By Paul McCray
During the mid-19th century, travel through Loudoun County was difficult since many roads were muddy during wet seasons, and using horses to ride or pull wagons was slow. The C&O Canal and the B&O Railroad in Maryland both offered travel/shipping options to those near the Potomac River who could cross it when river conditions permitted. But the canal was prone to shutting down during droughts and freezes, and crossing the river with cargo was risky and cumbersome. The viability of using the B&O dramatically improved in 1852 with construction of the Point of Rocks bridge, which provided a reliable crossing alternative for passengers and farmers in the vicinity of the Potomac. As a result, more freight traffic from the outer areas of northern Virginia began heading for Baltimore rather than Alexandria.
That scenario changed in 1859, when the Alexandria, Loudoun & Hampshire (AL&H) Railroad came to Loudoun. It made travel faster and more convenient, allowing farmers and millers to send produce, crops and grain to the more populated city of Alexandria. It also meant Loudoun store owners could have merchandise sent west to them more quickly and in greater quantities. Consequently, communities and towns such as Sterling, Ashburn, Purcellville, and Round Hill grew up around train stations, and none developed along Leesburg Pike (Rt. 7). The railroad became “Main Street” for Loudoun County.
The AL&H plan was to head west from Alexandria, through Loudoun and the Blue Ridge mountains, to the rich coal fields in what is now West Virginia. Shortly after it reached Leesburg in 1860, however, the Civil War disrupted its operation and expansion. Confederate forces destroyed bridges and tracks west of Vienna, so that town was the rail terminus for the duration of the war. The line never fully recovered; trains did not reach Purcellville and Round Hill until 1874, and stalled there. The railroad managed to keep running despite a series of owners who went bankrupt during the long economic depression that started in 1873.
The Southern Railway purchased the bankrupt railroad in 1894. This large company had little interest in extending the line; it was simply enlarging its rail holdings. But when Snickersville residents asked the Southern to bring the line from Round Hill to that town in 1900, the Railway agreed if the village changed its name to Bluemont, which the Southern thought more attractive to the vacation trade. A few residents objected on traditional grounds, but the majority wanted the tourism revenue, so the town became Bluemont. After that extension, the tracks went no further.
In 1909, two men from Leesburg planned to purchase the rail line from Southern to start a daily two-hour passenger service to Washington. Elijah B. White and Robert B. Walker, president and vice president of Peoples National Bank of Leesburg, thought a more robust rail service to Leesburg and Loudoun would help the area’s businesses. Sadly, their plan never happened.
Three years later, two other men leased the railroad from the Southern. John McLean, owner of the Washington Post, and Senator Stephen Elkins of West Virginia, owned a trolley line from Georgetown to Great Falls, and hoped to expand their railroad empire. After it became the Washington & Old Dominion Railway in 1912, the line had enough good years to operate somewhat successfully until the Great Depression turned its profits to red ink. It emerged from bankruptcy reorganization filed in 1936 as the Washington & Old Dominion Railroad.
Passenger service had been successful until automobiles became affordable, and more roads were paved. Revenue from passengers dwindled until that service was abandoned in 1941, only to be revived in 1943 in response to gas shortages during World War II. Passenger service was cut for good in 1951, and the line became freight only.
In later years, Loudoun provided much of the W&OD’s revenue. The quarry beside the tracks near Goose Creek sent gravel east for the explosion of home and business construction in Fairfax, Alexandria, and Arlington. Loudoun stone also provided the base of the Virginia side of the Capital Beltway. In 1962, the rail line hauled sand west from Alexandria for the concrete runways of Dulles Airport. But the W&OD was outbid by a trucking company for the job of delivering cement for the airport.
An earlier missed opportunity might have kept the railroad running until today—at least as far as Sterling. In 1954, Potomac Electric and Power Company planned to construct a coal-fired plant along the Potomac River near Sterling; it eventually would have two 400-foot smokestacks and one 700-foot stack. Now owned by the C&O Railroad, the W&OD would have run 40 coal cars a day to the plant—as a start. However, this plan fell through when Maryland made PEPCO a better offer, and the plant was built in Dickerson, MD.
The end of the W&OD came in 1968, when the line was abandoned and sold to what is now Dominion Energy.
One of the unique aspects of the W&OD Railroad was that its locomotives and rail cars ran on three types of motors: first with steam, then with electricity, and lastly with gas- and diesel-powered engines. It was one of the few lines in the country that could boast this variety of locomotion.
Another significant part of W&OD history—one that lives today—came 10 years after cessation of operations. Although Dominion wanted the railroad right-of-way for its power lines, it agreed to sell most of it to NOVA Parks, while retaining an easement for those lines. Purchase of the property for the W&OD Trail was accomplished in 1978, and the trail from Alexandria to Purcellville was completed 10 years later. The W&OD was one of the first dozen rail-to-trail conversions in the United States. Now there are more than 2,100.
You can learn more about the rich history of the Washington & Old Dominion Railroad at a Balch Library presentation: “Loudoun County and the W&OD Railroad,” presented by Paul McCray on Sunday, May 22 starting at 2 p.m. Pre-registration, in person or online, is required. Go to tinyurl.com/TBLEvents.
Paul McCray, a lifelong resident of Northern Virginia, has lived in Loudoun County for 30 years. He managed various NOVA Parks in Loudoun, including the W&OD Railroad Regional Park for 20 years. He is devoted to preserving W&OD history, and has collected almost 2,000 images of the railroad and hundreds of original documents. He continues to work parttime for NOVA Parks as a historian researching and telling the stories of park history. McCray is a 2011 recipient of Thomas Balch Library’s Loudoun History Award. In Our Backyard is compiled by the Loudoun County Preservation and Conservation Coalition. For more information about the organization, go to loudouncoalition.org.