The Washington & Old Dominion Railroad in Del Ray
by Jim Stone

Del Ray is known historically as a railroading community, primarily because the area was settled by workers at the massive Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac rail yard on our eastern boundary. In addition to the RF&P, Del Ray was crossed by two smaller railways: the Washington, Alexandria & Mt. Vernon, a streetcar line that ran north-south along Commonwealth Avenue, and the Washington & Old Dominion, which carried freight and passengers between Alexandria and the foothills of the Blue Ridge.

The Washington, Alexandria & Mt. Vernon ceased operations in 1930 and has vanished with hardly a trace, but the W&OD had a lasting impact on Del Ray's geography. Begun in 1847 as the Alexandria and Harper's Ferry Railroad, the company first laid its tracks through what is now Del Ray by 1855. Its route shaped the street grid, and it is still clearly visible for most of its length through the neighborhood.


Potomac Yard viaduct, July 1960, and the present view across Potomac Yard.
  From the southeast, the W&OD entered Del Ray on on a quarter-mile-long viaduct over Potomac Yard and Route One. The recent demolition of the viaduct abutment at the foot of Mt. Ida and Custis Avenues came as welcome news to many neighborhood residents, but its loss will be mourned by railroad buffs. West of the viaduct, the trains served the industrial facilities along Jeff Davis Highway, passing through what is now the dog exercise area behind Randolph Avenue.
   
The Alexandria Junction station was located just to the northwest of the viaduct where the W&OD line once connected with the main north-south route to Washington. Before 1912 the line had been a branch of the Southern Railway for many years, but the crucial connection at Alexandria Junction was destroyed after the newly formed W&OD Railway Company leased the line. Mt. Jefferson Park and a bike path now occupy the site. The city's new bike plan calls for extending the path from Raymond Avenue to Route 1, and eventually over a new bridge to the Potomac Yard development.  
Alexandria Junction, then and now.
Mt. Jefferson Park
   

St. Elmo station, 1932.
  A few blocks northwest at Commonwealth and Mt. Vernon Avenues, the St. Elmo station served as a transfer point for the Washington, Alexandria & Mt. Vernon streetcar line. The tracks traversed Commonwealth and the trolley line on a bridge, but crossed Mt. Vernon at grade level.
   
The new town homes adjacent to the Calvert Apartments have obliterated part of the old right-of-way, but the remainder of the route through the neighborhood is still traced by the dirt path behind the businesses on West Glebe Road. One final reminder of the W&OD can be seen on Russell Road near Glebe, where a concrete bridge abutment marks the point were the tracks exited Del Ray on their way westward toward Bluemont.  
W&OD tracks ran behind West Glebe to a bridge spanning Russell Road.

Passenger service on the W&OD ended in 1941 because of severely declining revenues, but it resumed two years later under orders of the Office of Defense Transportation as a war emergency measure, continuing until May 31, 1951. After many years of marginal operation, the railroad was abandoned entirely in August 1968. The Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority purchased most of the right of way west of Alexandria between 1977 and 1982, creating the W&OD Railroad Regional Park, one of the best and most popular bike trails in the Washington area. The Friends of the Washington & Old Dominion Trail support this valuable regional resource.

Black-and-white photos from The Washington and Old Dominion Railroad by Ames W. Williams, 1970. Color photos by the author.