Steam locomotives, such as this one at the Cass Scenic Railroad State Park in Cass, W.Va., produced cinders as a byproduct of burning coal. Cinder Bed Road in Fairfax County, Va., probably takes its name from this material. ( Carol M. Highsmith /Library of Congress)
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Would you consider doing a story on two seemingly related road names? Furnace Road is where Fairfax County’s main waste-processing facility and trash incinerator is located, only 6½ miles from Cinder Bed Road. Cinder Bed Road, on the other side of Interstate 95, seems to have a much longer history — but maybe Furnace Road also had something burning a long time ago?

Kate Schwarz, Fairfax

Officially, the names are not that old. Unofficially, they hark back to an earlier time in that neck of Fairfax County, near where I-95 crosses the Occoquan River.

Furnace Road and Cinder Bed Road assumed their official designations on April 1, 1965. The previous June, Fairfax’s Board of Supervisors had approved a resolution naming or renaming hundreds of the county’s streets and secondary roads. This was necessary because — as in the song by U2 — some streets had no names. Other streets had duplicate names.

It was necessary to do some tidying, said Christopher Barbuschak, Virginia Room archivist-librarian at the City of Fairfax Regional Library. East-west and north-south streets would bear the same name for their entire length, beginning at the Potomac. Street numbers would begin at the Potomac and rise as the distance from the river increased.

The county produced a 30-page pamphlet outlining the changes. Virginia Route 611 between Route 123 and Route 1 — labeled Telegraph Road on earlier maps — would become Furnace Road. What had been Virginia Route 637/877, off Route 617, would become Cinder Bed Road.

Why those names? Barbuschak suspects Furnace Road came from a feature on the other side of the Occoquan, in Prince William County: a blast furnace and iron forge founded in 1755 by John Ballendine that made ingots of pig iron.

But Earnie Porta, mayor of Occoquan and author of a 2010 history of the town, has his doubts. The Ballendine ironworks closed in 1775. He thinks it is more likely Furnace Road was named after the brick kiln that operated at the Occoquan Work House, later the Lorton Correctional Complex, on the Fairfax County side.

Answer Man is a little more certain about Cinder Bed Road. The name accurately describes what people living nearby would have seen on that thoroughfare, though trains, not cars, would have originally traveled on it.

Cinder Bed Road was the original right of way of the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad, when the line from Richmond to Washington was completed in 1872, Barbuschak said. A railroad station called Long Branch stood approximately where Cinder Bed Road and Newington Road are today.

Increased railroad traffic prompted the RF&P to double-track the entire line beginning in 1903. The original right of way was eventually abandoned. But even with the railroad tracks and ties removed, it had the makings of a fine road, for the tracks and ties had sat upon a bed of ballast. That’s the material that supports railroad ties and tracks, serving as a semi-porous foundation.

“Today when people say ballast, they tend to think of crushed stone,” said Brian Solomon, railroad historian and author of such books as “Railway Maintenance: The Men and Machines That Keep the Railroads Running.”

But in the 19th century, the railroads used a cheaper and more easily obtainable material: cinders. Steam locomotives ran on coal. Cinders are “all the stuff that didn’t burn,” Solomon said. Cinders and ashes dropped into a box on the locomotive that would be emptied into a pit back at the round house. When enough cinders had been collected, a team of workers would head to the tracks to distribute them.

“It’s a waste product that didn’t really cost the railroads anything and allowed them to make good use of something they had to get rid of anyway,” Solomon said.

There was another benefit. A profusion of weeds along a track bed can harm the surface and make it difficult for the track to be inspected. Because cinders are alkali, they restrict the growth of plants.

When diesel locomotives started replacing steam locomotives in the 1930s, railroads lost their supply of cinders. Faster, longer and heavier trains meant rail lines needed to be straighter — it’s hard to take a curve at speed — leading to alterations in track geometry and the replacement of some sections.

While the names Furnace Road and Cinder Bed Road have their roots in the past, they are appropriate for their modern neighbor: Covanta’s I-95 Energy/Resource Recovery Facility, where waste is burned to produce electricity.

Another street near the Covanta plant seems to take inspiration from the volcanic hellscape in “The Lord of the Rings”: Mordor Drive. The road was originally a landfill access road constructed in the 1970s. It doesn’t appear on county maps as Mordor Drive until 2010. Who would like to step forward and take credit for suggesting that name?