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From Rail to Trail: Washington and Old Dominion History

As the weather gets warmer and our quarantine cabin fever worsens, many of us are looking to go outside and have some fun. In this area, one of the most popular attractions is the W&OD Trail, a winding 45 mile paved bike and activities trail that goes from Shirlington in Arlington County all the way to Purcellville here in Loudoun County.

Biking, running, or even riding your horse on parts of this trail can help you reconnect with nature and escape the anxieties of today. But one of the most interesting aspects of this trail is its ability to connect people to local history through numerous historic markers that unveil its equally long and winding history as a railway.

Image credit: Loudoun Museum

The Washington and Old Dominion Railroad, for which the regional park is named, has a complicated history as a business with many different names, owners, and routes involved at different points. Understanding the general history of the development of railways is important to our broader historical narrative because railroads strongly influence if not fully motivate the development of certain areas. Many of the suburbs of Washington D.C. including many in Loudoun were developed around the early iterations of the Washington and Old Dominion Railroad. Below outlines a brief organizational history, followed by some fun facts about the railroad.

1855-1870: Alexandria, Loudoun and Hampshire Railroad construction begins in 1855 with the intention to use the railway to transport coal out of modern day West Virginia. Over years of operating company president Lewis McKenzie expanded the line multiple times, reaching Leesburg in 1860.

1870-1911: Multiple name changes result from several changes in ownership during this time. It became the Washington & Ohio Railroad, then the Washington & Western Railroad, then the Washington, Ohio & Western Railroad all during which time the line saw further expansion into Hamilton and Round Hill. As portions of the line were leased by the Richmond and Danville Railroad, which is eventually absorbed by J.P. Morgan’s Southern Railway Company, the resources of these new stakeholders results in further expansion including the Bluemont Branch of the railway.

Image credit: Loudoun Museum

In 1903, John R. McLean and Stephen B. Elkins begin the construction of the Great Falls and Old Dominion Railroad as an electric trolley line to carry passengers between Washington D.C. and the outlying suburbs. Combining with Southern Railway in 1911, the owners incorporated the new company as the Western and Old Dominion Railway.

1911-1932: The Western and Old Dominion Railway operates as an electric trolley service and carries passengers as well as mail, agricultural goods, and freight. Despite their willingness to adapt to different business models as markets changed, the railroad was generally considered to be mismanaged and suffered financially as a result. Ultimately, the company could not survive the devastating effects of the Great Depression and declared bankruptcy in 1932.

Outdoor Portable Transformer for Electric Trolley.

Image credit: Loudoun Museum

1936-56: Davis Elkins (son of previous owner Stephen Elkins) and other investors form a new company from the assets of the former and name it the Washington and Old Dominion Railroad. During this time some lines are acquired and others abandoned while all are converted to diesel or gasoline by the end of the 1940’s. Hopeful for profit, the company focused mainly on freight and ended passenger and mail service completely by 1951. Although there was some success and profit during this time, negotiations began to sell the company to the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad Company and it is sold without a name change in 1956.

1960-Present: The status of the company was uncertain in the early 1960’s as the state wanted to purchase the property for highway use but later revealed that private negotiations had led to the sale of the railway to the Virginia Electric and Power Company (now Dominion Power). Groups such as the Loudoun Board of Supervisors and the W & O.D. Users Association fought against the abandonment of the railroad until operations were finally ceased in 1968.

Soon after, the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority began agreements with the power company and the local government to acquire the property for a park. The first segment opened in 1974 in Falls Church and its success helped push forward further acquisitions, with the entire trail completed in 1988.


W & O.D. Fun Facts:

1. During the Civil War in 1861, Robert E. Lee sent orders to Col. Eppa Hunton to destroy the railroad from Alexandria to Leesburg, fearing a federal seizure of the important supply line. One of the trains was in Leesburg which Hunton chose to disassemble rather than destroy. The train was reportedly moved to the Manassas Gap Railroad and later used by the Confederates. Sources are unsure of the status after the war, dubbing it the “Lost Locomotive.”

2. By 1891, trains through Farmwell (Ashburn) carried approximately 4,000 gallons of milk into Washington D.C. everyday. The expansion of the railroad lead to huge successes for Loudoun dairy farmers- even if all of the milk did not make it to market. Apparently some crewmen were known to churn some of the milk into butter onboard the train, sell it at the next stop, and discard the empty milk cans into Goose Creek.

3. One period of success for the railway was during the Second World War during which freight revenues increased and the railway briefly returned to passenger service as a wartime emergency measure. Only a few passenger cars were added to the freight lines, but they were popular enough to run every day of the week except Sunday. Unfortunately for the passengers, the ride from Leesburg to Rosslyn apparently had 13 stops and could take as long as 2.5 hours!

4. The railway had multiple nicknames. During periods of mismanagement it was referred to as the “Wobbly and Old Dilapidated.” It was also referred to as the “Virginia Creeper” for its slow pace, usually around 40 miles per hour.



“Action at Vienna-Civil War | Fairfax County, VA.” Accessed May 22, 2020. “Ashburn Station Historical Marker.” Accessed May 22, 2020. Conservancy, Rails-to-Trails. “Virginia’s Washington & Old Dominion Railroad Regional Park: Hall of Fame Trail.” Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. Accessed May 22, 2020. “Exploring Historic Leesburg by Way of the W&OD Trail,” March 6, 2018. Nova Parks. “History,” December 22, 2015. “Norman’s Station Historical Marker.” Accessed May 22, 2020. Herndon, VA Patch. “Remembering Herndon’s History: The W&OD Railway Strike of 1916,” September 5, 2018. Scheel, Eugene. “At the End of the Line, An Opportunity Lost.” Washington Post, February 18, 2007. “ShowDocument.Pdf.” Accessed May 22, 2020. “The LoCo Ale Trail Beer Passport | Loudoun County Brew Passport.” Accessed May 22, 2020. “The Lost Locomotive Historical Marker.” Accessed May 22, 2020. “The W&OD Trail’s Past Life as a Railroad Has a Long and Windy History.” Accessed May 22, 2020. “Tracks into History Historical Marker.” Accessed May 22, 2020. “Washington and Old Dominion Railroad – At the End of the Line, An Opportunity Lost | History of Loudoun County, Virginia.” Accessed May 22, 2020. “Washington and Old Dominion Railroad Historical Markers - The Historical Marker Database.” Accessed May 22, 2020. “Wayback Machine,” September 28, 2017.!.PDF.

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