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After 100 Years, New Switch at the Yard

Centennial ceremony pays tribute to regional economic engine.

There, on an unnamed road running parallel to Jefferson Davis Highway, was the only remaining vestige of what was once the largest railroad switching yard east of the Mississippi River. Now standing mute and ignored, the railroad signal that 100 years ago was an integral part of Potomac Yard had no role in Saturday’s Centennial Celebration.

Although several speakers recalled the Yard’s past glory days, the true focus of the occasion was on the future and what Potomac Yard Development will mean to Alexandria in the years ahead. “Just as the rail yard was an exciting and vibrant area during its operation, the Potomac Yard development team is working hard to create a new community that will instill a sense of pride and excitement throughout the community,” said Howard Katz, vice president, Strategic Land Acquisition, Centex Homes.

That “sense of pride” from the past permeated the tent set up next to the dormant rail signal to mark the Yard’s 100th birthday. In addition to officials and dignitaries, it was filled with former employees of the railroads that made Potomac Yard a prime economic generator for Alexandria and the region.

“POTOMAC YARD not only served as an economic engine for our local region by providing thousands of local jobs, but also served as one of the most vital rail yards in American history by linking North and South,” said U.S. Rep. James P. Moran (D-8).

“There is a lot to celebrate here today. The new Potomac Yard is going to be a marvel of what an urban village should be. This is finally all coming together after a lot of fits and starts,” he said.

Potomac Yard, built in the early 1900s, linked the RF&P, PRR, B&O, C&O, and Southern railroads as shared tenants. It marked the first time in American railway history that a single yard facility served as a joint rail switching yard to classify and interchange freight traffic, according Potomac Yard Development research.

“For decades, the one constant that kept the trains running on time was the skill and dedication of the hundreds of employees who accepted their daily challenge and got the job done,” said Jack McGinty, retired superintendent, RF&P Railroad, Potomac Yard.

He explained that in 1900 it sometimes took up to 40 days to get a railroad freight car through Washington and Alexandria due to competition between the various lines. That’s when the five lines got together to establish Potomac Yard. After that 4,000 to 6,000 cars moved through per day, according to McGinty.

“Our dedicated employees worked a 24-hour operation through snow and ice storms, floods, and heat waves to keep the trains moving on time. There was one constant for 86 years at Potomac Yard — the dedication of its employees. We express our gratitude today to those employees for a job well done,” McGinty said.

THAT PRAISE was echoed by Alexandria Mayor William D. Euille. “The men and women who served this rail yard deserve a lot of credit for putting Potomac Yard on the map as one of the most significant railroad landmarks in American history,” he said.

“Potomac Yard played a vital role in Alexandria’s development. I’m still intrigued by what this area was all about. This railroad yard was the economic center of this area. Now we are beginning the transition of this Yard to again become a vital element of Alexandria,” Euille said.

Among the crowd of former railroad employees and representatives of RF&P Historical Society members was Phelan Tyler, a native Alexandrian, who has lived one half mile to the Yard for 86 years. “I went to work for Potomac Yard in 1940 and retired in 1980. I was originally hired as a fireman on a steam locomotive,” he said.

Tyler eventually became a transportation assistant on McGinty’s staff. When asked how he felt about the transition of the Yard to an “urban village” Tyler had mixed emotion. “I’m not in favor of it. But, I’m not against it either. I’m still a railroader at heart. I’d rather see if be a rail yard. But that’s progress I guess,” he said.

HIGHLIGHTING THE CEREMONY was the unveiling of a large commemorative bronze plaque dedicated to the history and employees of the old rail yard. It will be placed on prominent display in the lineal park area of the completed Potomac Yard Development.

A joint venture by Pulte Homes and Centex Homes, Potomac Yard Development will encompass the largest remaining vacant land mass in Alexandria stretching from the Monroe Street Bridge to Potomac Yard Shopping center and from Jefferson Davis Highway to the Metro Rail lines paralleling the George Washington Memorial Parkway. It will be comprised of mixed land uses ranging from residential to retail to open space.