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How the Railroad Changed Lexington

Old account ledgers might seem a dry subject to most people, but to a class at Washington and Lee University they offered a rare opportunity to shine new light on local history.

Researching ledgers and records in Special Collections at W&L’s James G. Leyburn Library, as well as other primary source materials, the students selected various local historical topics to investigate, including how the railroad changed Lexington.

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The advent of the railroad in 1881 and 1883 had a profound effect on both the secluded community of Lexington.

Two W&L students used Special Collections and other secondary sources to research two separate papers that detail the changes — for example, a wider variety of goods in the town’s stores and the transformation of W&L into a national university with a greatly expanded student population.

The railroad was introduced to Lexington on Oct. 20, 1881, with the completion of a small branch extending into town on the Richmond and Allegheny (R&A) line that ran from Richmond to the Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) line at Clifton Forge.

Two years later, in late October 1883, the Valley Railroad (VRR) that extended from Harrisonburg was completed, with Lexington as the southern terminus.

Bereket Mechale, a senior accounting and business administration major from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, researched accounting records from the 1840s to the 1890s from the general store Dold’s Corner. Owned and run by Calvin M. Dold, the store was operational both before and after the arrival of the railroad. The store Pumpkinseeds currently occupies the building on the corner of East Washington and Main streets.

Dold’s account books from 1863 and 1865 show that, prior to the railroad, barters and sales on credit were prevalent. Mechale noted bacon had been paid for with coffee, and sugar had been paid for with barley and rye. Bartering decreased after railroad service arrived, but the account books show that the practice continued for years.

Before the railroad, the main products Dold’s Corner sold in large quantities were coffee, sugar, corn and oats. Post-railroad, new products that made life easier, more enjoyable and healthier for Lexington consumers became available. Some examples: the laundry product blueing, Worcester sauce, anchovy paste and chow-chow, a pickled relish made from a combination of vegetables — all goods that would have been classified as luxuries.

Medicines became popular in post-railroad times, shown by a noticeable spike in the number of advertisements for drug stores. After the 1883 Valley Railroad extension, citizens also saw a dramatic increase in their choices of clothing items and accessories.

Mechale noted a “clear shift from products one would expect to be produced on a farm or small plant in the city to products that required raw materials from elsewhere, the transfer of knowledge from one part of the nation to another, or production and packaging done elsewhere due to the complexity of the product itself.”

Despite all the changes, records showed no indication of changes in prices directly related to the introduction of railroads. Mechale wrote in his paper that “the increase of new items for sale that had a plethora of uses alone is testament to the fact that businesses in Lexington must have benefitted greatly from .”

Mechale noted that his results are limited to a single store’s account books and the research could be extended to other businesses in order to draw more definitive conclusions.