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The Manassas Gap Railroad In Centreville

The railroad company, pivotal during the Civil War, attempted to build tracks through Centreville

With a tremendous degree of anticipation, I decided recently to set out, Indiana Jones-style, and find a relic from the past. Of course, being limited to Centreville and the surrounding area, I wouldn't find a gold trinket or biblical treasure. Instead, I looked for an archaeological relic—in this particular case a pair of bridge abutments from the Civil War.

"You know, you're kind of reinventing the wheel," Jim Burgess, Ranger and Museum Specialist from Manassas National Battlefield Park warned me. "Others have already written about the unfinished railroad."

They have, indeed, but with the approaching, I figured now would be a good time to revisit.

The Manassas Gap Railroad played a pivotal role during the Civil War. It connected the Shenandoah Valley with Alexandria, using its own set of tracks until it arrived at a location called Tudor Hall (later to be renamed Manassas), where it joined with the Orange and Alexandria Railroad before continuing on to Alexandria. The strategic convenience for transporting troops of these two railroads inspired Stonewall Jackson to station troops at Tudor Hall, which in turn inspired the Union to send its own troops, resulting in the First Battle of Manassas, or the Battle of Bull Run.

Prior to the war in 1853, according to a 2004 article by William Page Johnson, the Manassas Gap Railroad  received permission to establish their own set of tracks from Gainesville to Alexandria, a move which would free them from the substantial right-of-way fees they were paying. 

Throughout the 1850s they worked to establish a railbed, which passed through Centreville and continued on through Chantilly, Fairfax and Annandale. The railbed was completed but unfortunately the tracks were never laid, so the only real function this particular construction project ever served is as earthen cover from which Americans could slaughter other Americans.

Most notably, Stonewall Jackson used it during the Second Battle of Manassas. "The Manassas Gap railroad was a chosen line of defense for General Jackson’s troops and they used it quite effectively for cover and concealment," stated Burgess. "Deep Cut is a stretch of railroad grade where Jackson had his right flank dug in. The Union attack on August 29 was focused in that immediate area.”  

The Union conducted seven separate charges, which Robert M. Mayo, a Colonel in the Forty Seventh Virginia Infanty would describe as "not surpassed in gallantry by any that was made during the war—not even by Pickett at Gettysburg."

Remnants of the unfinished railroad can be found throughout the county, most notably at Manassas Battlefield and at Manassas Gap Park in Annandale. A few can also be found right here in Centreville. A 1975 article by H.H. Douglas (available at the Virginia Room in Fairfax) retraces the entire route, finding some prominent remains near Poplar Tree and Old Centreville Rd., on Pleasant Valley and Bull Run Post Office Road, and stretching across what was, at the time, Cedar Crest Country Club to where it eventually crossed Bull Run.

The most notable prominence, though, is along , where two 15 feet-tall stone abutments were built (to one day house a bridge) and are still there to this day.

With only Douglas' article as a guide I set out to find these abutments. While he gives pretty good street descriptions, the article was written 35 years ago and some things have changed in the area. The abutments are incredibly easy to find, I realize now, but not with three-and-a-half decades old directions. My route took me through a mile or two of woods, slogging through the mud, eventually babbling incoherent questions to a construction worker in the vain hope he'd lead me to them. 

He didn't. Instead he drove me to them. 

They are at the end of Honsena Road. Just walk straight from there. If you're slogging through two miles of mud, you're in the wrong place.

Keith Yoder April 06, 2011 at 03:14 PM
Yes, there is an additional abutment still extant on the Fairfax County side at the planned Bull Run crossing point into Prince William County. This would be across the river from the Thornberry House trail near the Manassas National Battlefield Park tour stop number 5. Has the historical marker been returned yet? When they were doing the sewer line work it was removed.
Mike Conway April 07, 2011 at 03:27 PM
Hi Keith. I didn't see it.
Keith Yoder April 08, 2011 at 01:11 AM
I'm sure it will be put back in place... eventually... it's the first one on this list of historical markers in Centreville. http://www.hmdb.org/results.asp?Town=Centreville&State=Virginia
Mary Stachyra Lopez April 08, 2011 at 01:43 AM
Keith, I'll ask when they plan to put it back. And thanks for the link, that's pretty handy!
Karen Fulkerson April 13, 2011 at 02:17 AM
Mike, I have heard that there are Civil War railroad remnants in Bull Run east of where Rt. 28 crosses over it. Have you ever seen them, and do you know how to get to them? I have meant to go find them for years...people, I have heard, have gotten to them via Balmoral (though that involves private property), or hiking up from Hemlock, or parking off Rt. 28 and hiking east.
Mike Conway April 13, 2011 at 03:58 PM
I'm not sure where you mean. The Manassas Gap Railroad has a bridge abutment over Bull Run, but that's north of Rt. 29... There is a military railroad that Stonewall Jackson constructed that ran quite close to route 28 and which I will likely be doing a future article about. According to Jim Burgess at Manassas Battlefield there are supposedly remnants, but he stated he's never seen them and I haven't heard anything about where they might be. If you think you know of something, though, I'll go check it out. Unless what you're talking about is something quite different. Shoot me an e-mail and I'll see if I can check it out. (Incidentally, I hike along Bull Run quite often and don't recall anything... but I never specifically looked for anything either). My interest is piqued.
Ralph D. Jeffords April 13, 2011 at 07:25 PM
I regularly walk in the Cub Run Stream Valley Park and often have visited the eastern abutment for the uncompleted railroad bridge over Cub Run just off of Honsena Avenue. I note that your photo shows a small tree bent over into Cub Run--this tree was almost felled by a beaver, then a windstorm bent over the weakened tree. I took a picture just before the tree was bent over. There are also a lot more trees just south of the abutment for about 1/4 mile that have been felled by beaver(s) but there doesn't seem to be recent beaver activity. Does anyone know anything about the beaver(s)? Were they scared away by the sewer construction project? Were they captured and transported from the site due to the sewer project? or what?
Ralph D. Jeffords April 21, 2011 at 05:47 AM
On Sunday April 17 I checked out the eastern abutment of the Manassas Gap Railroad over Cub Run only to find that vandals had used silver spray paint to put graffitti on the side facing Cub Run in addition to completely painting the face of one large stone silver. They had also spray painted the bent-over tree. Why do some people have such disrespect for historical landmarks!
Mary Stachyra Lopez April 21, 2011 at 01:31 PM
That's pretty upsetting, Ralph. I'd like to find out if the parks system is aware of this, and if there's anything they can or plan to do to clean it up. I'll fill you in on what they say. Thanks for letting us know.
Mary Stachyra Lopez April 28, 2011 at 04:47 PM
Karen, There's a Civil War artillery emplacement along the Bull Run trail. If you park off of Route 28, right at the Manassas/Centreville border and walk for about a mile and a half, you'll see them on your right hand side. They looked just like a bunch of hills. It's not connected to the railroad as far as I know, but it's an interesting piece of Civil War history.
Karen Fulkerson April 29, 2011 at 12:57 AM
Mary, thanks for the info on the items along Bull Run. Do you mean walking east along the stream?
Mary Stachyra Lopez April 29, 2011 at 02:13 AM
Yes, that's right. Follow the path underneath the bridge. It's a really nice walk, actually. I went right after some of the heavy rains a couple weeks ago and surprisingly, it wasn't muddy at all.
Mary Stachyra Lopez April 29, 2011 at 07:41 PM
Ralph, We spoke with the park authority and the police department about this. They said they will try to clean it up. I did a quick write-up here: http://patch.com/A-hb6m
KVM June 08, 2011 at 06:41 PM
There a small section on either side of Lees Corner Rd just south of the intersection with McGill Dr. It is in the Brookfield neighborhood. It is no real obvious during the summer months. There is another very short section on Fair Lakes Parkway in Fairfax. It's on the north side of Fair Lakes Parkway at Just west, maybe 20 yards, of Oak Creek Lane. Again, it is not obvious. A longer section of it was obliterated in 2009(?) when town houses were built on top of it. There is a long section parallel to Government Center Parkway in Fairfax. It's just to the south. Legato Road is on the west end and Forum Dr. is on the east end. There are many other short stretches in Fairfax and Annandale that I've found. But, mostly interested in finding more sections in Chantilly and Centreville.
Marc Sachs September 24, 2011 at 09:11 PM
There's also a nice piece of the Loudoun Branch visible between Centreville Road and Route 28, running east of the Sully Plantation. Easy to find in the winter. Look for both cuts and fills, and in particular a very nice cut through the rock near the road that connects Sully to new entrance by the Air and Space Parkway.

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