in Lunenburg County, Virginia. It was named Victoria, in honour of Queen Victoria of England, who was long-admired by Henry Rogers.

Victoria was the location of a large equipment maintenance operation, with roundhouse, turntable, coaling and water facilities for servicing steam locomotives, a large rail yard with many tracks, and a large single-story passenger station. Offices for the VGN's Norfolk Division were built by adding a second floor to the passenger station building a few years later.

Virginian Railway born, Jamestown Exposition

Early in 1907, with substantial portions of each still under construction, the Deepwater and Tidewater Railways were combined to become "The Virginian Railway Company." On April 15, 1907, William Nelson Page was elected as its first president.

About the same time, a large stretch of the eastern portion of the Tidewater had been completed and regular passenger service was established between Norfolk and Victoria. This proved just in time for the new railroad to serve the Jamestown Exposition, which was held on land adjacent to the VGN coal pier site at Sewell's Point. At the exposition, Page served as Chief of International Jury of Awards, Mines and Metallurgy.

On April 26, 1907, US President Theodore Roosevelt opened the exposition. Mark Twain was another honored guest, arriving with his friend Henry Rogers on the latter's yacht Kanawha. In addition to President Roosevelt, the newly renamed Virginian Railway (VGN) transported many of the 3 million persons who attended before the Exposition closed on December 1, 1907.

Financial panic of 1907 - Rogers has stroke

Work progressed on the VGN during 1907 and 1908 using construction techniques not available when the larger railroads had been built about 25 years earlier, achieving a more favorable route and grade. By paying for work with Henry Rogers' own personal fortune, the railway was built with no public debt. This feat, a key feature of the successful secrecy in securing the route, was in all likelihood not part of Rogers' initial planning, and was not accomplished without some considerable burden to the financier, however. He had suffered some setbacks in the Financial Panic of 1907 which began in March of that year. Then, a few months later, he experienced a debilitating apoplectic stroke. Fortunately, Henry Rogers recovered his health, at least partially, and saw to it that construction was continued on the new railroad until it was finally completed early in 1909.

Final spike, celebrations

The final spike in the VGN was driven on January 29, 1909, at the west side of the massive New River Bridge at Glen Lyn, near where the new railroad crossed the West Virginia- Virginia state line. The former Deepwater and Tidewater Railways were now physically connected.

In April, 1909, Henry Huttleston Rogers and Mark Twain, old friends, returned to Norfolk, Virginia together once again for a huge celebration of the new "Mountains to the Sea" railroad's completion.

They were met at the shore by a huge crowd of Norfolk citizens waiting with great excitement despite rain that day. While Rogers toured the railway's new $2.5 million coal pier at Sewell's Point, Mark Twain spoke to groups of students at several local schools. That night, at a grand banquet held in downtown Norfolk, the city's civic leaders, Mark Twain, other dignitaries, and Rogers himself spoke.

Rogers left the next day on his first (and only) tour of the newly completed railroad. He died suddenly only six weeks later at the age of 69 at his home in New York, victim of another stroke. But by then, the work of the Page-Rogers partnership to build the Virginian Railway had been completed.


While neither William Page or Henry Rogers ended up running their newly completed Virginian Railway, it was arguably a crowning lifetime achievement for each man. Together, they had conceived and built a modern, well-engineered rail pathway from the coal mines of West Virginia to port at Hampton Roads right under the noses of the big railroads. The Virginian Railway could operate more efficiently than its larger competitors, had all new infrastructure, and no debt. It was an accomplishment like no other in the history of US railroading, before or since.

The new railroad opened up isolated communities in both West Virginia and Virginia and soon helped develop new coalfields and other industries.

Throughout its profitable 50 year history, the VGN continued to follow the Page-Rogers policy of "paying up front for the best." It became particularly well-known for treating its employees and vendors well, another investment which paid rich dividends. The VGN operated some of the largest and most innovative steam, electric, and diesel locomotives, and could afford to, earning the nickname "Richest Little Railroad in the World."

In time, the big railroads learned to coexist with their newer competitor, and came to regret turning down opportunities to purchase it before completion. There were many failed attempts by each of them and others to acquire the VGN.

Eventually, the owners of the VGN agreed to merge with arch-rival Norfolk and Western Railway in 1959. In 2004, much of the former Virginian Railway is still in use by N&W successor Norfolk Southern Railway (NS). The well-engineered low gradient VGN route helps NS compete efficiently with rival CSX Transportation (successor to the VGN's old rival C&O) and non-rail transport modes in the transportation markets of the 21st century.

Later career

After the Virginian Railway had been completed, Page busied himself with coal mining activities in West Virginia until he retired in 1917. He and his family then moved to Washington, D.C.


William Nelson Page died at his home in Washington, DC in 1932 at the age of 78. He was interred in Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia, where his wife Emma is also buried.

The unicorporated West Virginia coal and railroad towns of Page in Fayette County and Pageton in McDowell County were named for him, and the Page Coal and Coke Company operated in each although coal mining has long since ended. The old company store in Pageton is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The huge mansion he had built on the hilltop in Ansted, West Virginia still stands as evidence of the once thriving coal business. Later occupied by the Vawter family, the Page-Vawter House is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Nearby, breathtaking Hawk's Nest overlooks the New River Gorge National River.

The seemingly remotely-located terminal Page and Rogers planned and built at Sewell's Point played an important role in 20th century U.S. naval history. Beginning in 1917, the former Jamestown Exposition grounds adjacent to the VGN coal pier became an important facility for the United States Navy. The VGN transported the high quality "smokeless" West Virginia bituminous coal favored by the US Navy for its ships, providing a reliable supply during both World Wars. Today, the former VGN property at Sewell's Point is part of the Norfolk Navy Base, the largest naval facility in the world.

USS William N. Page 1918-19
USS William N. Page 1918-19

After Col. Page retired in 1917, a ship was named in his honour. William N. Page was a steamship built at Camden, New Jersey, by the New York Ship Building and Dry Dock Corp. It was taken over by the US Navy for operation by the Naval Overseas Transportation Service (NOTS) and commissioned on December 18, 1918. After fitting out, William N. Page loaded general cargo and locomotives and departed for France. She made several transatlantic trips through the treacherous German U-boat infested waters before finally returning to Norfolk where on May 31, 1919, she was decommissioned by the Navy. After her brief naval career, the William N. Page remained in active merchant service for nearly three decades. Her successive owners and operators included the Mystic Steamship Co., the Koppers Coal Co., and Eastern Gas and Fuel Associates. The latter two companies were majority owners of the Virginian Railway after purchasing a controlling interest from Rogers' heirs in 1936.

Formed in 2002, Virginian Railway (VGN) Enthusiasts a non-profit group of preservationists, authors, photographers, historians, modelers, and rail fans, has grown to over 650 members. Members come from as far from the VGN tracks as Australia and include U.S. troops stationed in the war-torn Middle East. A group of retired railroaders calling themselves " The Virginian Brethren" meet weekly, share tales of the VGN, and answer questions posed by members of the on-line group.

Initials of the builders of the Virginian Railway were engraved in 2004 by volunteers in newly-laid rail at Victoria, Virginia, where former VGN caboose #342 is displayed.
Initials of the builders of the Virginian Railway were engraved in 2004 by volunteers in newly-laid rail at Victoria, Virginia, where former VGN caboose #342 is displayed.

The initials "H.H.R." and 'W.N.P." were recently placed in new rail laid for a caboose to be displayed at Victoria, a town they caused to be founded on the "Mountains to Sea" railroad. Their Virginian Railway has turned out to be a lasting tribute, both to Henry Huttleston Rogers, and to William Nelson Page, the "Idea Man from Ansted".

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