Virginia by rail

By | Category: Travel destinations
The Amtrak service

The Amtrak service

Rail holidays are increasingly popular. Visit the Scottish Highlands throughout the summer and sometimes the trains seem to only carry visitors. It is a relaxing way of seeing different places as well as viewing the countryside from a different angle. As readers may remember, I have made a few journeys across the US by train including one that went from Richmond to Boston and another from Los Angeles to Portland in Oregon and I can confirm that, from a railway carriage, you will see sights that you won’t see from a road journey.

In the US state of Virginia they have introduced holiday opportunities which rely on rail to get you around.   Virginia By Rail is a new tourism marketing alliance designed to attract leisure and group visitors to their respective destinations. Each destination is accessible via Amtrak rail and features a range of historical sites and tourist attractions.

The alliance brings together Discover Prince William & Manassas, Fredericksburg Regional Tourism Partnership and tourist organisations from two of my favourite places, Richmond Region Tourism and VisitNorfolk along with the Virginia Tourism Corporation.

Mark Kowalewski from Discover Prince William & Manassas claims “…we, along with the Virginia Tourism Corporation, believe train ridership and hotel stays in our respective destinations will be increasing exponentially in the future.”

For those of us this side of the pond, you would probably fly into Washington DC and that puts you Virginia’s doorstep. Amtrak travels through the US capital so this is where you will pick up the first of your train journeys. And probably Manassas will be your first port of call that you will want to visit.

It is about 30 miles outside Washington DC and is a town steeped in history having the Manassas National Battlefield Park just outside it. There were two battles fought here in the American Civil war. the south referrred to them as the first and second battles of Manassus. The north called them the battles of Bull Run. The park honours tens of thousands of soldiers who died during these two battles.  Also linked to the civil war are two forts, both of which are free to the public. Cannon Bridge Fort was built towards the end of the war by Union troops and Mayfield by the Confederates in the early days of the war. But both seem to have a native American heritage going back to a much earlier era. The nearby Liberia is an old plantation house reflecting the issues that contributed to the war. At one stage, ninety slaves worked the 1,800 plus acres. The town itself has a variety of restaurants and curio shops along with a number of craft breweries which, these days, seem to be mushrooming everywhere in the States.

Before you leave Manassas, you might just pop into the free James & Marion Payne Memorial Railroad Heritage Gallery which links into your journey. The gallery houses photographs and exhibits representing the 150 years of railroad history in the area.

Continuing your journey, I would imagine Fredericksburg will be the next place at that you will alight. The attractions here will be that this is the home of George Washington’s mother, sister and brother. But Washington isn’t the only US president that is celebrated locally. In the middle of the city is the James Monroe Museum and Memorial Library. Established by his descendants, tt was established only in 1927, just over a hundred years since he was president. But, like Marnassus,  Fredericksburg has strong civil war connections. Eighty years ago this year, the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center was built which will give an idea of the four bloody battles fought here. You will also find the sunken road and stone wall which was attacked time and time again before finally be won by the Union Army. There is even a photograph showing the site minutes after the North has taken the position.

Richmond's Main St Station

Richmond’s Main St Station

Staying with the railway theme, the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad has its terminus just outside the city at a place called Aquia Landing which, today, is parkland. Slaves fled the south, hitched on the railway and arrived at the landing in search of ships to take them across the Potomac to Washington and the north where ex-slaves led free lives. How many passed through Fredericksburg and Aquia Landing? Nobody knows how many slaves found freedom in this way but it must have thousands and thousands.

Just about twenty minutes out of Richmond, you’ll pass through the little town of Ashland. Why mention it? Because this is one of those towns that probably might not have existed but for the railway. The mineral springs here attracted visitors but that ceased when the Civil war interrupted routine and holidays by the well-to-do. Today, you’ll find a red caboose in the town. A caboose is what we might term a guard’s van but much posher than our vans having beds for the train crew, seats, a box to keep things cool and a stove for cooking and warmth.

And then the train clangs in to Richmond, the capital of Confederacy but tday a bustling city strongly aware of its heritage. Here, even the railway station is worth a look as it is one of the most impressive non-residential buildings you will see.   Not the one at Staples Mill Road for that is on the outskirts but the one on Main Street. With polished wooden seats and a grand high ceilings it looks more palatial than the flimsy railway stations we often have. As I wrote when I was there last time, no wonder wedding receptions are held there because the venue is more colourful than most hotels or restaurants could ever be.

an old steam train at Norfolk

an old steam train at Norfolk

The city was built on tobacco and industry, today its modern buildings disguise the nineteenth century powerhouse that it was.  History is everywhere. Even the state capital was designed by a president, Thomas Jefferson. Rather than write again  about the advantages of visiting Richmond, click here to read the story I wrote when last there a few years ago.

After spending a few days in Richmond, trains take you down to the coastline, the first major stop being Newport News, one of the oldest places in North America and dating back to 1621. Today the area strongly identifies with the ship building but army links are strong as well. The area was heavily involved in the Civil War and, further south off Norfolk, was fought the first battle between ironclads. Today at the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News you can see a replica of the USS Monitor, one of the vessels, plus some 200 tons of artefacts recovered from the ship over the last forty years.

Norfolk may be a city on Chesapeake Bay with strong naval traditions (the largest naval base in the world) but an army man – General Douglas MacArthur  – is one of this city’s famous sons and his memorial is worth a stop. But it is the bay that attracts as I said when I wrote about Norfolk a few years ago. Every year in June, there is a two day festival with tall ships, dozzns of pop-up food stalls and a great deal of fun. That’s the time to be there if you can.

And what better way to get there than by exploring Virgina by rail before relaxing in the sunshine of Chesapeake Bay.



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