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Celebrating 30 Years on the Trail

Cyclists, walkers and riders will get a chance to celebrate W&OD Trail's anniversary this weekend.

Washington & Old Dominion Regional Trail enthusiasts will have a chance to show their appreciation for the trail — and eat lots of watermelon — at this weekend's 30th anniversary celebration.

The event, which is cosponsored by the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority and the Friends of the W&OD Trail, will take place on July 24 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at trail mile marker 39 in Paeonian Springs. Nearby parking is very limited, so attendees are encouraged to walk or bike to the celebration. Admission is free.

"The primary objective certainly is to make everyone aware of the fact that the trail has been there for 30 years," said Friends of the W&OD Trail leader Julie Weeks.

Since a plan by Dominion Virginia Power, which owns an easement on the former railroad route, has proposed removing 26,000 trees from Leesburg to Purcellville to make way for power lines, the anniversary has become more poignant.

"We want to help raise the alarm," Weeks added, "but for the most part it's a celebration."

Save the Trail, Inc., a two-month-old organization born in the wake of Dominion's proposed plan, will also be present at the event to help raise awareness.

"We plan to help get the message out that Dominion Virginia Power is moving quickly with their plans to destroy the trail," said Save the Trail president Barbara Notar. "Supporters of the trail must unite to persuade Dominion to seek an alternative route."

ON MAY 17, 1860, the first train steamed across the track from Alexandria to Leesburg, so the trail is also celebrating its 144th anniversary this year. Over the years, trains carried passengers and freight with a mild prosperity, according to longtime trail manager Paul McCray.

In 1912, the railroad became known as the Washington & Old Dominion Railroad. With the advent of clean, quiet electric trains, the railroad experienced some profitable years. The Great Depression changed that.

"It hit the railroad really hard," said McCray. "It never really recovered."

Despite a short boon during World War II, when gas shortages forced travelers to use mass transit, the W&OD Railroad's glory days were long past.

"By 1968, it was all over," McCray said.

Virginia Electric & Power, later known as Dominion Virginia Power, bought the 45-mile-long, 100-foot-wide tract. According to McCray, a region-wide trail was a novel idea at the time.

"There weren't a lot of trails around back then," he said. "There was nothing like what this would end up being."

The Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority purchased the trail in 1974, although Dominion retained an easement. NVRPA paved a 1.5 mile section in Falls Church that year as an experiment.

"We wanted to see if anybody would come out and walk this thing, see if it would be popular," McCray said. "And it was."

THIRTY YEARS and 43.5 more miles of pavement later, nearly three million visitors walk, cycle or ride the trail each year, according to NVRPA estimates.

All are welcome to attend the 30th anniversary celebration to learn about the trail's history and help prevent encroaching development. Light refreshments, a history video, safety programs, door prizes and an obstacle course will be part of the fun from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. From noon to 2 p.m., public and NVRPA officials will join Friends of the W&OD Trail for an anniversary program.

Several biking and walking clubs have organized groups to travel to the celebration together, including the Potomac Pedalers Touring Club, the Reston Bike Club, the Sierra Club Metropolitan Washington Regional Outings Program and the Loudoun Walking and Volkssport Club.

Parking at mile marker 39 is very limited, so attendees are encouraged to park at any of the follow locations and walk or bike to the celebration.

* Loudoun County High School - 415 Dry Mill Road SW Leesburg, VA 20175, at the intersection of Dry Mill Road and Catoctin Circle on the west side of Leesburg; approximately three miles to the celebration.

* Loudoun Fairgrounds - take Route 7 west from Leesburg, exit at Route 9. Turn left on Route 9, then left a the stop sign onto Dry Mill Road. Watch for the Fairgrounds on the left. Approximately 1.5 miles to the celebration.

* Loudoun Valley High School – 340 North Maple Avenue, Purcellville, VA 20132. Take Route 7 west to the Route 287 exit and turn left. Take a right on Hirst Road and then a left on Maple venue. Approximately five miles to the celebration.