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On The Line: Clifton Forge and Iron Gate

Using gravity, and some rather strong mules, self-taught civil engineer Moncure Robinson moved a cart of coal along a set of rail tracks he designed in 1831. From a coal seam in Midlothian, Robinson guided his cargo 13 miles away to Manchester's wharves on the James River—making Virginia’s Chesterfield Railroad one of the first to operate in the United States and stoking Virginia’s economic engine.

Towns built on the rails became strings of small, economic dynamos stretching across the commonwealth, supporting good jobs - in transportation, manufacturing, extraction industries and even tourism.

For many of these hamlets, the hey-days are long past. What happened to Virginia’s railroad towns? Who lives by the tracks today? How deep is the poverty? Where are there signs of regrowth and hope? Have old dividing lines between the right and wrong sides of the track changed?

With renewed investment in rail from President Biden's Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, Virginia’s Department of Rail and Public Transportation is developing the Virginia Statewide Rail Plan for 2022 and plans to invest $5.8 billion over the next several years to improve rail infrastructure, develop new routes, bring rail service back to several locations that haven't seen a passenger train in decades, and build high speed access north and south.

Join us as we make monthly excursions around the commonwealth visiting struggling to striving rail towns, meeting people who live and work by the tracks, and exploring how the railroad shaped Virginia.

Christopher Tyree is a Virginia native and the senior director and co-founder of the Virginia Center for Investigative Journalism. For more than 30 years, his cameras and pen have carried him to report on stories on nearly every continent. His award-winning projects have helped shape policy and spur awareness of important issues. His work has been published in hundreds of the world’s leading periodicals and broadcast networks including the BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, NPR and Deutsche Welle. He earned a graduate degree in visual communication from Ohio University and BS in journalism from James Madison University. Chris, his wife, Melanie, son, Jack, and their pups Milo and JoJo Pickles enjoy hiking the many trails along the Blue Ridge Mountains.