She's Been Working on The Railroad

By M.J. McAteer
Special to the Washington Post
Sunday, December 3, 2006

At the terminal end of Railroad Street in Bluemont sits a grain elevator. It's hardly beautiful. Its walls are buff-colored cement, and some of its windows are broken. But the elevator is tall enough (at its highest point 85 feet) and old enough (a century plus) to have become a de facto landmark in this westernmost town of Loudoun County.

The elevator ceased operations in the 1940s. And when Bluemont resident Rosemary Stanger bought the property on which it stands in 1998, the structure seemed fated for a continued decline, just one more artifact of a once-vibrant agricultural economy. Now, however, it has become an unlikely part of what Stanger calls her "wonderful quest."

Stanger, 57, a longtime hairdresser, is a woman with a singular vision: to rehabilitate the old grain elevator and open a scaled-down replica of Bluemont's 1900 train station at its base. Although she is hardly the image of a railroad buff -- no striped engineer's cap and certainly no white whiskers -- she is a woman not to be sidetracked. When she talks about her plans for the site, she uses such words as "quest," "goal" and "dream," and she clearly doesn't believe in waiting around for wishes to come true.

"Rosemary has taken a historic structure that is about to fall down and poured a tremendous amount of love and money into it," said Susan Freis Falknor, vice president and co-founder of the civic group Friends of Bluemont. "Talk about spirit, talk about never say die. It's a brave project."

Over the past eight years, Stanger has replaced 88 windows in the grain elevator and cleared heaps of debris and garbage from its interior. For the jaunty structure that is nearly complete at the foot of the dour elevator, she has scraped, primed and painted 100-year-old barn boards -- 275 of them -- and applied seven coats of varnish to Douglas fir beams she salvaged from a defunct Winchester woolen mill. Friends and family have helped, but Stanger has been the engine that drives this train.

Her next goal is to have her son, Brandon Bisbee, finish installing the red tin roof on the station replica, but its peaked and turreted silhouette and weather vane topped by a miniature locomotive make its identity clear enough already. A hand-painted sign out front also spells it out for the curious: "Bluemont Mill & Train Station."

"I like to share," said Stanger, who traces her love of trains to growing up in Alexandria near the station that marked the beginning of the Washington & Old Dominion Railroad line.

Stanger says that when her project is complete, "everyone is going to know everything about it" -- "it" being the way life once was in Bluemont.

It was certainly busier than it is now.

In the early years of the 20th century, the W&OD ran seven trains a day to Bluemont to pick up farm products and drop off city folk who came west in search of a scenic retreat from the summer heat. Snickersville Turnpike was lined with inns and boardinghouses, some of which are now private homes.

The easiest and cheapest way for the tourists to reach Bluemont in those days was the W&OD: In 1914, the fare for the 2 1/2 -hour rail trip from Alexandria was just $1. In honor of the many stops along the way, the train was nicknamed the "Virginia Creeper."

But the rise of the car meant the decline of the Creeper, and in 1939 service to Bluemont ceased. The original station, just down Railroad Avenue from Stanger's replica, burned in 1920, and the tracks were pulled up later. The tourists went elsewhere.

Stanger says she hopes her project will lure tourists back to Bluemont. One dream is to have a hiking path connecting the elevator site with the Appalachian Trail. The trail passes within less than a mile of town, although plans for a spur to Bluemont have not progressed beyond a few conversations with local representatives of the Appalachian Mountain Club. And it is her hope that perhaps one day, the W&OD trail, which runs along the old railroad bed from Arlington to Purcellville, will reach Bluemont. An extension to Round Hill, only six miles away, has already been funded.

If the tourists return, Stanger envisions a coffee or gift shop and a museum of local history in the diminutive depot, which she designed from plans for a twin of the Bluemont station that is still standing in Winchester. Meanwhile, she says she hopes the depot will become a place for people of the community "to have a cup of coffee and talk."

Stanger has refinanced her house and her tenant house, which are both on the grain elevator property, to pay for her "dream" project, and she recently signed a deal with Invisible Towers, a Waterford cellphone tower company, that could help with some of the money. The company wants to hide cellphone towers inside the grain elevator, and Loudoun County has been receptive to the plan, said company President Tim Dennis, but the project must clear state regulatory hurdles.

Falknor calls it the "perfect adoptive use" for the elevator.

"People respect Rosemary's enthusiasm," Falknor said. "She is laboring with only faith and a little encouragement from people who tell her, 'Great job!' "

For Stanger, that is enough. "To educate the public is my goal," she said. "I don't care if I make money."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company