A Short History of the Washington and Old Dominion
with Modeling Suggestions
This article originally appeared in The Virginian Creeper, newsletter of the
Old Dominion Division, Railroad Enthusiasts, P. O. Box 50434, Arlington, VA 22205
by William Mosteller

I've lived in the Washington area for about half my life. I've been vaguely aware of the abandoned Washington and Old Dominion right-of-way for most of that time. But until a friend started talking about modeling the railroad, I didn't really know anything about it. My friend's curiosity led me to discover an interesting and complicated history. The railroad being the namesake of this newsletter, I thought I'd share a little of what I learned with you.

In thinking about the railroad, I've found it most convenient to break it into three periods I call the steam, electric, and diesel eras. They're particularly convenient when considering the modeling of the railroad, but also break a long history into more manageable pieces.

The Steam Era: 1853 - 1912

The 1800s were a period of intense growth for the young United States. Railroads heralded a society in which things happened more quickly, and where the scope of commerce grew ever wider. While the area we now call the District of Columbia was essentially unoccupied before the revolution. But two nearby colonial towns, Georgetown and Alexandria, already had long histories when our republic was founded.

At the beginning of the railroad age, the merchants in Alexandria observed that to the north and south, Baltimore and Norfolk were building railroads to the west. They quickly concluded that once these lines reached the Shenandoah Valley, farmers would no longer bring their crops to market by wagon, over dirt "roads," really mud tracks, to Alexandria. With that loss, the town's decline was inevitable. So leading citizens organized a stock company and began selling shares in a railway of their own, to the west from Alexandria.

Unfortunately, those same flint-eyed merchants were careful with their money. Shares sold, but in nowhere near the volume necessary to provide the financial strength the undertaking would truly require. The railroad did have one steady supporter, however. The laws of the time had the Commonwealth of Virginia purchase shares in a one-to-one match with other investors. Construction began, and shortly before the Civil War, the railroad had reached Leesburg, and had graded the line as far as Bluemont. In understanding the railroad, it's well to remember that this construction pre-dated the steam shovel, and was done largely by men with picks, shovels, wheelbarrows, and horse-drawn wagons.

One thing television shows us quite graphically is that infrastructure in a war zone suffers badly, and the Washington and Old Dominion was no different. As war broke out, a raiding party under the command of Robert E. Lee captured the line's three steam engines and drove them south. Amazingly, they returned intact after the war.

When I watched the television series, The Gray Ghost, I never realized that much of the action of Moseby's Raiders occurred in Northern Virginia. Of course, the scenes didn't look at all like today's Tyson's Corner. Early in the war, Moseby's Raiders destroyed a bridge just west of Vienna Station, shortening the line for the duration of the conflict. After that, they conducted further attacks on structures further west. The point of those raids remains unclear, I wonder whether they truly expected to win.

The truncated railroad was under the control of the Federal Army's military railroad command. Troops bivouacked in camps along the right-of-way, and trains move them from place to place. A plaque near the Vienna Community Center commemorates the first use of a railway in battle, near the site. A troop train moving west was set upon by Confederate raiders. The engine separated and fled east. Despite superior numbers, the raiders broke off the action, fearing that the engine would return with reinforcements. Of course, railroads would play a key part throughout the war in making it the first modern war, and by far the most deadly to that time.

After the war, the army returned the heavily damaged railroad to private hands. Resources remained meager, but they restored the line to Leesburg, and extended to Bluemont before the turn of the century. And as before, the railroad was just barely successful.

I've simplified the story by leaving out several bankruptcies, name and ownership changes. In 1894, the Southern Railway bought the line. As I read about this, I thought, "Big railroad, deep pockets, big plans!" And sure enough, management studied the line and decided to extend it. The Blue Ridge Mountains had become a tourist attraction, so they pushed the line four miles west, to the actual foothills of the mountains, convenient to the resorts. But the dream of punching through and reaching the Shenandoah remained such. This episode reminded me of a pattern that frequently occurs in business. An organization will rank possible projects in descending order of value, and fund them until the money runs out. In the big organization this project wasn't so important. Probably rightly so, the Washington and Old Dominion's physical connection to the rest of the Southern Railway was quite tenuous.  The purchase was probably a defensive measure to keep the N&W and other railroads out of Washington.  The Southern already owned the Manassas Gap Railway, that connected Washington and Alexandria with the heart of the Shenandoah Valley.

One might ask whether the railroad's original dream was ever viable, and if it remained so. Fortunately, we have a parallel case study to answer that question. Just before the turn of the century, a Wall Street Robber Baron, H. H. Rogers, became involved with a small railroad project a friend was undertaking in West Virginia. They had thought to run a line a few miles from some coal mines to existing railroads nearby. After being offered unfavorable terms by the railroads, Rogers decided to build all the way to Norfolk. He was rich and experienced enough to do just that. The Virginian Railway was completed in 1910, and Rogers promptly died. However, his railroad continued for the next half century, like a perpetual motion machine, investing heavily where necessary, and making plenty of money. Meanwhile, the Washington and Old Dominion continued to barely cling to life.

Modeling Suggestions - During this period, the railroad had several names, none the name we now use. Decals are probably only available for the last name, Southern Railway. The railroad began with large driver 4-4-0s and period freight and passenger equipment. More modern 4-4-0s remained to the end, and a 2-6-0 and two 2-8-0s joined them. Various manufacturers' "old time" equipment would be suitable.

The Electric Era: 1912 - 1941

Two investors had built a very successful electric railway, the Great Falls and Old Dominion, whose route remains visible as Dominion Drive today. They decided to expand their operations and success by adding the Washington and Old Dominion, and electrifying it. (Recently, I've been reading proposals for transit service to Dulles Airport. I'm impressed at how much harder we study such projects today than people did then.) While the Great Falls line was quite busy, the newly acquired line lived up to its nickname. Its slower pace never justified the expense of electrification. Worse yet, in their eagerness to expand, the investors leased the line from the Southern on very unfavorable terms.

The railroad continued to operate, hand to mouth, for years. Bridge reconstruction in 1934 resulted in their giving up rail access to Washington (the edge of Georgetown) in exchange for a terminal in Rosslyn. Passenger traffic, never large, suffered. I believe this move was particularly unfortunate, although management could not have seen that at the time. Alex Mayes wrote about the Chicago, South Shore and South Bend interurban in the February 1998 (Volume 9, Number 6) issue of The Virginia Creeper. The line's survival provides an interesting parallel. It was one of three Insull-owned interurbans that served Chicago. Its downtown terminal is the Illinois Central Randolph Street station. The other two interurbans reached Chicago over the Elevated. I've always believed that better access to downtown contributed to the South Shore's amazing survival.  They lost the Rosslyn terminal building to Marriott (for a Hot Shoppes restaurant) in 1939.

Modeling Suggestions - Along the right-of-way, we see electric cars, interurbans, box motors, and electric locomotives. Some are home built, others are typical of the era. The current name appeared in 1934. The decals I'm selling are appropriate starting with this era.

The Diesel Era: 1941 - 1968

Just before World War II, the equipment bought for electrification was virtually exhausted. Management replaced it with diesels borrowed from the Southern. As their passenger equipment was self-propelled coaches, they ceased passenger service, never a money maker. They reinstated it once war broke out, but only for the duration of hostilities.

The post-war growth of the national capital area had profound effects on the railroad, but they never figured out how to benefit from it. Highway construction in Rosslyn in 1962 meant the loss of remaining facilities there, and even less convenient access to downtown. They never resumed passenger service, despite rapid growth of the population along the right-of-way in Northern Virginia.

This growth resulted in a less tolerant local government attitude toward the railroad. They made it difficult for potential new customers to build along the right-of-way. The residential housing boom made the railroad's neighbors unenthusiastic toward having industries nearby. Larger railroads have the power to fight such local meddling, but a small one does not.

Two major projects held real potential for growth. The line was a natural to supply construction materials for Dulles Airport, and did carry a small amount of freight for the project. But that traffic represented a tiny fraction of the total materials used. A planned large power plant project might have meant that the Washington and Old Dominion would have become a coal hauling railroad after all. The Chesapeake and Ohio bought the railroad on the strength of the project. In the event, however, Maryland won the power plant, after a major political battle. I believe that the C&O owned the Washington and Old Dominion, the South Shore, and Staten Island Rapid Transit, simultaneously. What an odd collection of electric properties!

As the 1960s began, the end was near. We can understand the impact of the absence of passenger service had by considering the Chicago and Northwestern's commuter service in Chicago. The C&NW had purchased a fleet of bi-level commuter cars. Thanks to the productivity aids of the new cars, the C&NW made money on their commuter service. The lack of commuter service denied the Washington and Old Dominion a political constituency, the commuters, who might have supported survival. But the lack of access to a downtown terminal made such service impractical. After a long fight before the Interstate Commerce Commission, the railroad closed forever.

Modeling Suggestions - As the electric equipment wore out, GE 44-ton and later 70-ton diesels replaced it. At the end, diesels included a B&O Alco S2, C&O Alco S1, and EMD SW1. Models of these locomotives are available from various manufacturers, including brass importers. Freight equipment was mainly off road equipment typical of the period, various gas-electric cars handled passenger service. Bachmann doodlebug might do well here.

General Modeling Suggestions

The railroad followed the nap of the earth, and used the cheapest materials, including very light rail. Code 70 or lighter (standard HO-scale track is code 100) could represent this. Plenty of inclines and declines, and very light bridges of various types.

Since at the end of the story, the hero dies, and it's hand to mouth before then, none of the real eras appeal to me. I'd prefer a layout based on a survival strategy. Here are two possibilities.

Alternate Reality I - Reach the West - The W&OD's problem was that it never reached the west. That jeopardized its survival from the start. Had it reached the Shenandoah valley, it would have been very busy hauling produce over the mountains. Had it reached West Virginia, it would have hauled coal as well. Both possibilities demand a rebuilt W&OD, with fewer grades, heavier rail and bridges, and beefier locomotives.

Alternate Realities II - C&O Wins the Bet - Suppose they actually built the power plant the C&O bought the railroad in hopes of serving. The railroad must rebuild the part that serves the power plant, as described above. The two contrasting divisions might be even more interesting than the previous alternative.

Alternate Realities III - by Richard Lasater - The Bluemont line is extended to Winchester with a tunnel at Snickers Gap. I've got a 1900 Rand McNally Atlas (neat maps of countries like Bosnia and Montenegro) which has maps of major railroads. The one for the Southern Railway has a dotted line from Bluemont to Winchester.

- The Rosslyn Connecting Railroad track is bought from the RF&P, allowing W&OD trains to access Potomac Yard and Washington Union Station from Rosslyn.

- The Great Falls Division is extended to Harpers Ferry, Shepherdstown, Sharpsburg and Williamsport. Freight can be interchanged with the Western Maryland in Williamsport and passenger trains will use the Hagerstown & Fredrick to reach Hagerstown. Trackage rights are over the N&W Potomac River bridge at Shepherdstown. (I think that this is a magnificent bridge which would make a great model as the center of a layout.)

- Completion of the Pittsburg & West Virginia Rwy. into Connellsville, PA and establishment of the Alphabet Route would greatly swell potential traffic. If the PRR electrification to Enola was extended to Hagerstown, this route could be a bypass around Washington and the Long Bridge.

- This should be run as heavy traction, using the built but never used PRR L-6A 2-D-2 electrics for coal drags and New Haven style double ended 4-C-C-4 electric express locomotives. The D&RGW had two ministreamliners (The Prospector) which were ultimately stored during WWII and returned to Budd for scrapping. Take out the diesel prime movers and equip them with pantographs. No models of the trainsets are currently available, but I think that someone is thinking of getting them made. There is now an available HO model of the New Haven's Comet, which could also be electrified. You could update the locomotive fleet with Virginian rectifiers, GE New Haven EP-5 rectifiers,and GE PRR style E-44s.

- This could ultimately become a Division of the Western Maryland, with the original W&OD trackage becoming a commuter line like the South Shore.

Richard Lasater Raleigh,NC


The Fairfax County Public Library keeps all of its Washington and Old Dominion materials in the Virginia Room of the main library in Fairfax City. Here are the two sources I read to prepare this article, Williams is available from the Arlington Historical Society and area museums like the Freedman's House in Vienna:

Harwood, Herbert H. Jr., Rails to the Blue Ridge, 2000, ISBN: 0-615-11453-9, Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority, 5400 Ox Road, Fairfax Station, VA 22039.  Also believed available at Meadowlark Gardens shop in Vienna.

Williams, Ames, The Washington and Old Dominion Railroad, 1970, Arlington Historical Society, Inc., P. O. Box 402, Arlington, VA 22210.

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