Washington and Old Dominion Railroad –
At the End of the Line, An Opportunity Lost

by Eugene Scheel
A Waterford historian and mapmaker.

The Washington and Old Dominion Railroad is now largely a bicycle trail. But it could have become a high-speed commuter rail link between Loudoun County and the near suburbs of Northern Virginia had the arguments of some local officials been heeded more than 40 years ago.

In 1965, when the railroad's demise was a near certainty, Loudoun County planners came up with population projections providing ample warning of the number of drivers who, jockeying on overloaded roads, would one day bring forth from the lamp a genie named Gridlock.

A year later, in April 1966, the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission recommended that the 48-mile W&OD right of way from Alexandria to Purcellville be maintained as rapid-transit access to "the most densely populated and rapidly growing sections of Northern Virginia."

But with few commuters on two-lane Route 7 east of Leesburg, and with that road soon to be widened to four lanes, rapid transit in Loudoun and western Fairfax seemed a luxury.

There were great expectations for the W&OD when the first tracks were laid in Alexandria in 1855. It was to reach the coal fields of Hampshire County (now in West Virginia), because coal was replacing wood as the urban fuel of choice. But its trackage never made it west of the Blue Ridge.

The railroad began the decline that led to its 1968 abandonment when neglect and poor management held sway during the profit-making years of 1905 to 1918.

I recently came across an undated Virginia State Corporation Commission report from that era, citing the railroad for "insufficient labor and material, insufficient equipment and inadequate motive power" -- and not turning on engine lights at night -- all of which led to conditions that "cannot give the public a reasonably safe, adequate, and dependable service."

Herbert H. Harwood Jr., in his history of the railroad, writes of trainmen sabotaging the profitable daily milk run by emptying farmers' milk cans into butter churners and then selling the butter. A favorite spot for pitching the telltale cans was the high and remote Goose Creek trestle east of Leesburg.

Old-timers told me stories of crewmen slowing down the train so they and frustrated buffalo hunters could fire weapons at wildlife.

Automobilists, as they were called before the 1920s, sounded a knell for the railroad when they began motoring beyond Bluemont, which had been the western terminus of the W&OD since 1900. The Shenandoah Valley beckoned, luring visitors with the Luray and Skyline caverns and pristine Civil War battlefields.

Even before the motor car was deemed a threat, a 1913 fire destroyed the rambling frame Blue Ridge Inn, a prime destination of summer vacationers and railroad excursionists from Washington. Homespun boarding houses in the Loudoun Valley could not match the inn's allure. The summer visitors stopped coming.

Route 7, paralleling the railroad, was a constant nemesis. In 1922, the state began maintaining and paving the road and took off its tolls. The completion of paving in 1928, the Great Depression of 1929 and the great drought the following year led to the end of passenger service to Bluemont in 1930. In 1939, the W&OD sold its right of way from Purcellville to Bluemont.

At the opposite end of the line, the railroad's passenger trains entered Washington via trackage across Aqueduct Bridge. But in 1923, when Francis Scott Key Bridge replaced the older span, the railroad gave up its right of way to the nation's capital. The new passenger terminal was in Rosslyn, on the Virginia side of the bridge. The freight terminal remained in Alexandria.

While the W&OD was ignoring repeated State Corporation Commission complaints of shabby maintenance and service, the grousing of locals led to disparaging nicknames: "Wait Over and Doze," "Wobbly and Old Dilapidated" and "Washington and Old Dog."

A federal government edict continued passenger service through World War II and until 1951. One or two segregated coaches buoyed up the end of a freight run. The daily jaunt from Leesburg to Rosslyn took two to 2 1/2 hours. There were 13 station stops.

After 1951, the freight-only railroad's trackage west of the Trap Rock siding (just east of Goose Creek) was in such a poor state that diesel engines had to be changed. Only lighter ones could safely navigate the course and then at no more than 12 mph.

Desiring a highway right of way, Virginia made a tentative offer to buy the entire W&OD for a highway right of way in 1961. But state legislators decided the price was too high. In early 1965, however, the railroad accepted the state's offer of $3.5 million pending approval by the Interstate Commerce Commission.

Soon after, The Washington Post disclosed that the state had privately agreed to sell all the right of way, except for four miles in Arlington needed for highway improvements, to the Virginia Electric and Power Co. (now Dominion Virginia Power). State officials explained that the secrecy had been necessary to keep real estate values stable.

Public hearings began in March 1965. In March 1966, the ICC recommended abandonment of the entire W&OD line, citing the railroad's continuing losses and the agreement among the state, the railroad and the power company.

In June 1966, the Loudoun Board of Supervisors and the W&OD Users Association, made up of 137 organizations that wanted to keep the railroad operable, presented one of many challenges to the ICC's decision. The association wanted to purchase the W&OD and had financial backing from New York's Lehman Bros.

Back-and-forth challenges and ICC rebuttals continued for 2 1/2 years.

As the ICC's original proposal to abandon the W&OD appeared to continually trump the opposition, companies using the railroad either bought trucks or made plans to move. In April 1968, Loudoun's largest industrial company -- Leesburg's Barber & Ross, a builder with 150 employees -- began phasing out operations and relocating to Point of Rocks on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad.

In August 1968, the ICC, with its previous decision to abandon the railroad having been upheld by the courts, ordered the W&OD to cease operations.

At the very time plans for Metrorail were being formulated, Northern Virginia lost a transportation artery that today bisects its fastest-growing area. The genie named Gridlock looms over us all.

For more reading, see
- Herbert H. Harwood Jr.'s "Rails to the Blue Ridge: The Washington & Old Dominion Railway" (Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority, 2000)
- Ames W. Williams's "The Washington & Old Dominion Railroad, 1847-1968" (Arlington Historical Society, 1989)
- A
Loudoun Valley High School project called "Down at the Station: Purcellville and the W&OD Railroad, 1874-1968" (Purcellville Preservation Association, 1999).

Copyright © Eugene Scheel