By Paul McCray
The Washington & Old Dominion Railroad, known as Loudoun’s “Main Street,” survived for 100 years since 1859. But by the early 1960s, it seemed inevitable the W&OD would be abandoned.
Purchased by the C&O Railroad Company in 1954 for a business opportunity that didn’t pan out, the W&OD limped along with local freight revenues and occasional jobs such as hauling stone and sand for the construction of the Capital Beltway and Dulles Airport. However, trucking companies were steadily chipping away at W&OD’s business. With its revenue dwindling, the railroad was compelled to defer necessary improvements, repairs and maintenance. In the early 1960s, anticipating abandonment of the W&OD, the Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority studied the line as a location for the planned Metro Rail, but did not follow through on this possibility.
The railroad was finally shut down in August 1968. Unlike many abandoned railroads, the W&OD right-of-way remained nearly intact, as Virginia Electric Power Company wanted the corridor to bring electric lines to the expanding communities to the west in Northern Virginia. VEPCO purchased the rail line from Alexandria to Purcellville, except for a short section in Arlington acquired by the Virginia Department of Transportation for the new I-66 highway.
Once VEPCO took ownership of the line, it sought others to assume responsibility for the train stations. In Purcellville and Hamilton, stations were sold to nearby milling companies. The Leesburg passenger station had no interested parties, so it was burned by the fire department. The Leesburg Freight Station was moved a block north to become part of a retail center—Market Station. Herndon took ownership of its station, and in Vienna, a model railroading group leased the depot. The small Sunset Hills Station in Reston remained untouched.
Not long after the last train ran, lobbying began for other uses of the 100-foot-wide, 45-mile-long property. Some wanted it to become a bus route or light rail line to keep it in use for transportation.
Another group interested in using the W&OD called for it to become a public trail, a use which started informally once the tracks were removed. The W&OD Railroad ran through eight different political jurisdictions including three counties, four towns and one city, so the task of creating a single trail with uniform standards was imposing. Fortunately, nine years earlier the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority (now NOVA Parks) had been formed, and by 1973 included as members the counties of Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun and the cities of Alexandria, Falls Church and Fairfax.
To gauge public interest in a multi-use trail, NOVA Parks entered into an agreement with VEPCO and Falls Church in 1974 to build a one-mile section through the city. Its immediate popularity with walkers and cyclists demonstrated the W&OD would be a well-used trail.
Attempts to convince VEPCO to donate an easement for a trail failed, so by 1977 NOVA Parks agreed to buy the railroad right-of-way from Alexandria line to Purcellville. The purchase price for nearly 45 miles of property was $3.6 million, with VEPCO (now Dominion Energy) retaining an easement for its power lines.
Building the trail was not going to be easy, as much of the line had deteriorated in the 10 years since it was a railroad. The original route of the railroad was along or across many creeks, and erosion had created gaps which stood in the way of construction. All the creek bridges had been removed, so fourteen new structures had to be built.
Because this project was very expensive, NOVA Parks had to be creative to fund the purchase and construction. The six member counties and cities budgeted capital dollars but fell short of what was needed. Federal and State grants helped bridge the difference, and underground utilities locating along the trail generated revenue to help with expenses.
There were also many encroachments from neighboring businesses that had to be removed for the trail to move forward. In some places, nearby businesses moved parking and storage areas onto the abandoned rail property; in residential areas, more than 30 personal and community gardens had been started, some of which had to be relocated. NOVA Parks created a program that allowed neighbors to continue gardening beside the trail.
Over a 10-year period, construction came in phases at a steady pace, and in 1988, the trail was established from Falls Church to Purcellville. To keep the trail continuous, bridges were needed over the Capital Beltway and I-66; both were provided by the Virginia Department of Transportation. In later years, 10 new highway bridge projects separated trail traffic from crossing major roads, with more coming in the future.
The W&OD Trail was originally planned as a paved trail for cyclists and walkers but from Vienna west to Purcellville, there were many horseback riders living along or near the trail. Plans were changed to include a parallel rock dust trail for horses west of Vienna. While horses could ford most of the streams along the trail, bridges at Goose, Sycolin and Tuscarora creeks were concrete decked structures. A horse-owning neighbor of the trail met NOVA Parks staff at a concrete plant and selected the concrete treatment which would provide the greatest traction for horseshoes.
The first section of trail was built six feet wide, but it was soon clear it needed to be wider and most sections were expanded to 10 feet. Because the trail has become so popular, in 2021 NOVA Parks began rebuilding busy areas to two trails—one for cyclists and another for foot traffic.
The one-hundred-foot-wide right-of-way of the W&OD is also a long green corridor and in sections such as inside the Beltway, it offers some of the only wildlife habitat to be found in that area.
Today, the W&OD Trail runs through or near dozens of communities, schools, community centers, and shopping areas. With connections to over a hundred miles of other trails, it’s the backbone of trail systems in Northern Virginia. There are even three Metro stations within walking distance from the W&OD. Originally envisioned for recreation, the trail is also now a walking and cycling commuting route helping to take cars off the crowded roads. The W&OD is still fulfilling its original mission as a transportation corridor … just not as its founders envisioned.
Learn more in the program “History of the W&OD Trail” presented at the Purcellville Library on Oct. 1, at 1 p.m. Paul McCray, NOVA Parks historian, tells the story of the transition of the railroad to the current W&OD trail. McCray is a recipient of the 2011 Thomas Balch Library’s Loudoun History Award.
Paul McCray, a lifelong resident of Northern Virginia, has lived in Loudoun County for 30 years. He managed various NOVA Parks in Loudoun, including the W&OD Railroad Regional Park for 20 years. He is devoted to preserving W&OD history, and has collected almost 2,000 images of the railroad, and hundreds of original documents. He continues to work parttime for NOVA Parks as a historian researching and telling the stories of park history. McCray is a 2011 recipient of Thomas Balch Library’s History Award. In Our Backyard is compiled by the Loudoun Bounty Preservation and Conservation Coalition. For more information about the organization, go to loudouncoalition.org.