Our Local Railroad Heritage

The railroad has long been influential in the growth and development of this area. From the Orange & Alexandria Railroad Company to the mighty Norfolk Southern, nearly 150 years of railroading have been recorded in the annals of area history. The route from Washington southward, and from Manassas Yard westward, Has remained virtually the same for nearly 150 years. Of course there has been some change, but one can see the railroad operate on a route that has endured the test of time. It stands in testimony to an ideal, a way of life, which has played an essential part in forming our nation's history.

Early History

Though the railroad era dawned as early as 1811 in Virginia, it was not until over thirty years later that the idea of rail transportation surfaced in this area. Toward the late 1840's a small group of enterprising businessmen from Culpeper conceived the idea of constructing a railroad from Gordonsville to Alexandria. These entrepreneurs sought a cheaper and more efficient transportation alternative to turnpikes for moving wheat to coastal markets. A charter for the Orange & Alexandria Railroad Company (O&A) was obtained from the Virginia General Assembly in March, 1848. The final route was selected on December 28, 1849, and construction began early the following year. By October 1851 the railroad reached Tudor Hall (now called Manassas), and was officially completed to Gordonsville in March 1854. An 8.9 mile branch line was also constructed between Calverton and Warrenton.

Alexandria was chosen as operating headquarters for the O&A, and a variety of railroad facilities were built to run and maintain the road. In addition to a roundhouse the complex also contained a locomotive repair shop, a large freight house, and a rail yard. The first locomotive ordered and delivered to the O&A was the first manufactured in 1851 by the Alexandria firm of Smith & Perkins. The 'Orange', was a 9-ton engine intended for construction work on the road. This company would continue making equipment for area railroads until suspending operations in 1855. By October 1, 1854 O&A records listed 7 locomotives (manufactured by Smith & Perkins), 3 passenger cars, 110 freight house cars, 42 gondola cars, 1 iron powder car, 15 dumping cars, 3 lumber trucks, and 12 lever & small trucks.

Manassas Gap Railroad (MG) followed the O&A in conception. The company was chartered on March 9, 1850 just as the O&A began construction. A route was planned through Manassas Gap near the town of Strasburg into the Shenandoah Valley. Fertile fields of inland farms could then be linked with the ports at Alexandria. Tudor Hall was chosen for the connecting point with the O&A and the junction of the two railroads became known as Manassas Junction.

Freight traffic varied from year to year. Eastbound trains carried wheat, flour, corn, livestock, apples, and butter. Westbound trains hauled plaster, guano, coal, salt, lumber, liquor, and fish.

The MG reached its peak toward the end of 1854. Trackage included a total of 65.77 miles of main line and 2.84 miles of sidings. The railroad's roster listed 9 locomotives (Smith & Perkins), 5 passenger cars, 3 baggage cars, 63 flat or gondola cars, 15 gravel cars, and 25 service cars. In addition to a wooden car and engine house built at Stasburg, 17 station buildings, 5 water stations, 2 dwellings, and 2 turntables could be found along the route.

The construction of the Orange & Alexandria and Manassas Gap Railroads was conceivably the greatest advancement in this area's history. Towns were established and surrounding areas started to see the effects as stores, blacksmith shops, and other businesses indicative of that period appeared.

The Unfinished Railroad

Although the Manassas Gap Railroad was profitable, they found the annual rental fee of $35,000 to use O&A track from the Junction to Alexandria too costly. The Company purchased property at Jones Point on the Potomac River and drew up plans to construct their own line via a 35 mile route from Gainesville to Bull Run at Sudley Mill, through Fairfax County, around Annandale to Cameron Valley, and then to their newly purchased property at Jones Point. Authorization was obtained from the Virginia General Assembly in 1853 and construction began in 1854. Though half the grading and masonry work was completed by 1858, the Company found itself needing an additional $900,000 to complete the route. Prospects dimmed and work ceased. Although the rail line would never be completed, it did however gain prominence during the Second Battle of Manassas. Remnants of the unfinished railroad grade can be found in the Manassas Battlefields.

Civil War Years

From the viewpoint of the railroads the Civil War era came early and stayed late. The country's new born form of transportation proved to be very useful to military operations. Moving troops by rail became part of military tactics. Military supplies were carried and distributed by rail. Temporary rail lines were built to supply military needs. Even the operation of the railroads became a military specialty, carried out with precision by the United States Military Railroad.

Manassas Junction became the focus of activities on July 21, 1861 in the war's first major conflict between Union and Confederate forces. In what would later become known as the Second Battle of Manassas, the Manassas Gap Railroad transported nearly 10,000 Confederate reinforcements from Piedmont (now Delaplane) to the fighting at Manassas. This was the first move of its kind. With the aid of the railroad the South secured its first major victory of the war.

Over the next five years, the Orange & Alexandria and the Manassas Gap Railroads were stressed to the point of near breakdown. Their location on the edge of Washington's defense perimeter resulted in a strong focus on the two railroads by commanders on both sides. Laden with military traffic, dismantled and divided between the Confederacy and the Union, fought over, ransacked and destroyed; the railroads continued to operate. In a letter to stockholders John S. Barbour, then president of the O&A wrote:

"The annals of railroad operations do not anywhere exhibit examples of such continuous laborious service as have been performed for months together by men who have run the trains to and from Manassas Station, and transacted the business of the road at that place. Without a house to shelter them from the weather, poorly supplied with necessary food, and the impossibility of obtaining assistance for their relief, by day and by night they have stood to their posts without complaint and performed an amount of work scarcely to be conceived as within the compass of human efforts."


The end of military activities in mid-1865 was only the beginning of an epic struggle for survival by the railroads. Economies of the surrounding areas they served were in disarray. The Orange & Alexandria line was basically intact though most of its rolling stock was either destroyed or scattered throughout the south. Many of the line's bridges were left only as temporary south. The line's bridges, having been destroyed and rebuilt many times, were left in a temporary condition. The Manassas Gap Railroad was in much worse shape. Most of its main track had been taken up or destroyed. Bridges, too, were gone or only of a temporary nature.

With steady effort the Orange & Alexandria and the Manassas Gap Railroads regrouped. The Alexandria shops were still intact and returned to the company. In 1867, recognizing the difficulties it faced as an independent company, the Manassas Gap Railroad merged with the Orange & Alexandria to form a new company - the Orange, Alexandria & Manassas Railroad Company.

Over the next twenty-two years the railroad would merge and bear the names of a variety of different railroads: The Virginia & North Carolina Railroad from 1872 to 1873; the Washington City, Virginia Midland & Great Southern Railroad from 1873 to 1881; the Virginia Midland Railroad from 1881 to 1894. Finally on June 18, 1894 the Virginia Midland Railroad became part of the mighty Southern Railway.

Pressing Towards the Future

Under unified management the Southern Railway began a program of competitive modernization that was to keep its railroad in the forefront of railroading practice. Over the next ninety years the railroad moved to acquire and develop as much territory as it could. With the South changing and progressing the mighty railroad had the vision to keep up with the progress. For years to come the great steam trains would rule Southern's rails. Mikados, Mountains, and the wonderful green and gold Pacifics would head some of the finest freight and passenger trains ever.

One of Southern Railway's first innovations was the 1891 inauguration of the Vestibuled Limited. This train brought passenger rail travel to the forefront of railroading practice. Doing away with the open-end platform passenger cars of the day, Southern introduced new coaches with enclosed platforms. This allowed passengers to comfortably pass between cars without encountering the environment. Dining cars were introduced eliminating the need to make meal stops, and dangerous outdated oil lamps were replaced by gas and electric ones.

Another giant step to improve service on the division was the installation of a second main line between Washington, D.C. and Orange, Va. The project took a total of three years starting in 1901 and ending in 1904. Along with the double track certain curvatures and grades were reduced improving operating efficiency and running times. By 1917 the double track was in place and operating all the way to Charlotte, N.C. Potomac Yard, built under the auspices of five railroads to include Southern Railway, Baltimore & Ohio, Chesapeake & Ohio, Pennsylvania, and the Richmond, Fredricksburg & Potomac, was opened for operations on August 1, 1906. Potomac Yard quickly became the main freight distribution point for the entire east coast.

For decades to come, the Division witnessed the splendid show of trains of the Southern Railway. It seemed as though it would never end - but, it did. By 1953 the noble steam locomotives which had been such an meaningful part of society dropped their fires for the last time. New diesel electrics commanded the rails now. Passenger trains declined throughout the 1970's yielding to the newly formed Amtrak. Though Southern was one of the last railroads in America to continue its own passenger service, lost revenue finally shut it down in 1979. The Crescent, once the epitome of rail passenger travel now belonged to Amtrak also. This would officially bring an end to an era.

As economic circumstances changed throughout the 1980's, the railroad business was forced away from its traditional practices. Freight operations at Potomac Yard were steadily reduced and finally came to a halt. New methods of handling freight in trailer-vans and container boxes came into use to better compete with the trucking industry. One major implementation was the Staggers Act of 1980 which was responsible for deregulating railroad rate-making and simplifying the process of abandoning unused routes. It also allowed for large mergers. Such a merger occurred in 1982 with the joining of the Southern Railway and the Norfolk & Western to form the Norfolk Southern Railway. Mergers such as this produced railroads that were willing to change the time-honored practices of traditional railroading. Norfolk Southern Corporation was one of these.

Present Day Railroading

Norfolk Southern had an agenda for success. Turning their attention to improving property; modernization and eliminating of facilities and routes took place everywhere. NS used and employed technology which would make it one of the most efficient railroads in the nation. Intermodal haulage such as 'trailer on flat car' (TOFC), RoadRailerTM (TOR or truck on rail), and double-stack container trains was employed. NS was not afraid of change nor unwilling to make decisions directed toward success. This is why Norfolk Southern would become the third largest and one of the most innovative railroads in the business.

Focus was turned on the old branch line between Manassas Junction and Front Royal. With the North East Corridor discontinuing freight traffic after a collision between an Amtrak and a freight train, new routes were sought for moving trains. The old Manassas Gap line was improved and put to use. Today this route sees much Division traffic heading for the Northeastern United States.

The 8.9 mile Warrenton Branch was reviewed and lost most of its track. A 3.1 mile section of track remains servicing local businesses.

The Division today delineates railroading at its best. Traffic consists of through and local freights, intermodal (TOFC's, COFC's, TOR's, and double stacks), passenger, and commuter trains.

Commuter Service

Though the idea of the Virginia Rail Express was initially examined in 1984, it wasn't until much later that commuter trains serviced the area. VRE service began in June 1992 and was quickly embraced by the public. With the Washington Metropolitan area, especially the 66 and 95 corridors rapidly becoming congested, commuter rail service has become a vital form of transportation. With an emphasis on flexibility and a sincere desire to serve its patrons, VRE continually endeavors to carry out programs focused on improving their role in the transportation industry.

Look upon our area as a panorama of railroading history. Walk the Unfinished Railroad grade in Manassas Battlefield Park and reflect on the men who gave their sweat and blood to progress. Drive to Delaplane and imagine 10,000 Confederate soldiers boarding railroad cars bound for battle. This trip would be the first such in America and the last for many of the soldiers. Venture to Bealeton and catch the Amtrak Crescent roaring through the country side, a reminder of the great Southern steam engines which carried passengers to the uttermost parts of our land. Finally, let the herald of the mighty Norfolk Southern Railroad evoke the feeling of change and progress. This is today's railroad. It represents the long hard evolutionary struggle which the iron horse and the railroad have endured. It stands as a testimony to an ideal, a way of life, which has existed throughout our nation's history.

From the Orange & Alexandria to the mighty Norfolk Southern, almost 150 years later, the fine tradition of railroading continues.