By Mitch Diamond
Loudoun’s huge network of old and largely unpaved rural roads and bridges is both a scenic and historic treasure and a major maintenance challenge.
Loudoun County has the largest network of unpaved rural roads in Virginia. These roads, which date back to the mid-18th and early 19th century, were laid down to support Loudoun’s new and important agriculture industry in the early days of this nation. The road network supported migration from both north and south to Loudoun, connected farms to villages, mills and markets, allowed people to go to church, to the post office and to obtain needed supplies.
Captured in the first comprehensive map of Loudoun by Yardley Taylor in 1853, the roads still follow those original routes and connect those same places. The network of historic roads and bridges has been declared a national treasure by visiting United States National Park Service historians, a valuable historic resource eligible for the National Register of Historic Places by the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, and one of the State’s most endangered historic places by Preservation Virginia. News features, documentaries and many articles in magazines and the media have extolled their beauty and historic value. They appeal to visitors and serve as a signature feature of our rural landscape and communities. They connect us to our heritage, and to our land.
They are also a vital transportation resource, serve residents and businesses every day and are a critical element of our rural economy, used not just by motorists, but by large numbers of equestrians, bicyclists, hikers and just casual walkers
But, sometimes, these historic roads can be difficult to use, can be rutted, pothole-laden and muddy or covered by clouds of dust. Travel on them can be a challenge. The Virginia Department of Transportation works diligently to maintain them, but even as their crews labor to undo damage caused by weather and heavy use, residents and visitors can still find their journeys impeded and the going slow. They are a treasure, but they are also a serious nuisance.
The Loudoun County Preservation and Conservation Coalition’s Rural Roads Committee has been working with VDOT over the past several years to find ways to improve the condition and durability of the roads and the carrying capacity of our old bridges while protecting their essential features and rural character. Our mission has been to build awareness of these features, and ensure that our rural roads are well maintained so they can serve residents and businesses even as they retain their rustic charm.
Some of the programs in which the RRC is engaged with our VDOT partners include:
Major rehabilitation for selected segments: Each year, VDOT, in consultation with the Rural Roads Committee, evaluates its rural maintenance experience and selects a few roads which have been problems for a serious “makeover” that goes beyond normal care. This effort usually includes clearing excess brush and repairing banks, clearing and rebuilding ditches and culverts, and grading, resurfacing, rolling and coating the roadbed itself. The goal is to reduce the need for such frequent maintenance visits and free up resources for the care of other roads.
New materials for road surfaces: The local VDOT team is working with the agency’s Transportation Research Council in Charlottesville to develop and test new roadbed surfaces that are more suitable for a rural road surface than the current standard gravel mixture (called 21A) which was designed to be a subsurface layer for paved roads. The new mixtures promise to bind better and provide a more durable surface while preserving the road’s rural appearance and character. Several tests have been conducted on various local rural roads with promising results and more are planned. The Rural Roads Committee has been very involved in the planning and assessment of these tests. We all hope these new materials represent a better alternative than paving over any of our historic roads.
Better options for managing drainage: Damage from flowing water is the most serious problem for roads and especially so for unpaved roads. There are a variety of well-known approaches to address water problems, but our local situation also involves constrained rights of way, high banks, steep slopes and rock-filled roadbeds—adding to the challenge. VDOT, with the support of the Rural Roads Committee, is examining the experiences of other jurisdictions around the U.S. to identify useful approaches which may be applicable to our situation and to test them here.
Bridge reconstruction that preserves historic character: One of the most appealing features of Loudoun’s rural road network are its many historic bridges. While these bridges add a lot of charm, they deteriorate over time, and this tendency limits their use by heavy vehicles – and sometimes even by regular traffic. The unfortunate result has often been to completely replace the old bridge with a modern structure. But, on a variety of occasions, when the historic character of the bridge is evident and the local community has voiced its support, VDOT, with the urging of the Rural Roads Committee, has been able to apply creative engineering approaches to repair rather than replace these important and well-loved bridges. In these cases, they have successfully rebuilt the supporting structure of the old bridge so it can safely carry heavier and faster traffic while retaining its traditional appearance and features. Everyone is pleased when these historic stone arch, iron truss and early 20th century concrete road bridges have been upgraded for modern traffic rather than replaced. Good examples of such reconstruction are the John G. Lewis Memorial Bridge spanning Catoctin Creek on Featherbed Lane near Taylorstown, and the Hibbs stone arch bridge on Snickersville Turnpike. The Rural Roads Committee is working with VDOT to try to incorporate this creative approach more frequently as the need arises to upgrade local bridges.
Establishing standards for rural road quality: With the support of the Rural Roads Committee and members of the Commonwealth Transportation Board, our local VDOT team is working to develop a standards-based care program for our rural roads that will systematically assess each part of our large rural network for physical road conditions and status versus defined standards. The program will combine that data with information about traffic flows, forecasts of future demands, maintenance history and the unique features of that location to build a network-wide system for more effectively defining needs and more efficiently allocating resources.
Our historic roads and bridges are an important part of the warm and appealing character of our rural areas and also support our vibrant rural economy. The Rural Roads Committee and VDOT have forged a sound partnership over the years to ensure that these old roads provide good and safe transportation now and into the future while continuing to also be a historic treasure and unique feature of this special place. We hope to continue to work together so this critical and valuable transportation resource is effectively brought into the 21st century and will continue to serve its residents and businesses as a great example of effective and responsible preservation.
Mitch Diamond is a retired businessman and ardent preservationist who lives with his wife and a variety of animals on a historic farm very near the village of Unison. In Our Backyard is compiled by the Loudoun County Preservation and Conservation Coalition. For more information about the organization, go to loudouncoalition.org.