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Southern Railway - Bluemont Branch
Historical Details - with Predecessor Railroads
1847 – 1912

Kenneth W. McIlvoy

Based on the works of Ames W. Williams, “The Washington and Old Dominion Railroad”
and Herbert H. Harwood, “Rails to the Blue Ridge”
with extensive information provided by Bernard Berne and Paul McCray

The material that follows represents a high-level chronology of the major events associated with the establishment of the Alexandria & Harpers Ferry Railroad in 1847 until the establishment of the Washington & Old Dominion Railway in 1912.  The significant milestones are enumerated under the individual road names that were at one time or another applied to the same right-of-way across Northern Virginia. For many years and under many organizations the ultimate goal for Alexandria was to cross the Blue Ridge Mountains to access the western coal fields as well as connect down the Shenandoah Valley to capture a share of the agricultural output of the “breadbasket of Virginia.” This paper explains why neither of those objectives was achieved despite all the best of intentions. The complicated financial and geo-political issues surrounding the various machinations of the line have been eliminated so that it is easier for the reader to appreciate the history of the branch in a straight-forward, simple manner.


Alexandria Virginia Before 1847

During Colonial times the Port of Alexandria was one of only a few major shipping centers on the Eastern Seaboard.

Business was good and the prospects were promising.

Virginia had built a network of “turnpikes” fanning out from Alexandria into the agricultural heartland of the state.

All the products of that rich area moved to market over this network, of which the state was very proud and saw no need to consider alternative transportation modes such as canals and railroads.

However, many of these so-called turnpikes were little more than poorly maintained dirt roads that were impassable at certain times of the year.

No real thought had been given to bridging the larger rivers and streams, which meant that ferries and fords were part of the transportation equation.

Over time the Port of Baltimore began to grow exponentially, largely due to the access to the Ohio Valley brought on by the creation of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad.

The State of Virginia had chartered the Winchester and Potomac Railroad back in 1836 to build “up” the Shenandoah Valley to Winchester from Harper’s Ferry, and this was able to capture a goodly share of the intermountain commerce.

Because the W&P could exchange loadings with the B&O at Harper’s Ferry, the Port of Baltimore was the obvious benefactor of this Virginia-chartered line.

Concerned Alexandria business leaders felt that something needed to be done to try and restore the commerce levels to what it was in the early 19th century.

But, acting with speed and being willing to invest heavily in the future was just not in their genes.

Hence, it was not until the late 1840’s that Alexandria chose to take some modest steps to improve its steadily-deteriorating commercial picture.


Harpers Ferry Railroad (1847 - 1853)

Alexandria and Harper's Ferry Railroad (A&HF) was incorporated in 1847 by an act of the Virginia General Assembly.

A&HF was organized by a group of Alexandria merchants and bankers trying secure a share of the business then accruing to the Port of Baltimore via the B&O through Harpers Ferry.

Certain that Harper’s Ferry was the ultimate key to success, the original route plan for the A&HF was to build across Fairfax and Loudoun Counties close to Leesburg and turn north towards Harper’s Ferry.

A&HF then planned to connect with the still independent Winchester and Potomac Railroad (W&P) at Harpers Ferry to take advantage of W&P’s route “up” the Shenandoah Valley to Winchester.

But in 1848 the B&O established a connection with the W&P at Harper’s Ferry before the A&HF had turned a shovel of dirt, thereby diverting much of the Shenandoah Valley commerce into Baltimore as opposed to Alexandria.

Due in part to the negligible legislative impact that Alexandria had versus that of Baltimore and the B&O, public support of the A&HF proved difficult to arouse and promotion languished in lieu of other profitable railroad investments in the area (Orange & Alexandria Railroad and the Manassas Gap Railroad.)

The A&HF failed to meet the condition of its charter to begin construction of the line within two years.

Thus in 1849 Virginia General Assembly amended the charter so as to extend the time limit by five years.

But construction of the line did not materialize until that five year deadline too had passed.

So, in1853 the charter was amended at the urging of the Alexandria merchants and bankers to change the name to the Alexandria, Loudoun and Hampshire Railroad.


Alexandria, Loudoun & Hampshire Railroad (1853 - 1870)

The Alexandria, Loudoun & Hampshire (AL&H) not only wanted to secure a share of the Shenandoah Valley agricultural market but also hoped to reach the coal fields around Hampshire County Virginia (later WV).

As with the A&HF, the AL&H was still proposed to run as near as practicable to Leesburg.

By law it was prohibited from connecting with the B&O at any point east of Cumberland, Maryland to blunt the legislative influence of the B&O within Virginia.

More than one route was contemplated for reaching the western end of the line (wherever the western end of the line would eventually end up.)

All the proposed routes followed the valley of the Four Mile Run from Alexandria to Vienna, Falls Church and Leesburg, and through Clark’s Gap, after which they diverged and went different ways.

One of the proposed lines was to run from Clark’s Gap toward Hillsborough, through Vestal’s Gap with a short tunnel across the Blue Ridge, then south “up” the Shenandoah Valley, crossing the Shenandoah River near Berryville then continuing west to Winchester.
Another proposed  line would run from Clark’s Gap westward to Purcellville, Round Hill, Snickersville, across the mountains through the Snickersville Gap (again with a tunnel), crossing the Shenandoah River to Berryville then continue west to Winchester.

There were other proposed routings that projected various routes across Virginia and through a variety of passes going well past Winchester and into the heart of coal country near Paddy Town (later Keyser, WV), but as these were just wishful thinking they are of little merit in a meaningful chronology.

The route via Snickers Gap, with a number of subsequent variations, was the option that was chosen, but that route was not finalized until after the Civil War.

The Snickersville route would require drilling a three-quarter mile long tunnel to reach the west side of the mountains.

Despite the enthusiasm of some of the promoters, private monetary support was difficult to enlist for many of the same reasons that had plagued the A&HF.

Thus, the Commonwealth of Virginia took a 60% stake in the road and that was a reason it was able to make some progress.

Clearly much of the AL&H’s scarce resources had been wasted in fruitless surveys beyond the Blue Ridge Mountains – a place they never reached – but despite that fact a surveyed line was actually completed to the west bank of the Shenandoah River.

The money could more wisely have been expended upon the immediate construction tasks at hand to advance the road further west.

AL&H management had long desired to establish a connection with the City of Washington. But indifference by AL&H Stockholders and the almost total lack of Congressional support (due largely to the enormous political influence of the B&O) delayed action too long for it to be accomplished.

That desired connection was eventually preempted by the Alexandria and Washington Railroad in 1854, but only to the Potomac’s shoreline until a railroad was installed on the Long Bridge during the Civil War.

Actual AL&H construction didn’t begin until 1855, and because of costly physical obstructions it started at a point about five miles from Old Town Alexandria.

The section to link the Alexandria terminal at Princess and Fairfax Streets with the initial construction point west of Old Town could not be undertaken until more funds became available.

Extensive filling, trestlework, and bridges required to span the Alexandria Canal, Washington Turnpike and intervening swamp land would cost at least $50,000.

It was estimated that constructing the road to the Shenandoah River would cost at least $2 million.

But first, in order to carry the tracks as far as Clarke's Gap, $215,000 was needed immediately.

President McKenzie is quoted as saying in an Annual Report:  "Those immediately benefited by the railroad do not seem to realize its value and hold back their financial support under the belief, perhaps, that good wishes are a sufficient contribution upon their part toward its success."

By 1859 the road had been graded from Alexandria to Clarke's Gap and a single track of 52-pound rail had been laid from Alexandria to Herndon.

President McKenzie still believed that a direct AL&H link between Washington and Alexandria was vital to the success of the railroad, but since the Alexandria and Washington Railroad was already being built along the Washington Turnpike (the most logical route) he turned his attention to Georgetown as a possible alternative.

In 1860 the Alexandria Canal Company authorized the AL&H to construct a railroad on the piers of the deteriorating Aqueduct Bridge at Georgetown in return for constructing a new aqueduct and maintaining it in perpetuity, but this connection with Washington failed to develop.

Then the outbreak of War Between the States the following year forestalled any further plans for expansion.

At the start of war the AL&H was in operation only as far west as Leesburg.

Two daily trains operated between Alexandria and Leesburg with a running time of a little more than two hours.

The AL&H purchased its three original locomotives of the 4-4-0 (American) type built in 1858 and 1859.

The passenger cars were constructed locally in Alexandria.

A profitable contract with the Post Office Department for carrying mail between Alexandria and Leesburg was secured before operations began.

An increase in business just before the war began caused the AL&H to add two additional daily trains from Alexandria to Leesburg.

But, the secession of the State of Virginia on April 17, 1861, brought all construction activities on the road to an abrupt halt.

Federal troops crossed the Potomac, occupied Alexandria, and seized all the facilities, locomotives and equipment of this important railroad center, including those of the AL&H.

One of AL&H’s locomotives was seized by the USMRR. Two others had been spirited out of Alexandria by Confederate forces so they could be sent south.

Confederates operating out of Leesburg destroyed the upper sections of the railroad by burning bridges and trestles and tearing up tracks so that the line was completely useless beyond Vienna.

The section between Alexandria and Vienna, however, became an important part of the U. S. Military Railroad.

U. S. Military Railroad took over the two-story brick building in Alexandria that served both as a passenger station and general office, and also the nearby freight station, roundhouse and machine shop. Supplementary train sheds and warehouses soon sprang up to protect the contents of the many Federal supply trains arriving daily.

Shortly after the Union forces took the AL&H, a connection was established between it and the Orange and Alexandria.

The Union also installed railroad tracks on the Long Bridge across the Potomac.  Because of the delicate nature of the old bridge only light loads were allowed until an entirely new dedicated railroad bridge was built alongside the existing structure later in the war.

In 1862 a junction with the Washington and Alexandria was established at a location near the future site of Alexandria Junction in Richmond & Danville/Southern times.  Why General Haupt did not build a full wye when he had the chance to take any land he needed from the rebellious Virginia is now lost in antiquity.

While the AL&H did not see any significant amount of military action during the war years, there was much destruction of the line on the western end.

In1865 the US Military Railroad returned the partially-wrecked and worn-out railroad to its owners.

A great deal of rehabilitation and money was required to return the railroad to operating condition.

The three original A&HF locomotives were still in service at the end of the war and were returned by the USMRR

No passenger or freight cars were returned and AL&H was forced to purchase rolling stock as war surplus. There was no settlement for equipment that was taken in 1861 due to AL&H’s status as an “enemy railroad.”

Federal forces vacated the railroad's buildings in Alexandria - the general office and passenger station, freight station, and repair shops in 1866, and restored them to the railroad in good operating condition as they had been the central focus of the USMRR, and with a back-payment of rents from the time of occupation.

The AL&H’s bridges west of Vienna had all been destroyed.

About two and one-half miles of track beyond Herndon had to be replaced in order to bring daily service to Guilford Station.

To extend the track to Leesburg it was necessary to rebuild three more bridges, including the 278-foot span at Goose Creek, the longest and highest on the line.

During 1867 new passenger and freight stations were built at Leesburg and Clarke's Gap as well as water towers and turntables.

The State of Virginia, being in desperate financial straits after the war needed to liquidate its holdings in the AL&H.

Lewis McKenzie and his associates bought out Virginia’s stake in the railroad in 1867.

In 1870 the State of West Virginia authorized the AL&H to extend its railroad westward to the west bank of the Ohio River and connect with the Chesapeake and Ohio and the Baltimore and Ohio.

In keeping with yet another optimistic expansion program, the AL&H changed its name to the Washington and Ohio Railroad.

Washington & Ohio Railroad (1870 - 1882)

There were three distinct objectives for the Washington & Ohio Railroad: reach the coal fields in West Virginia, secure a share of the Shenandoah Valley agricultural market, and if possible extend into the Mid-West through connections with the B&O and the C&O.

The Virginia General Assembly ratified the extension and change of name, and required that the route westward proceed through Clarke and Frederick Counties to within less than one mile of Winchester.

In 1874 the track arrived at Purcellville and later that year at Round Hill.

The debt ridden W&O was sagging under an impossible financial burden of rebuilding from the war and trying to extend itself at the same time.

Bankruptcy inevitably ensued, and a receiver was appointed by the court in 1878.

The entire property of the W&O was sold in 1882 to a new corporation known as the Washington and Western Railroad Company.


Washington & Western Railroad (1883 - 1884)

The Washington and Western Railroad were hardly in possession of the W&O before it defaulted on the first bond in 1883.

Accordingly, W&W was once again reorganized as the Washington Ohio and Western Railroad.


Washington Ohio & Western Railroad (1884 - 1886)

In 1884 the Virginia legislature authorized the Washington, Ohio and Western Railroad Company to lease, consolidate, or connect with other railroads upon the condition that any extension of the road should be through the City of Winchester.

The WO&W then purchased three new 4-4-0 (American) type locomotives to replace or supplement the old Masons that had been operating on the line from its beginning and had been worn out with Civil War work.

At the time, the WO&W was making plans for the construction of the tunnel through the mountains under the Snickersville Gap in order to cross the Shenandoah River toward Berryville and Winchester.


Richmond & Danville Railroad (1886 - 1894)

The so-called “Gilded Age” of the late 19th century saw extensive mergers and other combinations of the myriad railroads around the country.

In 1886 the Richmond and Danville Railroad (R&D), one of the largest lines in the southeast, leased the WO&W for a term of 999 years.

The strategic purpose of the lease was to prevent the WO&W from expanding westward to connect with the N&W across the Blue Ridge and gaining access to the Northern Virginia/Washington markets and becoming a notable competitor of the R&D.

Upon acquisition by the R&D, he westward extension plans for the WO&W property were immediately shelved and forgotten.

Richmond & Danville continued to operate the line as the WO&W, and referred to it as part of the “Piedmont Airline.”

Round Hill (a town of essentially no commercial significance) became the western terminus of the line.

Shortly after the WO&W was leased to the R&D, the Richmond and West Point Terminal Railway and Warehouse Company (the holding company controlled by the Richmond and Danville) purchased the WO&W outright.

The R&D began to experience financial difficulties in 1891 when the Terminal Railway was found to have 70 high-interest mortgages/leases and was otherwise highly leveraged. They began to seek relief through the assistance of J. P. Morgan and his company in New York.

After the 1893 “financial panic” the Richmond & Danville was merged into Morgan’s new Southern Railway in 1894 along with five other railroads. Southern Railway, assumed all properties of the R&D, including the former WO&W.


Southern Railway Company (1894 - 1912)

Southern Railway took over the branch on July 1, 1894 with the assumption of the R&D.

While the line may have proven marginally profitable, the Southern Railway saw it as a strategic blockade against the incursion of the N&W.

The Spanish-American War in 1898 brought a brief period of prosperity to the line when Camp Alger was established by the War Department near Dunn Loring.

A mule depot was also established at St. Asaph Junction on the site of the Civil War remount facility.

The rails were extended approximately four miles from Round Hill to Snickersville early in 1900 in order to accommodate the increasing number of visitors to this popular summertime mountain resort area.

Prior to the Southern Railway’s arrival (and perhaps at SOU’s suggestion), Snickersville assumed the more appealing name of Bluemont, and the entire line became known as the Bluemont Branch of the Southern Railway.

The segment of the branch from Paeonian Springs to Bluemont once served an area containing a multitude of boarding houses and summer hotels frequented by Washingtonians seeking to escape from the capital’s oppressive summer heat.

Hunters and fishermen too used the railroad to reach the unspoiled woods, fields, and streams of Loudoun County, which abounded with game and fish.

President Grover Cleveland frequently came to Leesburg by train in order to try his skill with the rod.

Southern Railway continued the 1888 practice established by the Richmond & Danville of starting passenger trains for the branch in Washington at the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Baltimore and Potomac Station until the present Union Station opened in 1907.

With the opening of the new Union Station in 1907, Southern Railway shifted all Bluemont Branch passenger trains to originate and terminate there.

Shuttle trains ran between the old AL&H passenger station in downtown Alexandria and Alexandria Junction where passengers could connect to the Bluemont Branch trains to/from Washington.

The original Alexandria Junction was located west of what would in 1906 would become Potomac Yard. Alexandria Junction was relocated to the east side of Potomac Yard, and the Wye created by the new junction was used to turn the shuttle’s steam locomotives.  The original Alexandria Junction may have remained in place until 1912 when Southern removed the connection with the north-south main lines

Freight trains primarily originated in the Alexandria yards of the Southern, and after the opening of Potomac Yards in 1906, from that interchange.

The bulk of freight car loadings occurred off the branch and moved westward.

Milk and other agricultural products moved eastward in significant amounts prior to the introduction of trucking lines.

The railroad right of way along the meandering Four Mile Run (it crossed the stream eleven times between Falls Church and Alexandria), was considered to be one of the most beautiful and scenic stretches of railroad track in Virginia.

In addition to traditional steam trains, the gas-electric motor car was a novelty introduced by the Southern on the Bluemont Branch in 1911.

The Southern Railway Company ran the Branch until July 1, 1912 when the newly organized Washington and Old Dominion Railway Company leased the property from SOU.


Washington & Old Dominion Railway (1912 - 1968)

The W&OD ran the Bluemont Branch as its Bluemont Division, and the companion Great Falls and Old Dominion line as the Great Falls and Old Dominion Division.

The Alexandria facilities were not included in the lease and remained in SOU hands.

The interchange with the mainline from Washington at Alexandria Junction was also not included  and promptly removed by the Southern Railway after the lease became effective.

In retrospect, the Washington & Old Dominion never proved to be a success due to economics, mismanagement and missed opportunities.  At least three major problems that led to the lack of success were:

Discontinuing the interchange line to/from Washington, DC at Alexandria Junction.

Establishing Georgetown, and later Rosslyn as their “Washington Terminal.”

Electrifying the entire line at a time when electric interurban lines had passed their prime

All operations on the Bluemont Branch ceased in 1968 and the entire line was abandoned.


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