Railroad Town: 
Manassas, Virginia

Former Southern Railway Depot, Manassas, Virginia

When you ask people what is famous about the city of Manassas, Virginia, what do you think their answer will be? Most of the time, the answer will be the two major battles of the Civil War. Besides, it was in the first battle where a Confederate general named Thomas Jackson earned the name ‘Stonewall Jackson’. The Manassas National Battlefield Park is the most visited historic site in Manassas, but what most people do not know is how Manassas came to be.

The city was originally called Manassas Junction. It was built around the junction of two railroads: the Alexandria and Orange and the Manassas Gap Railroad. Both of these railroads had major roles in the Civil War. (These routes are now owned by Norfolk Southern.) It was also here in Manassas that the railroad was first used in military transport. General Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson boarded his troops on a train in what is now Delaplane, Virginia. They rode the train to Manassas, and marched north to the battlefield. So you can say that the railroad aided Jackson’s victory in the Battle of First Manassas and that the Manassas National Battlefield owes its popularity to the railroad as well. It was also the southern terminus of the Centreville Confederate Military Railroad, the first railroad in the United States that was strictly for military service. It ran between Manassas and the Confederate camps in Centreville. Sadly, this railroad was destroyed after the Confederate army departed Centreville, and there are just a few roadbeds that show little evidence of this railroad today, and they are mostly on private property.

When you visit the historic section of Manassas, you can walk to the train station and see the same tracks that the city was built around. You can stand and watch the Amtrak, Virginia Railway Express and the occasional Norfolk Southern freight train pass through. You can look east and see the area where the first military railroad in America once fed the main line. You will be standing near the spot where General Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson de-boarded the train to march his troops to battle and to victory. You will be standing at a place of railroad history.

Manassas National Battlefield Park

On the first Saturday in June the city of Manassas celebrates its railroad heritage with Railroad Days. Model railroaders of all scales set up their displays, and the Virginia Railway Express offers train rides from the depot along the main line for an admission fee.

As you drive through Manassas, as you drive around the Manassas National Battlefield Park, as you walk through the historic old town, remember that it all began with the junction of two railroads.

John Cowgill – Photographs and text Copyright 2019

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Saturday Afternoon at JO

JO Tower

Many people have memories of their childhood. I am more fortunate than most to have had a father who took me to work with him. Of course he never looked at it like that because he would have preferred to be at home rather than at work on weekends like most people. When I think back to those days when my dad worked in the A&P supermarket in the dairy department part time, it brings a smile to my face. He would get up Saturday mornings and walk to the A&P and work from 9:00 a.m. till 1:00 p.m. Each week he would tell me not to come into the store to see him because it did not look right to the boss. Each week when I could, I walked down to see him anyway. I would try to time it to when he was cutting up those big wheels of cheese. There he would be in his white apron behind the counter, and I would pop in and say “Hi dad!”

He would frown and say, “What did I tell you about coming here!”

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Editor’s Notebook

I first came across the work of A. Aubrey Bodine about ten years ago, but it is only in the last year that I discovered his railroad photography. Trains: Photography of A. Aubrey Bodine was published by Schiffer Books in 2018. This is one of several books authored by Bodine’s daughter, Jennifer Bodine, and features 120 black and white railroad photographs taken by A. Aubrey Bodine, mostly in the 1950s.

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Northbound Union Pacific – Wolf Lake, Illinois – April 4, 2016

Orthodoxy states that a train picture should be taken during the bright light of mid-morning or mid-afternoon, the photographer shooting with the sun behind and the subject brilliantly lit. The photo should be taken at a shutter speed sufficient to stop a moving train dead in its tracks, literally, and the subject should be in sharp focus. There’s nothing wrong with that, and I’ve taken my share of such images.

However, I believe in throwing the orthodox out the window as well. Sunrise is a great time to throw the traditional train picture on its ear. The rising sun combined with partial cloud cover can make for a beautiful image, particularly in a rural region.

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I Liked It!

I have been involved with railroads, one way or another, my entire life. My very earliest memories at three years old are of being on board the Southern Pacific/Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific’s Golden State with my Mom. As a pre-teen, I would regularly ride my bike to the depot in Goleta, California, to take in what the Southern Pacific’s Coast Line had to offer an observer. Once a teen, and into my college years, I decided mere observation wasn’t quite enough, and I started hopping freight trains. It was at about this time that I picked up a camera and began recording these adventures.

In 1976 I snagged a job with the American Freedom Train and traveled the country for a year as the AFT’s Assistant Curator. Now my interest in railroads made a transition—I was getting paid!

I liked it.

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Around the World in 16 Days

The Trans-Siberian Express

This trip, strangely enough, did not start with something I got in the mail. I was at a meeting of a group to which I belong, and met someone who also was quite well traveled. We started chatting about things we had done and places we had been, and happened to mention the Trans-Siberian Express. This is a fascinating train trip that starts in Moscow and ends in Vladivostok on the east coast of Asia.

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