At the End of the Line, An Opportunity Lost

The Hamilton train station, one of the stops on the W& OD line, in a photograph from 1968, the year that the railroad was abandoned.
The Hamilton train station, one of the stops on the W& OD line, in a photograph from 1968, the year that the railroad was abandoned. (From The Thomas Balch Library)
By Eugene Scheel
Sunday, February 18, 2007

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.

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