By the Lincoln Preservation Foundation
The Loudoun Branch was a railroad that almost happened.
It was planned as an extension of the Manassas Gap Railroad. Chartered in 1850, the railroad company promised to link merchants, urban markets, and the port of Alexandria with the rich farmland of the Northern Virginia region.
The planned path of the railroad began near Centerville in Fairfax County where it connected with the Orange and Alexandria Railroad. The route continued in a northwesterly direction, cutting through Mount Gilead of Catoctin Mountain to reach the heart of Loudoun Valley, the breadbasket of Loudoun County. Following the curves of this landscape, gently winding its way through the fields of Loudoun Valley, it entered Lincoln on a path to Purcellville. The Loudoun Branch was expected to eventually extend to Harpers Ferry where it was to intersect with the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad.
A small surveying team completed its work by 1853. The company reported that “a very considerable force” was digging the trail for the Loudoun Branch in May 1855. Railroad crews cut through soil and rock from hills and slopes. They moved this material, using it as fill in some places, leveling the grade of the intended path. Culverts, designed and built of stone, allowed stream water to flow unobstructed under the railroad line. A partial tunnel was constructed under Mt. Gilead, where the line entered the valley.
For two years, recently arrived Irish immigrants lived and labored in camps alongside the grade. Oral tradition attests to their skill and hard work. An old Loudoun County saying, “With an Irishman and a mule there is nothing that can’t be built,” originates from this mid-19th century presence in our community. Tom Taylor (1911-2001), a Lincoln resident, also preserved a part of their story. He was a boy when his father, Henry B. Taylor (1873-1968), said to him, “Irishmen and mules can do anything.”
Work stopped in May 1857. A declining economy, overexpansion by the railroad company, and the high cost of labor were contributing factors. The Civil War and Reconstruction ended the project. Economically distressed Virginia diverted its resources elsewhere.
Sections of the unfinished railroad bed remain intact running through private property from Sands Road and points east along North Fork/Crooked Run toward Mt. Gilead, although some surviving sections are partially hidden by new undergrowth and trees. As recently as 2001, this unfinished rail line between Lincoln and Purcellville was still being used as a clear and graded walking path.
Some of the historically significant and impressive stretches are in areas threatened by development such as those in and around what is locally known as “Irishman’s Field”. Already, a 200-acre development, at the former Frazer Farm (now known as Fawn Meadow), and the Southern Collector Road in Purcellville are infringing upon portions of the remaining railroad beds. A historical marker on Sands Road is a reminder of this area’s history, placed incongruously in the backyard of a new home some 100 feet north of the actual location.
Learn more about Manassas Gap Railroad, see additional photos and learn about the historical significance of Lincoln and the Goose Creek Historic District at lincolnpreservation.org.
[The Lincoln Preservation Foundation is a non-profit corporation founded in 1999 by residents concerned about the future of the 10,000-acre Goose Creek Historic District. Contact the LPF at firstname.lastname@example.org or facebook.com/LincolnPreservationFoundation. In Our Backyard is compiled by the Loudoun County Preservation and Conservation Coalition. To learn more about the organization or to participate in the rural road initiative, go to loudouncoalition.org.]