The 100-foot wide Washington and Old Dominion Railroad Regional Park (W&OD) is one of the skinniest parks in the commonwealth of Virginia, but also one of the longest — 45 miles in length. The W&OD takes its name from the railroad whose trains ran along the right-of-way from 1859 until 1968. The entrepreneurs who founded the rail line dreamed of bringing coal and other riches from the Appalachians to the Port of Alexandria, but those dreams were never fully realized. Less than a decade after it was built, the railroad was almost destroyed during the Civil War.
After the war, the railroad was slowly rebuilt and then saw a series of changes of ownership and objectives. The heyday of the W&OD came early in the 20th Century, when it provided service three times daily from Alexandria to Falls Church, Leesburg and Purcellville, with stops at such hamlets as Dunn Loring, Hunter Station and Paeonian Springs. To learn more about the railroad(s) that ran on what is now the trail, we strongly encourage you to visit https://www.novaparks.com/parks/washington-and-old-dominion-railroad-regional-park/history where NOVA Parks Historian Paul McCray has assembled a huge collection of truly interesting items from the days of the iron horse.
When the W&OD ceased operations in 1968, the Virginia Electric and Power Company (VEPCO — later Virginia Power, and now Dominion Power) bought the right-of-way for its electric power transmission lines. The Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority tried for years to acquire the use of the railroad right-of-way. Agreement was finally reached in 1977 for NVRPA to purchase the right-of-way in stages. The purchase was completed in 1982.
The first segment of the W&OD Trail was opened in 1974 within the City of Falls Church. This portion was built as the result of a special agreement with VEPCO under which the Regional Park Authority was allowed to judge whether a trail of this sort would prove to be popular. It did, and so, after the property was purchased, the trail was built in sections until its completion to Purcellville in 1988. Trail users today may enjoy roughly 45 miles of asphalt trail and 32.5 miles of crushed stone and dirt bridle paths. In 1987, the W&OD was designated a National Recreation Trail by the U.S. Department of the Interior.
In 1991, the Friends of the W&OD was established in order to support and enhance the W&OD Railroad Regional Park. If you would like to join the important work the Friends do, please click: FoWOD
Passenger Trains on the W&OD
Here are four film clips providing mute evidence of a commonplace of a by-gone era: passenger trains running along the tracks of the W&OD RR. This footage, copyright by Mark I Video (which has graciously granted the Friends of the W&OD permission to place it on this web page), was apparently shot along the Rosslyn branch and at Bluemont Junction a few years before, during, and after the middle of the 20th century
The following photos (some with annotations) are drawn from Rails to the Blue Ridge, by Herbert H. Harwood, Jr., this book is no longer available for purchase through the NVRPA marketplace (but may be obtained through Amazon, et al. as well).
The Washington terminal of the Washington, Ohio & Western (as well as successors) was located on the site occupied today by the West Building of the National Gallery of Art. This photograph was taken about 1895.
If riding the railroad was sometimes rigorous, it was also cheap. In 1914 one could buy a Sunday round-trip excursion ticket to Bluemont for $1.00 — over 100 miles of train travel. And by paying another dollar, passengers could take a four hour auto tour in the Blue Ridge. Even thriftier souls could get to Great Falls and back for 35 cents.
While Dunn Loring and Wiehle were slow starters, commuters were a major presence by the late 1880’s. In 1888 one traveler who rode an early morning train into Washington reported that ‘every seat was occupied, principally by government employees, many of whom live at Falls Church, Vienna, Herndon, and other points.’
In 1916 there were a total of 65 stations on the W&OD, to include those at the beginning (Georgetown) and the end of the line (Bluemont). Normans, obviously tiny, was located at the point where the tracks and Smiths Switch Road intersect. The road takes its name from the fact that the Smiths, a fairly prominent family that once grew produce and raised livestock in the vicinity of Ashburn, saw to the construction of a railway siding whose switch the family would throw periodically in order to bring trains to a loading area on the farm itself.
Autorailers and the W&OD
For a time, beginning in the late 1930’s, this autorailer traveled the W&OD RR daily and had its terminus in Vienna. (Image source: http://www.rr-fallenflags.org)
This table is part of the roster of equipment of the Washington and Old Dominion Railroad compiled by Ames W. Williams (The Washington and Old Dominion Railroad )
Today the term AutoRailer™ (note the capitalizations) appears to have become a trademarked name and is employed in reference to various sorts of trailer and van whose purpose is to transport cars from their point of origin to a dealership. However, before highway systems were as broadly and as well developed as they are today in the United States, Europe, etc. (and still in places where, for whatever reason, tracks are laid but few roads are paved), vehicles other than trains were occasionally fitted to be able to travel on train tracks. As its name indicates, the Evans autorailer (or auto-railer) was bimodal, and could be quickly reconfigured to travel, as needed, on either rails or roads.
For a great variety of information on the AutoRailer, autorailer, or auto-railer see Cabinet of Curiosities.
Civil War Period
Reproduced above from Rails to the Blue Ridge, by Herbert H. Harwood, Jr., is a contemporary engraving of the skirmish between Northern and Southern forces in Vienna (apparently near the western boundary of the town) on June 17, 1861. For an indepth discussion about engraved illustrations of the time, please visit Engraved Illustrations in the Cabinet of Curiosities.
Vienna Mural Project
Early in 2001, a long, blank wall with neither windows nor doors suddenly inspired Vienna Town Council member Bob McCormick as he sat across from it on the bench at the town’s old railway station: here was a canvas waiting to be filled. And so the Vienna Mural Project was born. A number of local business people and artists, empaneled to select an appropriate design from among the considerable number submitted, ultimately decided upon that of Harris Miller, who, with the energetic assistance of the members of the Vienna Arts Society, brought to the wall his celebration of the W&OD Railroad and Trail. Community volunteers, young and old, lent a hand in the project as well. They helped, for example, to direct many of the rivers of paint into the expanses of sky, mountain, and plain.
Balancing the calm and the vibrant, the mural charmingly combines local emblems, past and present, of the W&OD. Here with leisured care a porter leans forward to steer his lightly loaded trolley, there a cyclist speeds along, black cap earnestly reversed, chest pressing down toward his bike’s top tube; here an engineer and a conductor wave greetings from a long, oncoming train, while dogs cavort in the central foreground, they and their owners (who wander, presumably, elsewhere on the wall) flouting the Fairfax County leash laws. Miller has cannily incorporated a pair of the wall’s four rain spouts into his design: from one there darts a bluebird, while another helps to form the chimney of a railway engine — which is, appropriately, the real artistic centerpiece. Set to charge at full throttle, the massive, candy-colored machine propels itself with connecting rods of purple taffy, rolls on great wobbly wheels that look like fruit pies sliced in moments of sleepy distraction. And, this fanciful recollection of the W&OD Railroad harmonizes well with a similarly fantastic Vienna, some of whose familiar buildings and greenery have been transported to a downtown dreamscape opened to blue mountains and extravagant vistas in order to allow Miller to take fine advantage of the long wall that his mural now graces.