A W&OD railcar in Herndon, Virginia by BAR photography licensed under Creative Commons.

Today, the Washington & Old Dominion (W&OD) is a paved trail used for fun and commuting across Northern Virginia. Of course, originally the Washington & Old Dominion was a railroad — one with a long and convoluted history that helped form Dunn Loring, Reston, Herndon, Sterling, Ashburn, and other communities that still exist to this day.

What we commonly call the W&OD was the last in a series of name changes and corporate reorganizations of the rail line that originally ran from Alexandria to the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Loudoun County. Originally, Alexandria businessmen built the line to compete for trade against the much larger coastal ports of Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Richmond. The line that became the W&OD would end up fostering many suburban communities along its tracks.

Next stop, Dunn Loring and Wiehle

The immediate corporate predecessor of the W&OD was a steam railroad called the Washington, Ohio & Western. In 1886 it was leased by the Richmond & Danville Railroad, a rapidly growing system in the South controlled by famed financier J. P. Morgan. The Richmond & Danville immediately began improving the track and infrastructure.

It built new stations, rebuilt track and bridges, and brought new locomotives and cars to the line. Passenger trains, which once ran from a terminal in Alexandria, were rerouted into Washington. (You can see some videos here.) They turned off the line at Alexandria Junction and crossed the Potomac River on the Long Bridge. Trains then terminated at the Baltimore & Potomac station located at 6th and B streets NW, where the National Gallery of Art stands today.

The Richmond & Danville increased train service along the line, and land speculators arrived to begin selling plots to new buyers. Several businessmen appeared, including General William Dunn, George B. Loring, and the Philadelphia banker Carl Wiehle. Dunn and Wiehle bought 6,449 acres of land together and divided the plot between themselves, with Wiehle taking the tract north of the railroad and Dunn the tract south of it. Dunn also bought 600 acres of land in eastern Fairfax County and decided to construct a town on his new land.

The Loring Land and Improvement Company founded the town Dunn Loring in 1887, making it Northern Virginia’s first planned community that had the railroad as its centerpiece. The town was planned around the station, with streets running parallel to the tracks. However, Dunn died shortly after founding it, and plans stagnated.

Yet, by the turn of the century, the community had grown. The US Army built Camp Alger nearby to ready soldiers for service in the Spanish-American War. President William McKinley rode the train to Dunn Loring to inspect troops prior to their departure.

Passenger cars lined up and ready to transport 
soldiers at Camp Alger in 1898. It was located around and south of the Bluemont Branch of the Southern Railway.

Carl Wiehle went further and designed his community to be what we consider a modern suburb. He envisioned people would buy homes in the town, enjoy their free time there in large parks and other centralized recreational attractions, and ride the train into Washington for work. His town was named Wiehle, but his idea didn’t take off immediately, and it stagnated in part due to a serious economic depression called the Panic of 1893. He died in 1901 having only built a few homes.

His family sold the land to A. Smith Bowman, who built a whiskey distillery on the site and operated it into the 1960s. Much later, in 1927, the area would be named Sunset Hills. In 1961 the land would be sold to Robert E. Simon, who used some of the proceeds his family earned from the sale of Carnegie Hall. His new project was named Reston, and he planned essentially what Carl Wiehle had envisioned 60 years earlier.

A rural station owned by the Smiths.

The Richmond & Danville Railroad carried commuters and vacationers

By 1893, the R&D was running four passenger trains daily, two between Washington and Round Hill, one between Washington and Leesburg, and one between Washington and Herndon. These were timed to essentially be commuter trains. Eastbound trains arrived in Washington before 9 am and westbound trains left after 4 pm, according to the 1893 timetable.

In 1894 the Richmond and Danville was reorganized by J.P. Morgan into the Southern Railway. The Southern was a behemoth and had very deep pockets. Its main line stretched from Washington to Atlanta, and branches went to just about every other city in the South. The Southern Railway called the Washington, Ohio & Western their Bluemont Branch.

Southern Railway route map from 1895.

The overall character of Northern Virginia was rural and largely agrarian. In the 1890s this bucolic setting served to provide the railroad with another source of revenue: tourism. As we all know, summer in Washington is dominated by heat and humidity. Even in modern times this can be seemingly unbearable. In the days before air conditioning, it was literally unbearable for many people.

Those who could afford to do so would leave town during the summer, escaping the heat, the smell and insects. They would return in the fall when conditions were better. Land speculators sold plots to people for their “summer cottages” and advertised all the supposed health benefits that the country life could provide: clean air, fresh water, and peace and quiet.

Many other people took the train for day or weekend trips to get away from the city. Others eventually bought properties for themselves and retreated to them when the summer heat was at its worst.

Enter the trolleys: The Great Falls & Old Dominion

In the 1880s, electricity use soared as production means and transmission of that electricity became easier and cheaper. It is also during this time that another type of rail transportation became prevalent in the United States. Cities had been using animal-drawn carts and omnibuses for urban transport. They soon switched to electric powered trolleys. Washington had several different companies that built electric-powered trolley systems, which radiated out of the city in all directions.

W&OD map, 'Rails to the Blue Ridge,' by H. Harwood.

One of these companies was the Great Falls & Old Dominion Railway. The GF&OD built a line from Rosslyn (extended to Georgetown by crossing the Potomac on the old Aqueduct Bridge), through northern Arlington County, towards a terminus on the Potomac River at Great Falls. There the railroad built Great Falls Park. People wanting a getaway could ride the trolley and spend the day picnicking, dancing, hiking, singing, and socializing.

The GF&OD line. Image by the author.

In 1902 the GF&OD was purchased by John Roll McLean, who owned the Washington Post and the Washington Gas Light Company, and Stephen Benton Elkins, a timber and coal baron, former Secretary of War and senator from West Virginia. By 1906 the railroad was operating, and by 1907 it carried over a million and a half passengers. The owners sold land along the trolley route for new towns, hoping to entice people to buy homes and settle. It worked, as communities dotted the trolley line. The largest town still remaining bears the name of one of the founders: McLean.

Diagram of DC streetcar routes. Image by SDC licensed under Creative Commons.

The GF&OD ran hourly service between Georgetown and Great Falls. On the eastern end, the GF&OD provided a direct connection with the Washington streetcars. The terminal was at 36th Street and M Street, approximately where the present gas station and the Exorcist Stairs are. By 1908 the entire line to Great Falls had two parallel tracks which made frequent service possible.


Throughout Northern Virginia, growth continued unabated during the Gilded Age. New residents moved in, and rode the trains from home to work. Over on the Bluemont Branch, passenger trains and milk trains plied the line between Bluemont and Washington, with traffic moving to the then-newly constructed Union Station in 1906.

Vienna station in 1909.

Freight traffic was routed to the then-new Potomac Yard, which interestingly was constructed under the main line. The main line crossed over Potomac Yard on a long trestle.

A W&OD train crossing over Route 1 to get to the Potomac Yards in Alexandria.

However, by this time the Southern Railway was losing interest in the Bluemont Branch. Freight traffic was light, and little revenue came from the line’s operation. A few years later in 1911, the Southern Railway concluded a deal with McLean and Elkins to lease the entire Bluemont Branch.

Read Part Two of this series tomorrow.

Gregg Otten is a civil servant, a transportation aficionado, a history buff, and an amateur chef. He has lived in the Washington region since 1982. He graduated from American University, and currently resides in the West End of Alexandria, Virginia.