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.