Surrounding Smith Mountain Lake Parkway in Bedford County lies a community named for one of the wealthiest American industrialists of the 20th century, a native New Englander whose contribution to Virginia was celebrated as an engineering feat, but who barely was able to appreciate it before his untimely death.
This community is Huddleston. And the man for whom the community is named is Henry Huttleston Rogers, who built the Virginian Railway to connect the West Virginia coalfields to ports in Norfolk, using his own funds to compete with the Chesapeake & Ohio and the Norfolk & Western railway giants of his day.
What’s in a Name?
rogers was a descendant of the original Mayflower pilgrims, born in 1840 in Mattapoisett, Massachusetts, and raised in nearby Fairhaven. Lured to newly discovered oilfields in Pennsylvania in the 1860s, he worked his way into the refinery business, first in Pennsylvania, then with petroleum pioneer Charles Pratt in Brooklyn, New York.
The Rockerfellers’ Standard Oil Company bought out the Pratt business and brought on Rogers, who had become recognized as an expert oil engineer and businessman. Standard Oil made him a chairman of the manufacturing committee of the corporation, and by 1890 he was its vice president. He expanded his interests from oil to include gas, copper, steel, banking and railroad industries, amassing a great personal fortune and a reputation as a ruthless business competitor.
In 1902, Rogers devised a plan to transport coal from the coalfields in Deepwater, West Virginia, to Atlantic ports in Norfolk. With the established C&O and N&W railroads hostile to his efforts, he used more than $35 million of his own funds to establish the Virginian Railway, which eventually ran 600 miles from West Virginia to Sewell’s Point in Norfolk. Lauded as a feat of planning and engineering, the line soon offered a course from the mountains to the sea against which the other railways could not compete.
Sadly, Rogers was never able to fully relish the results of his efforts. He took part in a test tour of the route from Norfolk to Deepwater in April 1909 — accompanied by his friend Samuel Clemens. He then suffered a fatal stroke the following month, weeks before service officially started.
After his death, it was revealed that Rogers had not only helped to fund the college education of Helen Keller, but also famed educator Booker T. Washington revealed that he had financially supported more than 50 small schools for African American students in Virginia and elsewhere in the South, as well as generously gave to the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama and the Hampton Institute in Virginia. He is known for supporting the town hall, a library and a church and a school in his hometown of Fairhaven. And he lends his name (albeit under an alternative spelling) to the community of Huddleston.
Huddleston’s Early History
the community known as updike became Huddleston in 1910, in honor of the man responsible for “the richest little railroad in the world.” But its history long preceded the new name.
Records of the first settlers along Goose Creek include the Headen family and date back to 1787. A deed from Feb. 26, 1787, records the sale of 1,000 acres by Robert Mead to William Headen for 50 pounds. A later deed dated July 7, 1795, records the sale of 409 acres to John Headen for 100 pounds, mentions land at Goose Creek and Rock Castle Creek, and interest in a mill on Rock Castle Creek.
Goose Creek was an attractive location for farming because of its fertile bottomlands. The creek was prone to flooding, as well, a feature that impacted the community for most of its history.
The earliest records of the village date to the mid-1800s, listing the village location as Claytor’s Ford crossing Goose Creek. Its first post office, established in 1909, was named Updike, with Daniel Eldridge David Updike as postmaster; its name changed to Huddleston a year later. Like many communities in the region, the village grew to support the farmers surrounding it. Based on recollections of residents that are maintained by the Bedford Museum and Genealogical Library, by the opening of the 20th century the town included several businesses, including general merchandise stores, a tomato cannery, garages, saw mills and a bank.
The Bank of Huddleston opened for business in 1915 and closed in 1925. It served several years as a barbershop under the ownership of Hampton Dowdy. The barbershop and a building that housed a former general store remain visible next to the train tracks that run under Virginia 626 (Smith Mountain Lake Parkway).
Little remains to describe the history of the Huddleston community, though the Bedford Museum maintains several folders of collected news articles and recollections of longtime citizens. One useful communication was a 1991 letter to Mr. D. Webster, a student in Cheshire, England, seeking information about Huddleston for a college project. Kenneth Crouch, a member of the museum’s board of directors, responded to Webster with a detailed history of the town, noting that as of 1991, “In the other areas of the Huddleston community are convenience stores, general stores, marinas, restaurants, boating facilities. At one time there were several stores, tomato canning factories, a bank, garage in the village, but none now there.” The larger Huddleston community had embraced its newer neighbors at Smith Mountain Lake.
A Town Divided and Reunited
one relatively contemporary Huddleston news highlight bears squarely on the flooding propensities of Goose Creek.
The first bridge over Goose Creek was built shortly after the Headen family acquired the property in the 1700s, and local lore tells of a covered wooden bridge that washed away in the late 1920s. But it was the Labor Day flood in 1987 that brought about the town’s most recently celebrated change.
The 1987 flood washed away a bridge serving Huddleston and one farther upstream, leaving the town without a crossing for two months before a temporary bridge could be installed. “A five-mile [school] bus route turned into 40,” related Richard Ashwell, the principal of Staunton River High School in a news story about the inconvenience. “People who worked in Lynchburg needed two hours to get there, because they had to go around by way of Moneta.”
The new bridge, 405 feet long and spanning over the Norfolk Southern tracks that run along Goose Creek, opened in 1990 to great celebration. The town held an official dedication, where a ribbon across the span was cut by Juanita Weymouth, the last person who had crossed the covered bridge lost in 1928, and Ashwell, the last person who had crossed the bridge washed away in 1987. Local dignitaries made speeches, the Huddleston Post Office offered a unique envelope cancellation to mark the event, and the town welcomed a special guest: Wyoming State Sen. Henry Huttleston Rogers Coe II, a great-grandson of Henry Huttleson Rogers.