Travel by Gravel: Go Back in Time on Loudoun’s Unpaved Roads

By Emily Houston

“This is a Disneyland experience!” exclaims Douglas Kemmerer, describing how visitors to Loudoun County respond when he takes them driving in his four-in-hand horse-drawn carriage over our unpaved roads.

He tells the story of taking a former ambassador from the United Kingdom out for a coaching drive and was told by his guest, “We have nothing like this in England.”

“He became like a little boy,” remembers Kemmerer, delighting in recalling the ambassador’s excitement. “And I thought, here’s a guy who’s travelled the world and he had that reaction to a carriage ride on Loudoun County’s unpaved roads,” he said.

“There is no place else in America you have this,” according to Kemmerer, referring to our extensive network of gravel roads and the pristine countryside they traverse.

The extent and nature of Loudoun’s unpaved road network is rare enough to attract horse-driving enthusiasts to locate in the county. Flora Hillman and her husband Owen Snyder moved to Bloomfield in southern Loudoun from Chester County, PA, 30 years ago, specifically for the gravel roads on which to drive their Welsh ponies.

Chester County also has a reputation as a horse-friendly locale, but, according to Hillman, it didn’t compare with Loudoun. “We grabbed a map and started looking and we were astonished at the gravel roads in Loudoun,” she recalled of their search for a new home.

What do carriage drivers like so much about gravel? Gravel is a relatively forgiving surface that provides grip for the horses’ hooves. It preserves the horses’ “soundness,” meaning the proper function of their legs and joints. And despite the well-recognized pressures of development, many of Loudoun’s roads are still relatively lightly travelled, with cars going at slower speeds and presenting less danger to horse-drawn vehicles.

Just as in pre-automotive eras, Loudoun’s unpaved roads today continue to be popular routes for horse riders and drivers. [Courtesy of Owen T. Snyder]
       But before our unpaved roads were the hardened, gravel-covered surfaces we typically see today, what were they? For starters, they were simply dirt.

In colonial Virginia, road “construction” simply meant cutting down trees and removing as many natural obstacles as possible, along routes that took the high ground when they could and crossed water in the most tolerable locations. Many accounts of travel in colonial Virginia describe treacherous conditions, and during wet seasons, roads were often impassable. One visitor described Virginia’s roads as “hopeless seas of mud with archipelagoes of stumps.”

One solution to many of our region’s road surfacing and maintenance woes of the latter 18th century and into the 19th century came in the form of a “public/private partnership”—turnpikes. Because many turnpikes relied on income from travelers, they could afford to “improve” their surfaces with gravel, broken stone, or the surface known as macadam. “Macadamizing” (as the process became known, named after its developer John McAdam) involved placing tightly-packed layers of broken stone on a well-prepared road bed, then rolling and tamping them to a uniform thickness. The top layer would consist of finely crushed stone to “bind” the surface and make it relatively impervious.

McAdam’s instructions for his “paving” system were extremely detailed, and properly macadamizing a road was expensive. As a result, his system and comparable broken-stone paving methods remained relatively rare in Virginia. “Well into the 20th century, the majority of Virginia’s roads were surfaced primarily with native soil, and perhaps a small amount of broken stone or gravel spread on the roadbed,” according to VDOT historian Ann Miller. Despite the advances of the “turnpike era” and macadamizing, most roads remained dirt and in miserable condition.

Who do you think finally provided a national impetus for road improvement late in the 19th century? Bicyclists! The League of American Wheelmen grew out of the 1890s bicycle craze, and by 1900 had become the nation’s largest special-interest group, advocating macadamizing roads for bicycle riding. LAW worked to convince America’s farmers that a road fit for bicycles benefited them, as well. In 1891, it published a treatise titled “The Gospel of Good Roads: A letter to the American Farmer,” making the case to farmers that improved roads reduced the costs of their horse-drawn transport because they could travel faster, sustaining less damage to both the vehicles and the animals.

LAW joined forces with farmers to form a new lobbying group, the National League for Good Roads, and then a surprising ally joined the cause—railroad companies. Railroads saw road improvements as a good way to get people and products to their rail stations, and began sending “Good Roads” trains to rural stations on a mile or two of macadamized roads they built to the stations from the countryside.

All across Loudoun in the period before World War I, farmers began to form local clubs to share information and promote local agrarian interests. Macadamizing the county’s roads was a high priority. In 1915, at the monthly meeting of the Lovettsville Club, the topic of discussion was deciding which would be most beneficial to the local farmers—an electric supply to the area, or improved public roads with a bridge at Brunswick (enabling access to the rail station there). The farmers chose the road and bridge; electricity could wait.

Gradually, in the first part of the 20th century, our old dirt roads began to sport drainage ditches, crowns and gravel surfaces. Those improved roads were better for the motor cars that revolutionized transportation, and later, they appealed to the revival of carriage driving, this time as a sport.

Nationally, according to Paula Bliss, the owner of a local driving horse training business, carriage driving as an equestrian sport is now a fast-growing discipline. “In our immediate area,” she said, “there are several U.S. team members and dozens of high-performance drivers.”

Bliss has tapped into a synergy between her business and other rural enterprises; most of her clients live either out of Loudoun County or in its eastern half, and come to enjoy western Loudoun’s amenities along with their horses. “Some rent B&Bs over the weekend, and almost all of them are members of various winery clubs,” she said. “So that has been an interesting selling point for me.”

“The overwhelming beauty of our area is best seen from a carriage!” Bliss said. “As I drive, I think of how many generations have used our roads the way I do.” Horse-drawn vehicles have travelled Loudoun’s roads for centuries, and it is the 200-year-old surfacing technology that makes it such a pleasure today.

Emily Houston, whose farm is bisected by a gravel road, is a board member of the Loudoun County Equine Alliance (LoudounEquine.org), editor of Horse Times magazine (horsetimes.net) and a member of the Rural Roads Committee of the Loudoun County Preservation and Conservation Coalition.  Learn more about the Coalition at loudouncoalition.org.

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