Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Forgotten Extremities of the Washington & Old Dominion Railroad: The East End

Shadows are about all that remain where W&OD trains once rumbled through Alexandria's northern neighborhoods. Unlike the popular, 45 mile-long paved rail-trail from Arlington to Purcellville, the two miles within Alexandria from Potomac Yard west to the city limit with Arlington county is a patchwork of dirt paths interrupted by apartment buildings and offices. 

Why Alexandria's portion was not incorporated into the trail by the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority (NVRPA) is a mystery to your scribe. I was unable to find an explanation in Herb Harwood's "Rails to the Blue Ridge" (2000) or Ames Williams's "Washington & Old Dominion Railroad" (1989).

Following its abandonment in 1968 and dismantling the following year, most of the W&OD right-of-way was acquired by Virginia Electric Power (VEPCO) for its high-voltage transmission lines. In 1977, however, NVRPA purchased the land underneath the power lines for use as parkland--specifically, as a trail. Construction of the trail began, one section at a time, until the last segment was completed (to Purcellville) in 1988. 

Alexandria's approximately two-mile-long right-of-way, alas, was sold off in bits and pieces to commercial interests. Here is what remains today, the route marked with a dashed red line, and the visible portions highlighted in yellow:

Alright, let's go for a walk to see what we can find. We begin at the corner of US 1 and East Custis Avenue, anchored by the Del Ray Animal Hospital. To the right in the photo below is Potomac Yard. The W&OD once began at a shop building on the east side of the yard, crossed westbound above the yard tracks on a "viaduct" (trestle), then continued through the neighborhoods of northern Alexandria until it reached Arlington county on the opposite side of Four Mile Run.


Looking north along US1 (Jefferson Davis Highway). The sidewalk veering off to the left takes us to a gate in the chain-link fence. Once inside, we find the right of way elevated to meet the viaduct via an earthen fill. A concrete support for the viaduct could be seen here until it was demolished in 1998. We pass through the gate and begin walking west (left).

Now atop the fill, let us turn around facing east and pause for a moment to imagine the scene before the W&OD went bankrupt, before busy Potomac Yard was removed. Sigh.

We've spun around and are now headed west. When I first walked this line (late 1990s) to photograph what remained, several pieces of rail jutted up from the ground here. On this more recent visit (February 25, 2013), the right-of-way had been "cleaned up" and the rails removed.

We've turned around and are facing east again for a quick look from whence we came before entering the spot with two sidings once known as "Alexandria Junction."

Westward view at Alexandria Junction.

Eastward view from the opposite (west) end of Alexandria Junction.

Facing west through Mount Jefferson Park. In the background is Commonwealth Avenue. The W&OD tracks once proceeded across Commonwealth on a high fill, while beneath it, in the middle of the road, ran the streetcars of the Washington-Virginia line (1892-1932).
This sign provides historical pictures from the vicinity of Mt. Jefferson Park. At the top is a passenger shed at Alexandria Junction (ca 1918). Lower left, a passenger train slowly crosses a high fill being punctured to allow Russell Road (1916) to pass through. Center, Alexandria Junction (Hume Ave. to US1) and its sidings. Right, the St. Elmo neighborhood's passenger shed above the Commonwealth Avenue streetcar line (undated).

A closer look (westward) toward Commonwealth Avenue, where the W&OD crossed above the streetcar line.
Standing across Commonwealth Avenue on its west side, we're looking back eastward toward what remains of the W&OD earthen fill. Behind us stands an office park where the railroad once ran.

We've walked around that office park on Commonwealth, crossed Mt. Vernon Avenue and trotted along Sanford Place behind apartment buildings. We have now emerged at the rear of a strip mall on West Glebe Road. The view is eastward along a block of remaining right-of-way. Behind us is Grace Episcopal Church on Russell Road.
The parking lot of Grace Episcopal Church, looking west. Russell Road is in the background. Look closely. You'll spy the only surviving W&OD concrete structure in Alexandria: The support on Russell for the west end of the railroad's deck-girder bridge.

The bridge support up close. Let's scamper up the slope and look around.

Here's the east-facing view from the top of the bridge support. The automobile on the hill in the distant rear of the picture marks where we stood to photograph the right-of-way behind the strip mall (three photos back).

To continue west from the bridge support, it was necessary to drive around the block and pick back up in this apartment parking lot. The bridge support is on the other side of the wooden fence in the background. I could not vault it without leaving part of me behind ;-)

We continue walking westward, paralleling West Glebe Road about one-half block north of us. Noting the slope on the left, it's plain this was once right-of-way.
We've almost reached the end of the W&OD through Alexandria. Four Mile Run and Arlington county are in the far, far background. This spot is elevated above West Glebe, as you'll see in the next photograph. For locating this spot, it's directly across the street (right) from a Seven Eleven and a Pizza Hut.

That same right-of-way location from sidewalk level.

We've now walked to the west end of that high, level portion of the W&OD (right) and are facing east. That's West Glebe Road--during rush hour.

And here we conclude our walk through Alexandria's remnants of the W&OD. We're facing west along Four Mile Run toward I-395 (Shirley Highway) and the Shirlington section of Arlington county--where the paved W&OD trail begins.

In a future blog installment recalling the abandoned extremes of the W&OD, we'll head west and set out beyond Purcellville in search of the seven mile-long Bluemont Branch--abandoned in 1939! --John

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the tour John.
    Very well done, and as I got older in my early twenties, I visited some of these very same spots as you did.
    That would have been circa 1980-83.
    I still remember the demise, and dismantling of the the RF&P yard...
    I grew up in Falls Church from 1959-1969.
    My family lived at 505 W. Great Falls Street at Lincoln Avenue.
    Our back yard backed up to the W&OD right-of-way, so living there was like having your own personal railroad in one's back yard!
    So you can imagine what an important roll the railroad had in my childhood.
    It was the center of my universe until it ended.
    Our neighbor William Sherwin kept me apprised of the W&OD's status up until it's zero hour.
    I was so heart broken when there were no longer any trains coming through anymore, my first major disappointment in life.
    Forty seven years ago...looking back now, I remember in the early 1970s when Northern Virginia started enjoying their transportation problems, and endless traffic woes...and I was thinking how they all deserved their fate in gridlock, and how once upon a time not too long before - they had it all laid out on a pair of rails.
    You can't have it back either.
    This Old Scarecrow - Austin, Texas