In 1920, the U.S. railroad network was still near its peak. There were over 250,000 miles of track being used by over 1,000 railroads. Over 1.5 million men and women were employed in the industry. 

By 2020, the number of railroads in the U.S. was down to about 700. However, the vast majority of the 700 are short line railroads; there are only seven Class I railroads operating (and that will drop to six when the Kansas City Southern Railway is acquired). The miles of railroad track in use has been cut nearly in half to about 126,000 miles. Most strikingly, there are now only about 135,000 men and women employed in the industry today.

This FreightWaves Classics article provides an overview of the Atlantic Coast Line (reporting mark ACL). The ACL was a very profitable, well-managed railroad that served a large portion of the South. It ran from Richmond, Virginia south to Florida and west to Birmingham, Alabama. Along its route it served the key ports of Norfolk, Virginia; Wilmington, North Carolina; Charleston, South Carolina; Savannah, Georgia; and Jacksonville, Florida.

Remembered in part for its sound business practices, the ACL never faced a serious financial crisis, despite competition from two other well-managed railroads in the same area – Seaboard Air Line and Southern Railway.  

Like many of the major railroads of the second half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, the Atlantic Coast Line was the product of a series of mergers of smaller railways. The “original” ACL consisted of five primary railroads. 

Its oldest component was the Petersburg Railroad, which was chartered in 1830. It served its namesake city and Garysburg, North Carolina. In Petersburg, the Petersburg Railroad connected with the Richmond & Petersburg Railroad, which was chartered in 1836. That railroad was completed in 1838; in combination the two railroads provided a direct route from Richmond to North Carolina.  

In the early 1840s additional connections from the south extended service into South Carolina and beyond. Chartered in 1834, the Wilmington & Raleigh Railroad began service between Wilmington and Weldon in 1840.   

The Wilmington & Raleigh never reached Raleigh; it was renamed in 1855 as the Wilmington & Weldon (W&W). The next building block of the ACL was the Wilmington & Manchester Rail Road (W&M), which was chartered in 1846 and completed from Wilmington to Manchester, South Carolina in 1853.

The Atlantic Coast Line logo.

The last of the five railroads that became the ACL was the North Eastern Railroad, which was chartered in 1853. Its tracks ran from Charleston, South Carolina to a connection with the W&M at Florence in 1857. The five railroads operated independently until after the Civil War.  

Within a few years of the war’s end, William T. Walters, a Baltimore investor, gained control of the five railroads described above. Walters operated them as a network of independent companies. The first use of the name “Atlantic Coast Line” was in 1871, according to “Atlantic Coast Line Passenger Service: The Postwar Years” by Larry Goolsby. It was used to advertise the W&W and W&M.  

In 1897-98, Walters consolidated the South Carolina railroads under his control under the name of the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad Company of South Carolina. As the railroads were further consolidated/combined into a single system, the railroads in Virginia were combined as the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad Company of Virginia in 1898. The North Carolina railroads followed in 1899, becoming the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad Company of North Carolina. By 1900, the ACL of Virginia took control of all the other lines and the name was shortened after that merger to the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad Company.

Consolidation and growth via acquisition create the modern Atlantic Coast Line 

Henry B. Plant (October 27, 1819-June 23, 1899), was an entrepreneur/investor who had many transportation interests and projects (mostly railroads) in the southeastern United States. In 1879 he and other investors bought the Atlantic and Gulf Railroad of Georgia. Later he reorganized the Savannah, Florida and Western Railroad and became president. In 1880, Plant bought and rebuilt the Savannah and Charleston Railroad. He then organized the Plant Investment Co., to control these railroads and later established a steamboat line on the St. Johns River in Florida. In the 1880s, he combined most of his railroads and steamship lines into the Plant System.

After Plant’s death, the ACL acquired the Plant System in 1902. It was the ACL’s largest single acquisition. The former Plant System connected with the ACL at Charleston and reached Savannah, Montgomery, Albany, Jacksonville, and other points throughout Florida. The former Plant System railroads were the majority of ACL’s network south of Charleston.

A set of L&N locomotives. (Photo: L&N Historical Society)

Also in 1902, the ACL gained control of the Louisville & Nashville Railroad (L&N), a prosperous line that served much of Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, the Florida Panhandle and New Orleans. The L&N acquisition also included the Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis, which the L&N had controlled. These two railroads were not merged into the ACL and operated independently.

The L&N and ACL jointly leased the Carolina, Clinchfield & Ohio (the “Clinchfield”) in 1925. It was a 302-mile railroad that did well financially because it transported black diamonds from Elkhorn City, Kentucky to a connection with the ACL at Spartanburg.  

In 1927 the ACL made its last major acquisition when it acquired the bankrupt Atlanta, Birmingham & Atlantic Railroad. The ACL renamed the 641-mile railroad the Atlanta, Birmingham & Coast Railroad (AB&C). The new acquisition gave the ACL access to Birmingham, Alabama and Atlanta via Waycross. However, the AB&C was not merged into the ACL until 1945.

The ACL’s final expansion took place in 1928 when it opened a section of track that provided a shortcut to the Midwest via Montgomery and New Orleans.  

At its peak, the ACL’s lines comprised about 5,575 miles of track. When its subsidiaries were included, its system more than doubled to nearly 12,000 miles. Via the Atlantic Coast Line and its subsidiary railroads it served nearly every major southeastern market from Kentucky and Virginia to Alabama and Florida. 

An ACL System map from 1940. (From the Adam Burns Collection)

The ACL in the 20th century

The ACL was a well-managed railroad. Even so, during the Great Depression ACL’s freight traffic declined by around 60%. However, the railroad survived the 1930s without declaring bankruptcy; it used effective business practices, fiscal restraint and maintained its diverse group of railroads. In particular, the Louisville and Nashville maintained much of its business throughout the Depression.

In the late 1930s ACL focused on improving its freight and passenger service by upgrading its infrastructure and overhauling its classification yards. These efforts helped the railroad to increase the speed of its trains. 

During World War II the ACL (and almost all U.S. railroads) went into overdrive, carrying war materiel and troops. ACL’s passenger traffic increased 200% and freight traffic increased 150%. German submarines torpedoed a number of merchant ships along the Eastern seaboard. ACL trains were a submarine-proof alternative to coastal shipping, and they also served the numerous military bases that sprang up across the Southeast.

According to “Classic American Railroads: Volume III” by Mike Schafer, during the span 1939-1951 ACL invested $268 million in the railroad to improve the system. Champion “Champ”  Davis took over as the ACL in 1942. He started upgrades to the railroad that continued into the mid-1950s. Projects included rebuilding several hundred miles of railroad track, installing modern signalling systems and improving freight yards. The railroad’s major capital project during the 1950s was the double-tracking of its primary line between Virginia and Florida. This was particularly important for the railroad’s freight operations, but also allowed its passenger trains to run at speeds of 90 mph or better. 

While many railroads were losing passenger traffic to the airline industry and improved roads and highways, the ACL and its rival the Seaboard were the only railroads that offered direct passenger rail service from the Northeast to Florida. Therefore, the ACL’s passenger trains continued to turn a profit during the 1960s.  

An Atlantic Coast Line freight train moving through Dunn, North Carolina on June 20, 1965.
(Photo from American-Rails website, taken by Warren Calloway)

Transporting freight on the ACL

The South primarily had an agrarian economy during the ACL’s first few decades. During that period the ACL hauled the South’s seasonal agricultural products. That changed in the lead-up and during World War II. In the 1950s, about 44% of the railroad’s freight traffic consisted of manufactured and miscellaneous items. Its bulk traffic of commodities like coal and phosphates also grew during this time. During the 1950s, the ACL purchased nearly 13,000 new freight cars, which were used on higher-speed trains that were competitive with trucks using those sections of the new interstate highway system that had been completed.

Passenger trains

ACL’s New York to Florida passenger trains ran on the Pennsylvania Railroad’s track system north of Washington, D.C. They then traveled via the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad from Washington to Richmond. Passenger trains heading for Tampa/St. Petersburg traveled on ACL rails south of Richmond to their destinations. Trains bound for Miami ran on the Florida East Coast Railway (FEC) from Jacksonville to Miami until 1963. A long strike against the FEC caused ACL to transfer its Miami-bound trains to Seaboard Air Line tracks at Auburndale, Florida.

Most of ACL’s passenger traffic was Florida-bound, and most of it was from the Northeast. However, trains that originated in the Midwest and were headed to Miami were operated by various railroads but handled by the ACL for the southern parts of their journey.

Although ACL invested significantly after World War II in its passenger fleet, revenue from passengers declined from $28.5 million in 1946 to $14.1 million in 1959.

New Atlantic Coast Line locomotives, wearing the road’s beautiful original passenger livery. The photo was taken in Richmond, Virginia during the late 1940s.
(Photo: American-Rails website. Photo: Wiley Bryan from the Warren Calloway Collection. Colorization by Tom Alderman)

ACL locomotives

During the era when steam-powered locomotives were in use, the ACL had not needed the most powerful locomotives because its system was relatively flat or had easy grades compared to many other railroads. 

The Atlantic Coast Line began its adoption of diesel locomotives in November 1939 when it took possession of its first two locomotives. World War II slowed the transition to diesel (manufacturing facilities were converted to making war materiel). But shortly after the war ended ACL had over 100 diesel locomotives, and that number increased to more than 550 by 1952 and had completed the switch from steam to diesel in 1955.

With the new diesels came a new paint scheme for the locomotives. Created by General Motors’ styling department, the ACL’s featured royal purple trimmed with aluminum/silver and yellow. Unfortunately, because the ACL’s trains operated in the Southeast’s sun, the purple faded quickly. Repainting was necessary every two years.

That led new ACL president W. Thomas Rice to order the railroad’s locomotives be painted a simple black design with accents of yellow and silver in 1957. While not as distinctive, the company saved $100,000 annually.

A merger that worked

Despite the Atlantic Coast Line’s savvy management staff and their effective business practices, they knew the railroad industry was changing dramatically in the 1950s.   

Beginning in October 1958, representatives of the ACL and the Seaboard Air Line Railroad discussed the potentials of a merger. Because of their overlapping systems, studies showed that a unified railroad could generate economies of scale and reduced expenditures that would save a combined company millions annually. 

The Seaboard Air Line Railroad logo.

On August 18, 1960, shareholders of the two companies approved a merger. The Interstate Commerce Commission, or the ICC, (which had regulatory authority over the railroads as well as the trucking industry) approved the merger in 1963. However, petitions by opponents of the merger led to a court decision to overturn the merger on May 13, 1965 on antitrust grounds. Other court decisions in 1966 allowed the merger, which was consummated on July 1, 1967. The new railroad was named the Seaboard Coast Line Railroad, or SCL.

The final takeover

The Seaboard Coast Line was a well-run, profitable company from 1967 to 1980.

In 1980 the trucking industry was deregulated by the Motor Carrier Act. The railroads were similarly deregulated under the Staggers Rail Act of 1980. That legislation also replaced the ICC, the agency that had regulated the industry since the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887.

In the years since the ACL and the Seaboard Air Line had merged, the new railroad had integrated the ACL railroads that operated under their own names into the SCL. The West Point Route, L&N and the Clinchfield railroads became part of SCL in late 1982, which spawned a new marketing tagline – “The Family Lines.”  

Deregulation and slumping revenue sped up consolidation of the railroad industry.

CSX Corporation was a holding company created on November 1, 1980. Its purpose was to merge the Seaboard Coast Line and the Chessie System railroads into a new railroad company. That occurred on July 1, 1986 when CSX Transportation was created.  

A CSX train heads to its next destination. (Photo: CSX)

CSX absorbed the Seaboard System railroads in 1986; the Chessie’s subsidiaries (the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad and the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad were absorbed in 1987.

Since then, many of the ACL’s former railroads and tracks are still in use by the CSX. However, other sections were either sold to various short line railroads or simply abandoned.

Author’s note: This article would not have been possible without the resources made available by Adam Burns of Those interested in learning more about the railroads operating now in North America – and those that are now “fallen flags” – should explore the American-Rails site.