1882-1888: The Fauquier and Rappahannock Railroad

If the Fauquier and Rappahannock Railroad had been built, people might have seen a locomotive similar to the one pictured here, positioned on a turntable at the end of the line in Sperryville, getting ready to head back to Warrenton and beyond, pulling a few cars with passengers and county products such as apples or timber going to market.
If the Fauquier and Rappahannock Railroad had been built, people might have seen a locomotive similar to the one pictured here, positioned on a turntable at the end of the line in Sperryville, getting ready to head back to Warrenton and beyond, pulling a few cars with passengers and county products such as apples or timber going to market. From Poors Manual of Railroads of the United States, 1884

In late May 1882, two young men described Rappahannock County as they walked from Warrenton, Va., to Luray, publishing their account later in Washington’s Evening Star newspaper. Their doctors had prescribed fresh air, exercise and a change of scenery to snap them out of the lethargy of working in stuffy offices all winter. So they rose at 5 a.m. that Friday morning 133 years ago, caught the 7:10 Virginia Midland Railway train to Warrenton Junction, took the branch line to Warrenton, stayed overnight, and the next morning set off on their walk.

Now in 1882, there was no U.S. Route 211, no paved highways and very few bridges. There were just dirt roads, often seas of mud in summer, with frozen ruts in winter, that zigzagged around hills, and you waded through streams or used foot bridges. Thus at 8 the next morning, a Saturday, the two hikers started walking, likely following the Old Waterloo Road. They maintained a pace of 100 steps a minute, about two miles per hour, and by sundown they had reached Little Washington, where they stayed at a hotel said to be more than 100 years old. A raucous brass band of about 40, practicing, kept them from an early sleep until the band was shooed away by the hotel manager.

The next day, Sunday, they walked to Sperryville, arriving at 11 a.m. To quote them, they “found a delightfully neat and tidy little hotel,” the current Hopkins Ordinary, then known as Lloyd A. Hisle’s Hotel, where they rested for the day. They noted: “a large tannery, owned by parties in Alexandria, is in operation at one end of the village. The mountains in this neighborhood furnish an almost inexhaustible supply of oak bark; but for the want of enterprise or means of transportation the timber from which the bark is stripped is allowed to rot on the mountainsides. A proposition has been made to extend railroad facilities into this fertile mountainous region if the county will subscribe $150,000 to the stock. The county is fully able to do so; but as every town wants to be the terminus no agreement can be come to.”

And so we come to the saga of the Fauquier and Rappahannock Railroad.

It began months earlier, on Feb. 21, 1882. Four gentlemen from Rappahannock County met with the president and the board of directors of the Virginia Midland Railway during that railroad’s annual meeting in Alexandria. The gentlemen? Col. J. Y. Menefee, Wm. B. Smoot, Esq., Col. T. B. Massie, and W. F. Anderson, Esq. The proceedings of the meeting indicate that the gentlemen wanted to secure some action from the railroad on the construction of an extension from the railroads’ Warrenton depot into Rappahannock County as far as Sperryville. The stockholders agreed and authorized the president and board to give such aid according to the amount subscribed by the county, the merits of the undertaking, and to make such a contract according to the terms of the charter of the new railroad company.

A few days later, The Exponent of Culpeper of Feb. 24, 1882 noted that in their presentation; and in answers to questions, the gentlemen from Rappahannock County said the proposed railroad would be about 28 miles long, would cost $468,000 for construction and $300,000 for rolling stock and cost, and that a narrow gauge railroad would not suit the county, and would be no cheaper. [Note: the $468,000 is the best guess as the microfilm for the newspaper shows a disfiguring crease at the start of the number.]

Interestingly, on that very same day, the Virginia General Assembly incorporated the Fauquier and Rappahannock Railroad, with 27 incorporators, specifying that it run, essentially, from Warrenton to Sperryville, and going to or within a mile of, Washington, Va. Subscriptions were to be received up to $1 million in shares of $25 each. When $10,000 had been subscribed, the Fauquier and Rappahannock Railroad Company would legally come into being.

The $1 million in 1882 would be about $24 million today. But the charter also allowed payment in the form of labor, land or material such as timber, stone, lumber or other supplies used in building a railroad. Connecting railroads or potential nearby mining or manufacturing enterprises could subscribe. And, the county government could subscribe if voters approved it. Money could be borrowed by mortgaging the railroad’s property, by franchises, or by leasing its road to the Virginia Midland Railway Company. With such flexibility how could Rappahannock County go wrong?

Waiting for a clear signal

Things swung into action at a March 1882 meeting in Washington, Va., when subscription books were opened and committees appointed to solicit subscriptions. A vote by the people of Rappahannock County was set for April 20, 1882, on whether the county itself would give $50,000 to the construction of the railroad. But a newspaper item in mid-May 1882 noted the voting was still to be taken. In fact, it appears no vote was taken in 1882 or 1883. Maybe the two hikers from Washington, D.C., were correct in noting that every town wanted to have a depot. Or, maybe the incorporators wanted a clear signal from the Virginia Midland Railway Company that they would support their effort.

They did receive this support at the annual meeting of the Virginia Midland Railway Company held on Dec. 13, 1883, when the company president, John S. Barbour, made two points. First he described “the great development of local passenger and freight business which is due largely to the marked increased prosperity of the country along the line of the road.” In other words, Midland had made big money. He then noted “that local business would be greatly enlarged by short lateral feeders extending into Rappahannock and Madison, as the Shenandoah Valley Railroad on the western side of the Blue Ridge was offering strong competition.” He said the construction “would be comparatively inexpensive and could be located along the water level of the streams which have their sources in the Blue Ridge. Such facilities would develop also a considerable lumber and mineral traffic which cannot otherwise be utilized and would open a fine field for settlement of these comparatively new and productive lands.”

Finally, there was an election in Rappahannock County on Nov. 4, 1884. All magisterial districts, except Wakefield District, voted positively that Rappahannock County would subscribe $100,000 to the Fauquier and Rappahannock Railroad. But it took an Act of the Virginia General Assembly on Nov. 27, 1884 to cause Wakefield District to cast its vote one way or another. It appears they voted for the subscription.

In the midst of all this, one of the incorporators of the Fauquier and Rappahannock Railroad Company from the county, H. G. Moffitt Jr., was appointed railroad commissioner for Virginia, taking office on April 1, 1885 for one year. His report to the governor of Virginia on Feb. 6, 1886 showed he served in exemplary manner. Virginia Midland Railway received no favors whatsoever.

Finally, though, the county’s board of supervisors voted on the whole issue on Aug. 3, 1885. The county would subscribe $50,000 when the railroad was completed from Warrenton to within 12 miles of Sperryville, and another $50,000 when it was completed to Sperryville. Another Act by the General Assembly of Dec. 17, 1885, said construction was to begin within two years of Jan. 1, 1886, and the railroad be completed to Sperryville by Jan. 1, 1889. A final General Assembly Act, approved on March 5, 1888, said the railroad could come in from the Shenandoah Valley Railroad to Sperryville and thence to Little Washington as well as coming in the original way from Warrenton. Unfortunately that Shenandoah railroad was already in receivership and would eventually be absorbed into the Norfolk and Western in December 1890 as the Shenandoah Valley Railway, with just a name change from Railroad to Railway. And that seems to be the last anyone ever heard of the Fauquier and Rappahannock Railroad Company.

What happened?

Very few local newspapers are available from the 1880s, but it appears no route was ever discussed. In a sense, Fauquier County held the trump card with Waterloo, Marshall and Fauquier White Sulfur Springs being potential stops on the way into Rappahannock County. Warrenton to Waterloo would have to enter Rappahannock a little north of Waterloo; otherwise Culpeper County would have to be crossed. Going from Warrenton to Marshall to Flint Hill, the link likely would have followed somewhat the current Crest Hill Road (Route 647), an unreasonable feat for a railroad back in that era. But a route from Warrenton to the very popular Fauquier White Sulfur Springs Spa was reasonable, and a short item in the Alexandria Gazette of Jan. 26, 1888 indicates that route had been selected. How to get from White Sulfur Springs to Rappahannock County was not mentioned.

Another reason the railroad was never built might have been the changing economic climate of the 1880s, with common people becoming fed up with gigantic trusts, including railroads, which controlled the economy of the United States. Violent labor disputes were becoming prevalent; immigrants were displacing locals who did not obey big business; and government legislation was in the formative stages to rein in “robber barons.” There was also an economic depression from 1882 to 1885, including the Panic of 1884. This resulted in a great public distrust in railroad securities in general.

In the end, other railroad options began to appear. At a meeting in Warrenton on Saturday, Feb. 11, 1888, a Gen. Lafayette Bingham told of a new railroad venture starting in Washington, D.C., passing through Fauquier, Rappahannock, Madison, and Greene counties to iron and coal regions beyond Harrisonburg. Rappahannock County had promised $100,000. Bingham had said, “…capitalists both in America and London have volunteered the money necessary to purchase the rails and rolling stock.” With an Act approved by the Virginia General Assembly on March 5, 1888, this became the Washington, Western and Southwestern Railroad. The names of the incorporators filled two and a half pages, and included 33 men from Rappahannock County. Within weeks, meetings were held in Staunton, Luray, and Marshall to organize the company. As with other railroad ventures in which Rappahannock County became involved, this one, too, faded away. But hope springs eternal, and Rappahannock County would soon be involved in other railroad ventures.

The 1882 Virginia Midland Railway Company Excursion Guide

From the 1882 Excursion Guide of the Virginia Midland Railway.
From the 1882 Excursion Guide of the Virginia Midland Railway

In 1882, the Virginia Midland Railway Company published an elaborately illustrated Excursion Guide to its system. It included a section about Rappahannock, Madison and Greene counties, calling them “comparatively unknown.” Continuing, the Guide noted: “So lofty, broken, wild and beautiful are the summits of the Blue Ridge, as seen from the cozy villages and quiet highways of Rappahannock, that the county has justly won the name of the Switzerland of Virginia. At Sperryville, in Rappahannock County, there is an extensive tannery, with capacity to tan 30,000 sides of leather per annum. All along the sides of the Blue Ridge are immense forests of chestnut oak, enough to supply any given amount of the very best bark for tanneries of any capacity, at a cost of not more than four or five dollars a cord, at the place of business. This section is well adapted to the growth of grapes, apples and other fruits, of which a considerable amount is now produced and sold. Stock raising is a branch of business that has at all times been profitably pursued. Numbers of the best horses, cattle and sheep come from this county. The soil is generally of an excellent quality, and can be purchased at moderate price.”

The Guide also advanced the agenda of the railroad across the board, saying it catered to the tourist, health-seeker, investor, miner, farmer, etc. It noted Lloyd A. Hisle’s place at Sperryville, 20 miles from Culpeper by stage or livery, and, with a capacity for 50 guests, had a price for board per week of $6, and board per month of $20. A round-trip ticket from Washington, D.C., to Warrenton and back cost $4. A capacity for 50 guests? Whoever wrote the Excursion Guide must never had visited the hotel, which is now Hopkins Ordinary.

In addition, the Guide described the railroad’s inducements to immigrants. It had acquired from the Virginia legislature “the authority to purchase lands along their lines, with the view of re-selling them on a long credit to actual settlers.”

What about those two hikers?

From The Virginia Tourist, by Edward Alfred Pollard, 1870.
From The Virginia Tourist, by Edward Alfred Pollard, 1870.

As to the two walkers from D.C., on a Monday in May 1882, they put their satchels in a buggy carrying the mail from Sperryville to Luray, and then toiled up the mountain on a splendid road for five miles, noting small farms scattered along the route. But they described the last farm of three acres as causing the farmer to plow around many large boulders. On the last three miles to the top at Thornton’s Gap, boulders and loose stones obstructed the road. At the top there was a “tumble-down old building, remarkably suggestive of some of the pictures of Swiss dwellings, with a balcony at the second story running the whole length of the house, reached by a flight of rickety stairs on the front, the lower or ground floor used for the accommodation of the horses and cattle of the place, the upper story being used as a dwelling.” The owner was complaining of the terrors of a felon, which had destroyed his sleep for three weeks. After one of the hikers climbed St. Mary’s Rock and returned, the two continued walking on and arrived at the Luray Inn after descending nine miles to the place. From there they took buggies and trains to complete their vacation at other sites.

As the two hikers started walking down toward Luray, the scene shown here would have been the view presented to them.

The newspapers of the 1880s

From The Washington Evening Star of June 3, 1882
From The Washington Evening Star of June 3, 1882

The history of the Fauquier and Rappahannock Railroad Company was traced from newspapers in large cities such as Washington, D.C., which carried cited sources, but it was snippets of gossip from small local newspapers that provided clues as to why certain things were happening. This two-sentence news item in the Warrenton Virginian of May 15, 1884, is an example: “The vote on the question of railroad or no railroad in Rappahannock county has been postponed until fall. Both those for and against the measure are afraid to take the vote.”

City newspapers were interesting in themselves and copies reaching Rappahannock County were read and reread many times by locals. These papers covered local, national and international news, governmental actions, social events, sports, bizarre happenings, fiction, all in small type in four or eight pages of seven columns each, with ads relegated to the back page.

During the 1880s, news about Rappahannock County in major newspapers even included minutia. One item was about James Harrell, who in 1883 was maybe the longest-serving mail rider in the United States. He was retiring finally of old ago. He had carried mail on his horse, Mandy, from Warrenton to Little Washington for almost 40 years, a 50-mile round trip three times a week, covering a total of nearly 150,000 miles. Then there were news items on the comings or goings of the local newspaper itself, the Blue Ridge Echo, the Call, or the Blue Ridge Guide. Occasionally, long articles appeared in the Alexandria Gazette as submitted by a correspondent in Sperryville or Woodville.

Of particular interest was Rappahannock County’s involvement with Virginia’s Readjuster Party, so named by the party’s efforts to adjust Virginia’s pre-Civil War debts to Northern and European banks by working on debt forgiveness arrangements. In March 1882, Thomas B. Massie was chairman of the local party and at a party meeting, amongst other things, they resolved that members subscribe to the following newspapers: the Richmond Whig, the National Republican in Washington, D.C., and the Virginian Readjuster, noting “the latter being our nearest approach to a local organ” for their party.

Then there were ads in the Evening Star in Washington, D.C., such as those shown here, for vacations in Rappahannock County.

The Fauquier White Sulfur Springs Spa

From the booklet "Fauquier White Sulfur Springs, Virginia," dated 1888.
From the booklet “Fauquier White Sulfur Springs, Virginia,” dated 1888.

The Fauquier White Sulfur Springs Spa exemplified high living in the Gilded Age of the 1880s. Personages of note came from all over to take “the waters.” Newly rebuilt after the Civil War, with the Spa’s own turnpike from Warrenton, it was located in a bucolic setting half a mile from the Rappahannock River. A brochure published in 1888 tells of its June to December season, with a full brass and string band on site, plus a resident physician having nearly 40 years of experience with the Spa’s medicinal use of its waters.

The hotel had 120 rooms and there were many cottages on the grounds, the whole complex was able to host 500 guests. Those attending filled their days with fishing, hunting, riding, driving in carriages, lawn tennis, croquet or archery, and there was music on the lawn. In the evening there were quadrilles, fancy balls, concerts, charades and games, and more music until midnight. Rooms and cottages ran from $2.50 a day up to $21 per week or $60 per month.

Other sources described a day starting with drinking between one and four glasses of the sulfur springs water, resulting in profuse perspiration flooding the pores of the skin. This would be followed by a Turkish bath in the waters, and then a breakfast of broiled chicken and mountain lamb, plus fruits of the season. In the forenoon, the music would begin. Later, one could read a book, write to loved ones, read newspapers and the arriving mail or just doze in an afternoon siesta. With more ladies about than men, flirtations would commence with an abundance of handsome widows available.

At nightfall, dancing would begin as belles from Baltimore, Washington, Warrenton, and nearby counties arrived with their maids and went to dressing rooms to turn into social butterflies. An elegant portico almost encircled the hotel and it had cozy nooks and rustic seats for liaisons.

The day ended dramatically. As one cultured woman described it, “a wave of music seems to come from afar, solemn and dirge-like as the rustling storm. Glancing from the hotel porch, the colored men are seen clustered in dramatic order on the crest of the nearest hill. It seems as though the floodgates of native melody are open. The same chords are heard as those discerned in the notes of the nightingale, or the mighty pulsations of the awful sea. Every word is distinctly chanted. ‘Rock of Ages, cleft for me!’ … I have seen Patil, Nilsson, and Parepa Rosa before the flood-lights, but the one memory of music which will outlast all others will revert to ‘Rock of Ages, cleft for me,’ as it ascends Heavenward.”

Don Audette
About Don Audette 27 Articles
Don Audette has a place in Sperryville, is a longtime member of the Rappahannock Lions and writes about local history in his "Yesterdays" column for the Rappahannock News.