Whitmell P. Tunstall's
16-Year Crusade for a Railroad

From the Pittsylvania Packet, Spring 1993.

Whitmell P. Tunstall

In the early days of 1838, a young lawyer from Pittsylvania County, Virginia listened intently as his colleagues in Virginia's House of Delegates debated a question that struck him as vital not only to his county but to the state's future.

The question being debated on the floor of the General Assembly was whether or not to grant a charter for a proposed railroad from Richmond, Virginia, southward to the city of Danville.

Whitmell Pugh Tunstall had been elected as a delegate to serve the people of Pittsylvania County and Danville. He meant to protect his constituents' best interests.

He must have realized, too, that more was at stake here than the welfare of only his own county and city. He saw the railroad as a boon to the state and the South.

With opposition from special interests and public indifference so apparent that action on granting the charter seemed certain to fail, it was 27-year-old Delegate Tunstall who arose to address the House, declaring, “Not enough has been said on a matter of such importance.”

The young Pittsylvania delegate held the floor for an hour with a speech filled with logic and eloquence, cutting down one by one the objections raised against the railroad.

It is doubtful that young Tunstall knew his enthusiasm was taking him into a fight that would last the rest of his life — a crusade to bring into existence the establishment of the Richmond and Danville Roailroad — and that would evolve into the great Southern Railroad system.

In his speech, Tunstall lashed out at complacency over the “order of things in this state.” He said the general feeling seemed to be, “We have gone far enough — there is no need of this thing — we need not improve!”

In concluding his speech in the House that day in 1838, the Pittsylvania Delegate argued for approval of a railroad from Richmond to Danville, but he also urged a strong system of railroads for Virginia and foretold with a startling prophecy the ordeal that was to come in the not too distant future.

“We tread upon burning embers,” he warned the fellow delegates. “A cloud has risen on our Northern horizon, which every day magnifies and darkens. We hear the bellowing murmur of the thunder within its boom, and almost see the lightning that precludes the storm. Amidst the storm that threatens us, gentlemen cry ‘peace, peace, peace,’ when there is no peace. We forget the history of the past, and yet gentlemen smile and smile and tell us all this is imagination.

“But, sir, if the tempest shall come in its wrath, if in its wildness and fury sweep away and crush that lovely temple which was raised by liberty and purchase by blood — if the pillars of the union must fall, where shall we find a resting place? In that day and hour of trial where shall we stand? How shall we in this state protect ourselves amid that whirlwind of death?

“Let us first do all, everything, to secure the union — to strengthen and prserve it. If that, however, must go, if it must be lost, and if we are to be torn asunder…let us gather together here, in our own state, as the last lone asylum of liberty, firm, united and true, and take steps to provide our people's security to meet the challenge. Otherwise we can not be safe.”

In spite of Tunstall's dramatic appeal, the special interest groups who were opposed to the railroad had gotten support of the majority of votes in the House of Delegates, and the bill to grant a charter for the proposed railroad failed to pass at the 1838 session.

Undismayed, Tunstall intensified his efforts and support of the railroad at every opportunity. History Whit Morris in his book The First Tunstalls of Virginia reported that Whitmell “devoted his time to the enterprise up to his death.”

It is acknowledged that it was principally due to the endeavors of Whitmell Tunstall — against much short-sighted opposition — that on March 8, 1847 the Virginia Legislature granted the charter for the Richmond to Danville railroad which was actually the beinning of the Southern Railway system.

On the day of the bill's passage, Tunstall's elation overflowed in a letter written to his brother-in-law, George Townes.

He wrote, “The railroad bill passed about an hour ago without amendment. 'Tis a glorious triumph. 'Tis the proudest day of my life, and I think I may now say that I have not lived in vain.”

When the stockholders of the Richmond and Danville Railroad held their first meeting at Charlotte Court House on November 24, 1847 to organize the company, one of the first acts was to unanimously elect Whitmell Pugh Tunstall as President.

Having won the battle in Richmond, he had to face a continuing struggle of bitter opposition of special interests, lawsuits, financial trouble, landowners who set high prices on land for right of ways, and even the loss of a shipload of steel rails coming from England that sank in a storm at sea.

Tunstall continued to be the guiding force to carry the rail lines forward - slowly but surely.

With the completion of the Richmond and Danville Railroad within sight, Whitmell Tunstall died of typhoid fever on February 19, 1854.

The final mile of the R&D's 140.5 miles of the railroad was completed on May 1, 1856, and train service began in July, with a fleet of 19 engines and with the largest and most powerful named the W. P. Tunstall.

The R&D rail system performed a gallant service for the Confederacy during the War Between the States, especially in transporting supplies and troops. This had been foretold by Tunstall when he started the fight to get the railroad on that day in 1838.

Temperamentally and intellectually, Tunstall entered the struggle well-armed for public acceptace of the railrad, because he had quick wit, good humor, great personal charm, and keen intelligence.

A brief look into his background indicates that he was considered to be advanced for his age.

Whitmell Pugh Tunstall was born April 15, 1810 at Belle Grove, his family plantation a few miles south of Chatham (now called Fairview in the Tightsqueeze community).

He was the eighth child of William Tunstall (who was the Pittsylvania County Clerk of Court) and Sarah Winifred Pugh Tunstall. His mother died 11 days after his birth.

Growing up under the care and attention of his oldest sister, Eliza, Whitmell entered Danville Academy at the nearby city for his preparatory schooling at the age of nine, and at fourteen he enrolled at the University of North Carolina and was graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree at seventeen.

After graduating, Whitmell read law in the law office of his brother-in-law, George Townes, how had married Eliza. He was admitted to the Virginia bar in 1832.

After practicing law for several years, Tunstall campaigned for the state legislature and won election to the Virginia House of Delegates in 1836. It was in 1837 that he made his famous speech in support of the R&D Railroad that launched him on his 16-year struggle to accomplish his goal to replace the state's ancestral mode of transportation with the steam engine.

Tunstall also served several more terms in the House and also won election to the State Senate.

Tunstall was twice married, first in 1831 to Celestia Gomeke, who died two years later without issue. His second marriage was in 1830 to Mary M. Liggat of Lynchburg, and they had six children.

In commemoration of one of Pittsylvania County's most distinguished native sons, the Pittsylvania Board of Supervisors named one of its seven magisterial districts — Tunstall District — and named Whitmell (High) School and Whitmell Post Office in honor of Whitmell Pugh Tunstall. His handsome oil portrait hangs in the courtroom of the Pittsylvania County Courthouse, and one also is in the offices of the Southern Railway Company.

Tunstall is buried at Belle Grove (built around 1795) about a mile east from Route 29 at Tightsqueeze.

This webpage is sponsored by Mitchells Publications and the Sims-Mitchell House, Chatham, Virginia.