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The Railroad Propelled W&L to National Status

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 propelled W&L to national status.

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For Washington and Lee University, at that time a small local college, the arrival of the railroad in 1881 and 1883, led to increased economic, social and academic developments.

Junior Michael Stovall is an accounting and business administration major with a minor in computer science from Darien, Conn. He researched historical sources such as the W&L minutes of board of trustees meetings, treasurer’s reports, local and university newspapers, historic magazines, admissions records, student essays and railroad pamphlets.

He said that the post-railroad minutes from the board’s meetings between 1881and 1885 provided an overview of what the administration considered important issues at W&L at that time.

After the railroads arrived, W&L made a point to advertise to prospective students and their parents that the railroad made Lexington much more accessible. As a result, Stovall found that from 1879 (pre-railroad) to 1890 (post-railroad), the student body at Washington and Lee doubled from 101 to 210 students.

During that period, the diversity of W&L students also increased, with the number of “notable” states and countries sending students to W&L expanding from 13 in 1879 to 22 in 1890 (an increase from 4.95 percent to 17.14 percent). Stovall defined “notable” as non-Confederate or distant states and countries, such as California, Florida and Japan. This effectively made W&L a national university.

W&L’s new ability to attract diverse students exposed the campus community to different cultures and contributed to unity between the former Union and Confederate states.

The railroads also affected student activities, especially athletic events. Nearly every weekend, students took the train to various places, enhancing their cultural experiences and exposing them to a wider range of people and activities.

The amount of money both going into and out of the university also increased around the arrival of the railroad. Stovall notes that while other factors beyond the railroad may have impacted his results, the pattern of change he finds in his research matches the arrival of the railroad in Lexington.

As the railroad began to haul construction materials and other freight, W&L could carry out various construction projects. In an Oct. 18, 1883, article, “Almost Here,” the Lexington Gazette stated that “the first train through Staunton will bring material for construction of Lexington Depot, which is to be Baltimore pressed brick.”

At the same time, W&L’s investments increased, not only because of improved communication and connectivity, but also because W&L invested heavily in railroad bonds.

“Old accounting ledgers give an interesting snapshot of a particular time period, because they show what people were spending their money on,” said Stovall. “You can then make assumptions as to what was important to people of that era and how culture has changed in comparison to the present day.”