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From Rail to Trail at Freeman Museum

Museum traces history of the railroad passing through Vienna in the 18th and 19th centuries.

There aren’t many toys as equally-loved by big children as by little ones… particularly if you take TV remotes off the list. Model trains, however, transcend “toy.” To a child who plays with an electric or battery-powered train, it’s a fun pastime. To the grown-up with complex layouts and participation in model railroad clubs, a model train is a hobby, a stress-reliever, and even a bond with a grandchild.

Take a walk by the red caboose off Church Street on a warm day when the Optimists open up the caboose to the public, and you’ll see kids climbing all over it and families walking through the car. Stop by the Vienna station when the Northern Virginia Model Railroaders open up it up, with its levels of routings and computerized mechanisms, and you’ll see people of all ages moving their heads to the rhythm of the moving railroad cars. It’s clear that trains hold magic, sparking a child’s imagination and an adult’s memory.

HISTORIC VIENNA, INC. [HVI], in partnership with the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority and the Friends of The Washington & Old Dominion Trail, has debuted its first exhibition of 2013, “Roads to Rails to Trails,” in the Freeman Museum on Church Street. The exhibition features hand-constructed dioramas, artifacts of Vienna’s rail age, maps, photographs, replicas and memorabilia spanning 150 years, from 1855 to the railroad’s demise in Northern Virginia and its evolution to park trail.

“The exhibit tells a story,” said Mike Berger, chair of HVI’s museum committee. “Did you know there was a railroad running through Vienna? Where did it go? What did it cost to ride?” The railroad, Berger said, was involved in war efforts, starting with the Civil War when the Battle at Vienna took place, the country’s first skirmish involving a train.

Among the displays is a missive written by Major-General R.E. Lee to General Bonham, instructing Col. Eppa Hunton to destroy railroad bridges of the Loudoun and Hampshire Railroad up to Alexandria.

The last revenue train rode through Vienna in 1968. “It only lasted that long because they brought all the materials to build Dulles [Airport] like that,” Berger said. In 1974, the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority opened the W & OD trail.

HVI launched the railroad exhibit with an open house reception on Sunday, March 10. Signs announcing, “To trains,” direct guests upstairs to the museum.

In the glass cases are pieces of the railroad’s history, even a ticket and a schedule, as well as the stationmaster’s watch and a railroad police identification card. Pieces of railroad equipment, much borrowed from Aldie Mill Museum, accent the historical background.

“I super-like trains,” said 5-year-old Charlie Wilkins of Reston, visiting the exhibit with his father Chuck and little brother Campbell.

“These are trains that used to be alive a long time ago,” Charlie said. “Now, they’re abandoned, now they’re scrap.”

Several visitors to the exhibition commented on the details of the exhibit. Bruce Rogers, visiting his children in Vienna from Pennsylvania, said he just happened to be in Freeman Store, a place he comes when visiting Vienna. Finding the train exhibit was just good chance, he said. He’s building his own layout and enjoyed looking at the dioramas in the exhibit.

Berger worked closely with Civil War historian Jon Vrana to design the exhibit. Each contributed pieces to bring alive the history. A reproduction of Lydecker’s Store, the original name of Freeman Store, sits in the midst of a local scene. Berger used two kits to replicate Freeman House in 1864, repainting and redecorating the miniatures in the vignette.

ON DISPLAY IN THE MUSEUM is a telegraph machine, a lot of photographic materials, a milk can, lanterns, and layouts of Lionel and American Flyer trains. Throughout the spring and summer, some pieces will be replaced with new ones, keeping the exhibit fresh.

Like Rogers, Sandra Oakley was in Vienna visiting her grandchildren when she walked past Freeman House and noticed the sign promoting the train exhibit. “I think the exhibit is fantastic, especially all there is to read,” Oakley said. “I love trains.”

The Freeman Store and Museum, at 131 Church St., N.E., is open Wednesday through Sunday, noon until 4p.m. There is no charge for admission to the museum but donations are always welcome. Call 703-938-5187 or visit www.historicviennainc.org for more information.