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The Washington and Old Dominion Trail

December 1, 2017

 

The Washington and Old Dominion (W&OD) is a 45-mile paved rail trail that runs from Shirlington, VA to Purcellville, VA. The path follows the old Alexandria, Loudoun, and Hampshire Railroad which was constructed in 1847 and played a significant role in the urbanization of Northern Virginia. Today, the rails are long gone, but its legacy and impact still lives on in the towns it ran through.

 

Before I get into my experience on the trail, here's a little bit more history on the railway. As mentioned before, the railroad was constructed in 1847 with the purpose of competing with the Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) railroad. The goal was to channel more goods from the Shenandoah Valley into Alexandria. The first train was launched on May 17, 1860, and reached Leesburg, VA. The Purcellville portion of the rail was completed in 1874. Due to financial problems, construction of the rail terminated in nearby Bluemont in the early 1900s. The W&OD served the community in many capacities, acting as a freight service, commuter rail, and trade resource. Despite this utilization, the rail only saw modest success and dwarfed in comparison to the B&O. After World War II, with the improvements of roadways and automobiles, business declined. In 1951, passenger services were suspended and in 1968, the rail was abandoned altogether. That's a very broad overview of the history of the rail...more will come in the following paragraphs. 

 

I started my journey in Purcellville (mile 45 on the map) at 8 am. Next to my starting point stands the original Purcellville Station, which was built in 1904. The station served as a tourist depot during the summer months and shipped agricultural products eastward throughout the year. These booming industries resulted in the construction of hotels, retail stores, and mills. One such mill still stands today a couple hundred feet away from the station. A former feed and dairy mill, this structure operates today as a fine dining establishment called Magnolia's at the Mill. If you're ever in the area and want an authentic dining experience, this is the place to go!

 

The morning was clear and rather cold, even though it got up to 60 degrees later in the day. I made the mistake of not wearing gloves and couldn't feel my fingers for the first 10 miles of the journey...so that was fun. With my hands about to fall off, I stopped to warm up at the site of Ivandale Station located a few miles outside of Purcellville. The remnants of Ivandale's rail industry is long gone, but its history remains. The original tracts of land for the railway belonged to John Brown, who raided Harper's Ferry in 1859. The Brown Family lived in a stone farmhouse (circa 1819) which still stands today just north of the trail. His son, David, operated a schoolhouse on the property up through the 1870s, but that building is no longer standing. In the early 1900s, Dr. W. Warrington Evans, a Washington dentist, purchased Brown's land and founded the Ivandale Floral Company. The nursery, which still exists today, featured Loudoun County's first large-scale commercial and electrified greenhouse. In addition to the floral industry, Ivandale was the site of Emancipation Galas. Beginning in 1890, African American families would gather at the farm of Fayette G. Welsh and celebrate the anniversary of Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. 

 

Back on the trail, I pedaled past Hamilton Station, one of the oldest surviving stations on the line (circa 1870). Further down at mile 40 is the small town of Paeonian Springs. This town was known for two things back in the day: raccoon hunts and its "healing" spring water. You could buy the water for ten cents on the gallon for drinking or bathing (or both!). Just outside the town is the passage of Clarkes Gap, the highest point on the trail at 582 ft above sea level. Additionally, there is an old stone bridge dating back to the 1870s I got to ride under, which was pretty cool.

 

Somewhere along the next four miles the unthinkable happened. My rear tire went flat. A rock or branch must've wedged its way into my tire and punctured the inner tube. It was pretty easy to diagnose since the tube was sticking out of the inner seam of the tire and the sound of flapping rubber with each tire rotation caught my attention. Good news was that I had just entered Leesburg, Bad news was that it was 9 am and the bike shop didn't open until 10. No matter. I decided to take a break for breakfast at South Street Under located at the Tuscarora Mill just off the trail. South Street Under is a neat little cafe and deli that makes some of the best cinnamon raisin bread in town! It's definitely a must-visit if you're biking through!

 

After a satisfying breakfast, I hobbled by poor bike to Bicycle Outfitters for a repair. The guys there were great! Very prompt, knowledgeable, and helpful. They definitely saved the day for me. With a new tube, I was ready to hit the trail again.

 

 Nearby on King Street stood the Leesburg Passenger Station, which operated from 1887 to 1951. Preceding this was a freight station that was present for the christening of the rail in May 1860. There's a little bit of Civil War history associated with the older station (did you honestly think I wouldn't mention anything Civil War-related in this article?). In 1861, Col. Eppa Hutton (CSA) was ordered by Robert E. Lee to destroy the W&OD's tracks and bridges. When Hutton entered Leesburg, he seized an idle freight engine at this station. Instead of destroying it, he had the train dismantled and transported to Delaplane, VA to be reassembled and used by the Confederacy during the war. This bold maneuver goes down in local lore as 'The Lost Locomotive.' 

 

Adjacent to the freight station stands the ruins of the Leesburg Lime Company. The Lime Company, like many others in the business district known as 'The Wharf,' spawned due to the presence of the railroad. It was a thriving business through the turn of the century and provided local businesses fertilizer, plaster, and stone for roads. The company went out of business after WWI when mining operations in the eastern part of the county produced cheaper, more durable products. 

 

Once outside of Leesburg, the trail is, to be frank, unsightly. First of all, it is very long and very straight with very little tree cover. Secondly, the sights and sounds of the trail include the bustle and chaos of construction operations and the faint, continuous humming of overhead power lines that line the trail. Lastly, besides a couple old station plaques, there's nothing to see. Between Leesburg and Herndon, about a 10-mile stretch, it's not scenic nor particularly enjoyable to bike through in my opinion. 

 

At mile 21, I reached Herndon, a bustling community that thrived during the railroad era. Herndon Station was built in 1858 and served as a commercial center for the surrounding area, as well as a post office. The milling and dairy industries relied on the line to transport their materials westward. During the Civil War, this station was a picket post for the 1st Vermont Cavalry under the command of Lieutenant Alexander Watson. On March 17, 1863, Captain John S. Mosby--the Gray Ghost--carried out a raid on the unsuspecting Union troops, wounding only one. His success caused Union troops to withdraw behind Difficult Run, about 8 miles ahead on the trail.

 

Fast-forward 53 years to 1916, the year of the Rail Strike. The W&OD was making a sizable profit, but failed to spend the money properly (most likely due to greed of the rail owners). The rail workers took notice of the deteriorating conditions, formed a union, and went on strike. Union workers called for a 10-hour workday, and a $1/hr pay increase for conductors and motormen. Despite intense negotiations, union members wound up fired. Workers retaliated by vandalizing and derailing cars. This back-and-forth struggle continued on for the entire year until the strike was called off. Although the strike failed, it marked the beginning of poor labor relations that would plague the rail for years to come.

 

 

Departing from Herndon, I biked another five miles to Hunter Mill Road and Hunter Station, just outside of Reston. The road was used by both Union and Confederate troops during the Civil War. For four days in March 1862, members of the Pennsylvania Reserve Corps camped here. General George McCall commanded the corps, which consisted of three brigades under the commands of Generals Meade, Ord, and Reynolds. Famed war correspondent George A. Townsend was also present with Corps. On March 14, the 15,000 Pennsylvanians marched out of the area to join General McClellan on his Peninsula Campaign.

 

In October 1864, Mosby and his rangers conducted a raid on Hunter Mill looking for horses and supplies. John Read, a Baptist preacher and abolitionist, signaled the Union pickets of the attack. Read and an unnamed black man were captured by Mosby's forces. As a known Union Spy and member of the Home Guard, Read was executed in a grove of pine trees next to the tracks. Read's accomplice was also shot, but survived. These two events just scratch the surface of the history of Hunter Mill...click here for more info!

 

 Four miles down the trail is the town of Vienna, location of the Freeman Store and Museum. Abram Lydecker built this home and general store in 1859. During the Civil War, it was used as Union officer quarters and a hospital for the Confederacy. On June 17, 1861, about a half-mile from the building, a train carrying members of the 1st Ohio Volunteers were ambushed by South Carolinian forces. Eight federal soldiers were killed in the action. The store closed in 1929 and remained a residence up through the 1950s. Today, it has been restored to its former glory as a general store and town museum. 

 

From Vienna, there are only 11 miles to go to the end. At mile marker 8.5, I passed by the Dunn Loring station and Camp Alger. Camp Alger was Spanish-American War encampment and staging area for members of the Second Army Corps (approx. 35,000 men). President William McKinley visited the camp twice during its existence. The only other significant event that took place there was a five-month Typhoid Fever outbreak.

 

Past the site of the old West Falls Church station at mile marker 4 is the formal beginning of the W&OD trail. In 1968, the Virginia Electric Power Company, who owned the rail, and the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority decided to construct a trail on the old rail bed. In 1974, the Washington and Old Dominion Regional Trail was officially commissioned by the city of Falls Church. By 1988, the trail extended the full length of the old railway to Purcellville. 

 

The final four miles of the trail runs parallel to the older Four Mile Run Trail. I biked past East Falls Church and the site of Brandymore Castle, a rock formation used by colonial surveyors in the 1700s. The "castle," unfortunately, was demolished and removed during the construction of I-66 in the 1960s. Further down the trail is Bluemont Station, a major junction of the W&OD that operated as a passenger service, freight haul, and domestic goods transport. During its peak years, trains departed from Bluemont every 10-15 minutes and could reach Rosslyn in the same amount of time (just as "fast" as the DC Metro Rail System today!).

 

The final couple of miles mark two historic location: the Arlington Mill and Nauck. The Arlington Mill was built in 1836 on property originally belonging to George Washington. It was destroyed during the Civil War since it was believed to be owned by Robert E. Lee. It was rebuilt in 1880 by Dr. John W. Barcroft, operated until 1906, and was destroyed by fire in 1920. Nauck was originally part of a 1719 land grant to John Todd and Evan Thomas. In 1778, it was sold to John Parke Custis and the Abingdon Estate. By time of the Civil War, Levi and Sarah Ann Jones, free blacks, owned the property. Following Emancipation, Nauck attracted several families from the Freedmen Village and the community began to form. The neighborhood boomed in the late 1800s with the addition of churches, schools, and an electric rail line. This predominantly black community saw continual population and business growth through the 1950s and maintains its rich heritage to this day.

 

Finally, at 1:30 pm, I reached Shirlington, the terminus of the W&OD. The total trip (minus the set-back) took about 4.5 hours, a 10 mph pace overall. I must say, I was a little disappointed with the trail's finale. It was anticlimactic, to say the least. When I got to the end of the trail I thought, 'This is it?' The trail just ends on the outskirts of Southwest D.C. Not much to see, not much to do once you're done. The W&OD, however, does link with the rest of the Four Mile Run Trail. I biked that for a mile or so and then connected with the Mount Vernon Trail for two miles, which took me into Crystal City.

 

In all honesty, I wasn't thrilled much by this trail. It was very interesting to learn about the history of the old railroad, but the trail itself is not something get excited over. The long, boring stretches of trail, power lines and industry, and lack-luster finale made the trip less enjoyable. If you're going to explore this trail, do it between Purcellville and Leesburg (miles 45 to 32) or Herndon and Falls Church (miles 21 to 5). Skip miles 22-30 completely. There's nothing there. And if you decide to bike the whole, hopefully you won't get a flat tire like I did! That's my experience and review on the trail! Thanks for reading!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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