City of Alexandria, VA
Page updated Dec 6, 2010 9:18 PM
Train was Buck Rogers item just 100 years ago
April 27, 1995
Last week I started discussing President Lincoln’s railroad car, which was built by the U.S. Military Railroad (USMRR) between 1863 and 1865 in Alexandria. But what events led up to the manufacture of this rail car in our town? With the decreased importance of trains in our lives today, it is difficult to imagine how new and significant they were in the 1860s.
The first rail line constructed in Alexandria was the Orange and Alexandria Railroad. Incorporated by act of the Virginia General Assembly in 1848, the O&ARR started construction in 1850. Stops along the line included Manassas Junction, Orange, and Gordonsville. The O&ARR extended 161 miles to Lynchburg by the start of the Civil War in 1861. Beyond preparing the railroad bed and laying the rails, the workers had to construct wood trestles to cross steams and blast a tunnel through the Alexandria bluff on Wilkes Street. Eventually the trestles in most places were replaced by stone culverts.
The physical tasks associated with building the railroad were difficult, and so too were the organizational and business issues. The stockholders in the O&ARR met in May of 1849 and elected George Smoot president of the company and T.C. Atkinson chief engineer. Smoot was a lumber merchant on Union Street between King and Cameron (Note: Smoot’s lumberyard continues today, one of the few historical Alexandria businesses to do so.)
Next, the stockholders selected one of seven possible routes for the rail line, and Atkinson began staking the route in January 1850. Two construction companies were selected to build the line: Malone and Crockett worked inside the Alexandria city limits, while Eggleston, McDonald and Co. won the competition to build the 60 miles between Alexandria and Culpeper.
The latter company stopped work in November 1850, prompting Smoot to report to the stockholders, “…[N]ot withstanding the embarrassment arising from the failure and abandonment of the work by the first company...which resulted in a delay and loss of time equal to six months, the eastern section of the railroad is nearly completed. …” By October 1851, the line reached Manassas Junction, providing passenger and freight trains two times a day (except Sunday). The excitement must have been sensational! Richard Marshall Scott, a planter at Bush Hill near the line, wrote in his journal, “We witnessed for the first time today, a train … carrying about 600 people who were going on an excursion up the road to Backlick … passing through our meadow with their gay passengers, presented a very pretty sight and to me one of great interest.” Only 10 years later the O&ARR line and roundhouse complex were seized by the Union forces, setting the scene for the USMRR to develop its fortified supply hub and build the Lincoln railroad car. Next week: the USMRR roundhouse and shops.
Pamela Cressey is the Alexandria City Archaeologist.
Caption: A sketch of the Orange and Alexandria Railroad line after it was taken over by the U.S. Military Railroad, two miles west of Alexandria looking toward Fort Ellsworth (now the site of the George Washington Masonic National Memorial).