Strolling along the Washington & Old Dominion Trail exposes visitors to more than just a pathway to good health and recreation. The nearly 45-mile-long trail that makes up the Washington & Old Dominion Railroad Regional Park tells the story of Northern Virginia itself, from its agricultural roots, to war, and its rise as a bustling area rivaling the District of Columbia.
It began in 1859 as a short-line railroad called the Alexandria, Loudoun & Hamilton, built to shuttle coal and other much-needed supplies from western Virginia to Alexandria. When the Civil War arrived, the rail line played a significant role.
“The Battle of Vienna, about a month before the Battle of First Manassas or Bull Run, is generally considered the first use of military troops by train in any war around the world,” says Park Manager Karl Mohle. But like other railroads in the South, it suffered extensive damages, too.
In ensuing years, the line changed names and hands several times before Washington Post owner John McLean partnered with industrialist and congressman Stephen Benton Elkins to take it over in the early 1900s. They renamed their fledgling train the Washington & Old Dominion. Despite their previous business successes, however, these industry-minded men couldn’t shield the W&OD from mismanagement, the Great Depression and the eventual march of progress.
The automobile and paved highways freed residents from the constraints of distance and the limits of public transportation. For the first time, they could drive to western Virginia, where sparkling new resorts beckoned. With no freight to carry and no passengers to fill its cars, the train ceased operation on Aug. 27, 1968.
Shortly thereafter, the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority stepped in, answering the community’s call for a park.
“In the late ’60s and early ’70s, there wasn’t much in the way of recreation,” says Paul McCray, W&OD historian and former park manager. “There were playgrounds here and there and the YMCAs for basketball, but there wasn’t a whole lot to do. We all rode our bikes on the street, but that wasn’t always safe or easy. People thought this could become a place to ride bikes and go for long distances.”
Recreational equestrians stepped forward, too. With the dwindling number of farms in the area, they wanted a quiet trail on which to ride their horses.
Through grants and fundraisers, the park authority purchased the land bit by bit until it stitched together a park. The first segment opened in Falls Church in 1974; the rest in 1982. It was one of the first railroads to be converted into a trail, launching a national movement that—because of the work of the Rails to Trails Conservancy—turned thousands of abandoned railroad tracks into natural corridors.
Today, the footpath stretches between Purcellville and Shirlington, passing through Leesburg, Herndon, Vienna and Falls Church in between. Along the way, the scenery changes like a timeline of Northern Virginia’s history told through a slideshow—pastoral farms giving way to Rockwell-esque suburbs with rushing streams and finally to urban centers dense with tall glass buildings.
“There are certain portions on the eastern section that are literally a couple miles from D.C., but you wouldn’t think you were in a heavily urban area,” says Mohle. Amblers have spotted wild turkey, turtles and nonpoisonous black rat snakes on treks. “This takes people to places they maybe don’t see on a normal basis,” adds McCray.
Thanks to preservation efforts by locals, glimpses of the locomotive’s story dot the track. Five stations—Vienna, Reston, Herndon, Hamilton and Purcellville—remain, some virtually unchanged since they were built, others serving as museums to a forgotten time. Joggers, inline skaters and cyclists whiz by antique rail cars brilliantly restored to their former glory, reminders of the trail’s past life.
Over time, the pathway has become a beloved amenity, with amblers picnicking on grassy knolls nearby, barbecuing and even taking side trips to Colonial towns like Leesburg. Others have more unusual experiences, like marriage proposals and even births. “I’ve always said the trail is like a reflection of the communities along the way and a reflection of life,” says McCray. “We really see a little of everything out there.
“It’s so important to peoples’ lives … and it’s free,” he adds. “How many parks used by millions each year are totally free? It’s one of the best bargains for people in the area.”