Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

Among the many benefits of the new W&OD Bridge over Lee Highway is its recovered view of the old rusted railroad tracks.

Thanks to preservationists who pressed planners to save the nearby Benjamin Elliott coal trestle, the chipped rail ties rescued from decades of overgrowth expand the viewable remnants of Arlington’s glory days of train transport. You can still enter the old Southern Railways caboose open weekends along the trail at Bluemont Park. And the truly curious can read display panels near the Marymount University building at Fairfax Dr. and N. Glebe Rd. for a nifty history of the Lacey Car Barn’s trolley service a century ago.

But the special place of railroads — “the Internet” of the 19th century — in our area is easily forgotten. So I put together a sketch with help from history enthusiast Bernie Berne.

The tale involving a dense family tree of owner-investors begins in 1848, with the organizing of the Orange & Alexandria Railroad. As the City of Alexandria says proudly on its website, the city emerged as a major hub linking cargo shippers in the North to central Virginia towns. The Alexandria, Loudoun & Hampshire line expanded in the 1850s until disruption by the Civil War. Then came a new array of rail companies, as detailed in the history Washington & Old Dominion Railroad Revisited by David A. Guillaudeu and Paul E. McCray.

By 1900 the Southern Railway had taken over the tracks through Arlington to allow shipping of wheat and dairy products from farms, and to carry vacationers to the town of Bluemont at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Enter Washington Post owner John McLean and U.S. Senator Stephen Elkins, who assembled what became the Washington & Old Dominion Railroad. They began in 1901 by purchasing the embryonic Great Falls and Old Dominion Railroad. By 1906, their firm had laid tracks for leisure seekers to ride from the District of Columbia through Arlington and out for a picnic overlooking Great Falls (the current route of Old Dominion Drive). Lots of fun for recreators and commuters, though segregation laws caused anguish and occasional clashes between whites and “colored” passengers.

A W&OD employee timetable from 1939 specified: “Conductors shall set apart and designate in each car certain seats to be occupied by white passengers and rear seats to be occupied by colored passengers, and shall not discriminate between the races as to the quality or convenience.”

Most important to average Arlingtonians, the rail companies branched out into the electric trolley business. In 1896, the Washington, Arlington & Falls Church Railway began running trolleys from Rosslyn to Falls Church (the present routes of Fairfax Drive and I-66).

By 1907, that line linked downtown Washington to Ballston, Vienna, and the Town of Fairfax, says the county’s marker. By 1924, the larger Washington-Virginia Railway had 64 trolley stops in Arlington alone, on four branches. Lines crossed the Potomac on the old Aqueduct Bridge and on another branch on what became the 14th Street bridges, taking passengers through “Arlington Junction” in what became Crystal City and all the way to Mount Vernon.

The trolley railway to Fairfax City ceased in 1939, but W&OD passenger service lasted until 1951. After the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway purchased the W&OD in 1956, freight shipping continued until 1968. Then came rails to trails. And this year’s bridge.

Admirers of the Rosslyn skyline lost a benefactor April 11 with the death of developer Stanley Westreich, at 84 in San Diego.

Beginning in the 1950s, his Westfield Realty constructed 10 buildings on four million square feet in the formerly run-down neighborhood known for pawn shops. Those towers at 1000 and 1100 Wilson Blvd., formerly occupied by Gannett/USA Today, were his.

Westreich later helped found Kastle Systems and served on the first board of Capital One, according to his publicist. His son Anthony is CEO of Rosslyn-based Monday Properties.