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

A World Apart, A World Within

Mound, Louisiana

The Mississippi River Delta region has been the subject of books and portrayed in movies, but rarely have stories accurately captured the region, its people and its reputation as an agricultural empire.

To some, the Delta is flat, barren and less than inspiring visually. To others, it’s a wonder of nature, fertile and diverse. There is no question that the Delta has abundant agricultural and natural wealth, but it also has a heritage that can’t be duplicated.

The Delta is different than the agricultural areas of the Midwest and the open spaces of the Great Plains, but just how it is different is difficult to describe.

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Railroad Town:
 Bowie , Maryland

When people think about the town of Bowie, Maryland, they think of it as that town that they breeze through between Annapolis and Washington D.C. along U.S. Route 50. Most people will say that there is really nothing in Bowie but houses and a few shopping centers, and that there is really nothing particular to the town. Well, if you knew that it is the largest town in Prince George’s County, Maryland; that it is the fifth most populated town in the U.S. state of Maryland and the third largest town in land area in the state of Maryland;  that it is one of the largest suburban cities of Washington D.C., the home of a race track, the Belair Mansion and Belair Stable Museums which was once a colonial plantation house plus a few other historic homes; and that it is the home of the National Radio and Television Museum which is housed in an old home, you cannot say that there is not much to the town of Bowie. It is a town that has much more than you can imagine.

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A Railfan Visits
 Swift Current, Saskatchewan

A trip to Saskatchewan in late June, 2015, afforded a chance to do—what else?—a bit of railfanning. It started with the journey along the Trans-Canada Highway from Winnipeg. For many kilometers along the way the highway parallels the Canadian Pacific Railway (CP) mainline and, in a few places in Manitoba, the Canadian National (CN) line. In some places, the tracks are very close to the highway. If you are lucky, you will come across trains in those places. I was not very lucky on this trip, seeing only a few trains up close.

Our destination was Swift Current, with a side trip to Saskatoon. Read more

Trout Lake

I cross the Big Mac into the Upper Peninsula, paying four dollar for the privilege at the St. Ignace toll booth. A few miles north of St. Ignace, I leave the freeway, taking Michigan 123 into the heart of the Upper Peninsula.  The road follows the former roadbed of the Duluth, South Shore and Atlantic Railroad which Ernest Hemingway rode a few years after the Great War as he and his friends headed to a fish camp along the East Branch of the Fox River outside of Seney, Michigan.  That adventure provided fodder for his classic short story, “Big Two Hearted River.”  In those days, one had to cross the Straits of Mackinac by ferry, but in 1957 the bridge opened, spanning the straits.

It’s late afternoon on a hot July day when I reach Trout Lake. There is a small IGA here with wonderful sandwiches, piled high with sliced meats.  As I plan to have dinner with friends in Marquette, I avoid the temptation and order a cone of hand-dipped black cherry ice cream.  As I wait on the clerk, I look around the store for a minute.  In addition to groceries and a deli, they have fishing gear and some hardware.  It seems to be a place from the past, which is why I like stopping here. Read more

Railroad Town:
 Boyce, Virginia

Norfolk & Western Depot circa 1913 – Boyce, Virginia (Norfolk Southern photo on loan to Virginia Polytechnic Institute Library)

The Town of Boyce, Virginia and its railway depot have enjoyed a long history together. Nearly as old as the town, the 1913 structure served as its public gathering place, the portal through which travel and commerce passed, and became Boyce’s icon.

Indeed, it was the crossing of a newly-built Shenandoah Valley Railroad with the Winchester and Berry’s Ferry Turnpike that prompted the birth of a new community in formerly dense, forested land. Unlike Berryville, White Post, and Millwood, the Boyce community—briefly named Boyceville—sprung forth around a stop along the tracks relatively late in Clarke County’s development. The town would not have existed were it not for the arrival of the Shenandoah Valley Railroad in 1879. Read more