Elinor Cowhig has invited nine-year old Henry (and his parents) to visit her in Reston, VA. We have agreed, not only to take him on cross-country trains and show him the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, but also to visit the rest of the museums on the Capitol Mall and a number of Civil War battlefields in the Virginia/Maryland/ Pennsylvania area. On the way, we’ll stop in Sacramento to visit the California State Railroad Museum, now two years old. We’ll return through New Orleans..
We start the trip by taking the Coast Starlight north to Sacramento. Not yet having learned any better, we take coach seats only for this leg of the journey. Frank Saumur drives us down to Los Angeles Union Station, where we check luggage through to Washington DC and join the scramble to get coach seats together on the left side of the train.
From Los Angeles to Chatsworth, the line runs through the urban fabric of Los Angeles, turning north at Mission Tower, across and along the Los Angeles River, past the SP Taylor locomotive maintenance facilities, in SP’s massive Taylor Yard. After the Glendale station, the route heads north through some of the earliest industrial areas of greater LA (including the original airport facilities in the area-no longer connected to an airfield-at Grand Central Air Terminal). The route separates from the Soledad Canyon line at Burbank Junction and runs diagonally towards the northwest corner of the San Fernando Valley, passing the Anheuser-Busch brewery and the former General Motors car assembly plant at Van Nuys, along the way. West of Chatsworth, the lines passes through the famous ‘Chatsworth Rocks’ area, now permanently changed from its appearance in the days of steam by the extension of Topanga Canyon Boulevard to reach the Simi Valley freeway to the north, and then through a long tunnel under thousand foot high Santa Susanna Pass.. The mountains along this line, and further west, are covered in the typical Southern California brush and yellow grass (except in spring, when the grass is green).
The line then enters the Simi Valley, passing through the towns of Simi Valley and Moorpark, then descends towards the Pacific Ocean at Oxnard. West of Oxnard, the line comes alongside the ocean, which it will run alongside, or very close to, for the next 100 or more miles. West of Ventura, there are places where there is barely enough space for the railroad and US Highway 101 (built to Interstate Highway standards) between the ocean and the mountains. This is soon followed by the Santa Barbara urban area, followed by a line segment which has a number of scenic trestles over beach-access ravines. West of Gaviota, the highway veers away to the north, and the railroad is alone alongside the ocean. At Point Conception, the coast, and thus the railroad, turns north from its heretofore east-west alignment. Here, it runs through Vandenberg Air Force Base, site of the launch facilities for the Pacific Test Range and polar-orbiting satellites, past Surf, and then turns inland. After passing Guadalupe, junction with the Santa Maria Valley shortline, the route brushes the shore again at Grove Beach, then turns inland for San Luis Obispo.
North of San Luis Obispo, the line crosses the coastal mountain range using the Cuesta Grade to reach Santa Margarita Pass, after which it descends into the Salinas Valley. After passing through Paso Robles, the railroad crosses to the eastern side of the valley, where it remains until north of King City. The south end of the Salinas Valley, at a higher elevation than further north, is mostly savanna with live oak trees fairly widely spaced. The northern part of the valley is one of the most fertile agricultural areas in the world, and the valley floor is completely given over to agriculture. Much of the produce (tomatoes, green beans, etc.) grown in this area is snapped up by the major food suppliers, such as Birdseye and Hunt-Wesson. The rest of the way into Salinas, the rails follow alongside US 101 again. North of Salinas, the railroad runs through the beautiful nature reserve at Elkhorn Slough, to Watsonville Junction where there is a small yard and the Santa Cruz branch cuts off. Then the line turns east through market gardens and crosses the San Andreas Fault from the Pacific Plate onto the mainland. Turning north, the line passes through Gilroy and descends to San Jose.
From here to north of Richmond, the railroad is again in an urban area, although some of the line through the marshes and salt flats bordering the southern end of San Francisco Bay seems quite far from built-up areas. At San Jose, there is a small SP freight yard on the east side, north of the station (shared with the Peninsula services to San Francisco). At Santa Clara, the Coast Starlight turns away from the Coast Route, running through the aforementioned marshes and salt flats to Newark and Oakland South of the Oakland station is the West Oakland yard and locomotive depot, and the Desert Yard (named because it had no water supply in steam days) where the line to the former bayfront station at the Oakland Mole cuts off. This is the border between the Coast Route and the Shasta Route, where the mileposts increase in both directions. The Oakland station is at 16th Street.
North of Oakland 16th Street the line runs through Berkeley before reaching Richmond, the only place where Amtrak has a direct connection with the BART heavy-rail rapid transit system. The line then runs alongside San Pablo Bay through Pinole, past a couple of oil refineries and Crockett (where there is a large sugar factory) to Martinez., after which there is a stiff climb to the Carquinez Strait bridge, alongside another oil refinery which is connected to the Mococo line that diverged from the Cal-P just before the climb to the bridge began. East/north of the bridge is an automobile carrier yard, and the mothball fleet in Suisun Bay. The Cal-P line runs through the fringes of the Sacramento Delta to Davis and across the Sacramento River into Sacramento..
Arrival in Sacramento is on time, near midnight. We walk over to our hotel, across the street from the station, and adjacent to the old town location of CSRM, and go to bed.
We arise this morning just in time to check out of the hotel and get some coffee before the California State railroad Museum (CSRM) opens. We walk over from the hotel, under the elevated freeway to the CSRM building just on the northern edge of Old Town Sacramento. Once out entrance fees are paid, we walk inside and follow the signs to the start of the self-guided walking tour of the museum. This starts with a couple of dioramas making it quite clear that the focus of the museum is railroading in California, and in particular with the way the advent of the transcontinental railroad opened California for business with the rest of the United States, then separated from the state by a thousand miles of frontier land, both mountains and high plains.
Beyond the dioramas relating to the construction of the Central Pacific Railroad over Donner Pass, from its base in Sacramento, we enter the main exhibit gallery containing locomotives and cars from a bygone era. The first ones we come to are from the mid 19th-century, including locomotives with the balloon stacks that are the hallmark of woodburners and passenger cars with open platforms at both ends, providing the only access to the cars and between cars. Further along, there are exhibits from the early 20th -century, and then the exhibits from the mid 20th-century. The prize exhibit from my perspective is the very last Southern Pacific “Cab Forward” 2-8-8-2 oil burning articulated locomotive, arranged that way to obviate smoke problems in the tunnels of Donner and Tehachapi passes. There are also some early diesel locomotives and passenger cars from the streamlined era on display.
Upstairs galleries contain some full size narrow gauge equipment, as well as the smaller exhibits best presented in display cases. The western side of the museum building is arranged as a roundhouse, with tracks from the museum converging on a turntable used to provide access from the tracks along the Sacramento River to those inside the museum.
South of the main museum building is the original Central Pacific depot, at its terminus along the waterfront (long since superseded). We take the guided tour of the depot and the cars and locomotives arrayed on the tracks within its covered shed. We have now spent about three hours in the museums, and it is time to move on.
Returning to the hotel area, we eat lunch in the restaurant next door, then reclaim our bags from the bell captain and walk over to the Southern Pacific station used by Amtrak. Here, in the fullness of time, our train (Amtrak’s California Zephyr) arrives from Oakland, and we walk out to the tracks to board our sleeping car. We have reserved space in a single Economy Room, identical to the ones I had used on my trips in 1982. The Amtrak reservation agents had assured us this would be sufficient space for two adults and one bouncy nine-year old, but that remains to be seen.
Between Sacramento and Roseville, where there is a vast marshalling yard and locomotive maintenance facilities, the line is in an urban area. The line across Donner Pass is double track most of the way, except for a short stretch just east of the summit and the former location of the facilities at Norden, and another stretch in the Yuba Pass area.
At Cape Horn, the original track snakes around a sharp mountain spur, while the newer track runs through a tunnel a few yards away. Colfax is the highest real year-round community on the west slope of the Donner Pass line. Here were (and in some respects still are) the facilities used by many of the west slope helpers to prepare for their next assist. West of Newcastle, including all the way through Auburn, the two lines separate and run quite a distance apart in places. This results in the anomaly of there being two stations in Auburn, one for each direction. (The tracks in this vicinity are CTC-controlled, but are generally used directionally.) The junction with the single-track line north to Redding and the Shasta Route is immediately east of Roseville.
Norden once include a turntable inside a snowshed, for turning steam helpers that had reached the summit, as well as staff housing and train dispatching facilities that were completely snowed-under in wintertime. The few remaining facilities at Norden still form a base for snowfighting when winter storms threaten to close the line. Immediately east of the summit, the line passes through alpine meadows that today form part of a ski area in winter and a hiking area in summer. Some of the line west of the summit remains in snowsheds, although modern snowfighting methods have made many snowsheds obsolete. Tunnels are frequent throughout the line over the Sierra Nevada. Some miles west of the summit, the line uses Yuba Gap to cross between the south side of the Yuba River watershed and the north side of the American River watershed. For most of the way between Yuba Gap and Auburn, the line runs along mountainsides through evergreen forest
Sparks is the site of a yard and locomotive facilities. Sparks and Reno form a single urban area. Between Reno and Truckee, the line follows the Truckee River (the outlet of Lake Tahoe that winds its way to a sink in the Nevada desert northeast of Reno). The east slope of the pass lies between Truckee, where once there was a locomotive facility, and still are facilities for servicing the helpers that use this as their eastern base. Altitude is gained west of Truckee by running well back into a side valley, then out again on the other slope of the valley. The line runs along the mountainside high above Donner Lake, on its south side. With the removal of the track on the face of the mountain, hewn by the Chinese laborers in 1867, the few miles immediately east of the summit are traversed inside Tunnel 41.
On the trip over Donner Pass, we sit in the Lounge Car to be able to see the scenery better (much of it is directly up from the train). Because we thought about this ahead of time, we’re able to spend the time seated. The car is crowded with people standing the whole way across the pass. I keep Henry amused while Chris is getting drinks and snacks by telling him my hand touching his other side (away from me) is “big gnats on this train”. It takes him several times of this to realize that I’m doing this to him. One of the other folks in the car is the original of “Thumbs”, the NMRA Bulletin’s cartoon character based on a real-life model railroader from the Bay Area.
East of the Reno/Sparks area, the line enters the Humboldt Desert, running along the valley of the Humboldt River, which at this time of year still has snowmelt flowing eastward along its course. We eat dinner in the dining car in the deepening twilight, as the train passes alongside this river. As night falls, we conclude that only one Economy Room would not be enough space for the three of us, so we talk to the conductor and purchase a second Economy Room for the night. The conductor tells us that we will have to book subsequent nights through a ticket office in a depot, or take our chances on availability each night.
At Weso, just east of Winnemucca, the paired track with the SP starts and continues through the Humboldt River valley, first east, then southeast, sometime widely spaced, sometimes close, turning east again at Battle Mountain, then southeast and northeast through the tunnels at Palisade. Just west of the tunnels, the ex-WP crosses over the SP. From Palisades, it is just a short stretch to Elko. The paired track continues east of Elko, to crossovers at Alazon and separation at Wells. The train runs over the SP between Ogden and Wells, across the famous causeway over the Great Salt Lake.
We awake while the train is crossing the causeway. At Ogden, Chris goes into the depot to reserve a second Economy Room for each of our subsequent Superliner nights. (The Heritage Fleet Double Bedrooms east of Chicago and New Orleans will already handle the three of us.) While we’re in Ogden, the through cars from the Desert Wind and Pioneer are added to the train for the rest of the journey to Chicago. This is actually quite a short train for midsummer, but we’re told this is because traffic on July 4th itself is always very light out here in the Rockies.
From Denver (heading west), the line heads north on the UP to Cheyenne, WY, along the high plains. When it reaches the UP transcendental mainline, an Amtrak train takes the left leg of the wye, and stops at a platform at Borie, where passengers from/to Cheyenne are served by a bus. The line then climbs famed Sherman Hill on track 3, then passes through Laramie, Rock Springs, Green River, and other towns across the rather barren southern Wyoming countryside, including crossing the continental divide, before crossing the Wasatch and descending to Ogden through Echo and Weber Canyons.
Approaching Denver Union Station, the train turns on a wye between the BN yard and the former D&RGW (now SP) yard, then backs slowly into the station. This train should have traveled through the Rockies on the D&RGW line through Grand Junction and Moffatt Tunnel, but a landslide near Thistle, UT, back in April (just a few weeks before the train’s route was to move to the Colorado routing) has blocked that line which will not reopen for another three weeks. The detour through Wyoming (on the train’s former route that it has not yet actually moved away from) takes less time than the schedule through Colorado allows, so we have a several hour wait in Denver, at dinner time. We spend the time eating in a Mexican-style restaurant in downtown Denver. The train continues east after 9 pm.
AS the train heads out onto the high plains towards Fort Morgan, CO, and McCook, NE, we go to bed in our respective Economy Rooms, Chris with Henry and I by myself.
I awake in western Iowa. Chris and Henry have apparently been up for awhile, and stop in to see me as soon as its obvious I’m awake. We’re much further west in Iowa than I would have anticipated at this time, and we begin to be concerned about making our connection in Chicago. The first station after I’m fully awake is Ottumwa, IA. The line continues east to the Mississippi at Burlington, IA, and then passes through Galesburg, IL and several other small towns before reaching the triple track ‘Burlington Raceway’ at Aurora. From here, the route is shared with the “Dinky” double-deck commuter trains the rest of the way into Chicago Union Station.
The train arrives in Chicago several hours late. The Capitol Limited is being held for our arrival, and is on the adjacent track (cross-platform). We scurry to find our sleeper, while the checked luggage is being transferred, without ever going into the Union Station concourse, much less out into Chicago. This train is almost an hour late, leaving Chicago.
The first 40-50 miles East of Chicago, covering up to an hour and a half of travel time, pass through heavily-industrialized built-up areas, along with old and very poor housing neighborhoods. East of the Indiana state line is devoted largely to large steel mills along the southern shore of Lake Michigan, along with many rail yards devoted to serving these industries. In Illinois, the track East of the Dan Ryan expressway is the site of the former parallel double trackage of the Pennsylvania and New York Central railroads, where their nightly expresses for New York City used to 'race' on leaving Englewood Union Station. The site of that station is now just a debris pile, and the tracks have been reduced, during the Conrail regime, to just a single pair, which weaves back and forth between being on the former Pennsy and former NYC right-of-way. At each waterway, only one of the former pair of lifting bridges remains in service. On the Capitol Limited, in 1983, the industrialized area ends before the train reaches Valparaiso, IN, on the ex-PRR Fort Wayne line..
WE have dinner reservations for 8 pm. There’s no notation on these being Central Time or Eastern Time. When we go to the diner, we’re told we’ve missed out sitting. Since my watch says 7;55 pm (CDT), I dispute this. The Steward says that we change to Eastern time at Fort Wayne, IN. I point out that since we’re over an hour late, we haven’t yet reached Fort Wayne. We’re seated anyway, and after the train makes the Fort Wayne stop the Steward comes over to apologize. Since, due to the time zone change, it is quite late by the time dinner is over, we go directly to bed.
A substantial break in environment occurs overnight on the trains between Chicago and Washington DC, between the mid-Western farmland and the Appalachian Mountains. By the time it's light enough to see the scenery, the eastbound train is alongside the Ohio River, just West of the large Conway yard. Conway Yard, the biggest on the ConRail system, has two double hump yards, receiving yards in each direction, plus locomotive servicing facilities. Located 22 miles west of downtown Pittsburgh, Conway is nonetheless the location referred to as “Pittsburgh” in ConRail freight train symbology. The rest of the way to Pittsburgh, the line follows the Ohio to the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers in downtown Pittsburgh, passing Three Rivers Stadium and crossing the Allegheny River into the station. In Pittsburgh, the train uses the former Pennsylvania railroad station, and its eastward exit from the city curves through the inner city to reach the banks of the Monongahela on the river side of the Braddock steel mill of USX (formerly United States Steel).
Most CSX freights through Pittsburgh do not run through the city itself on the former B&O, but bypass the city to the south and west by means of the former Pittsburgh & Lake Erie. This leaves the main line just west of the steel mills at Braddock, then crosses to the west side of the Monongahela River, runs north past downtown along the river, and eventually crosses back to the east side at Beaver Falls, some 25 miles from Pittsburgh, rejoining the former B&O at New Castle.
A few miles further south from Braddock, this former B&O line to Cumberland, MD, via the Sand Patch grade, turns up the valley of the Youghioghany River through Connellsville, the Youghioghany Gorge, and Ohio Pyle, then up the Casselman River to Meyersdale and Sand Patch summit. On the East side of Sand Patch, the line descends through Mance and Hyndman, then through the 'narrows' to Cumberland. From Cumberland to Washington, DC, the line traverses the Potomac River valley, crossing the river a number of times, passing through Harper's Ferry and Brunswick, then the DC suburbs before reaching the NorthEast Corridor just to the North of Washington Union Station.
We awake as the train nears the top of Sand Patch grade from the west. It’s after the end of breakfast in the diner, and no-one in the adjacent lounge seems interested in serving us any food. (They close service at the normal time, not the normal distance out from their destination.) Elinor meets us at Washington Union Station, drives us out to her apartment in Reston, and then fixes lunch. On the way out, we pass a highway exit for Turkey Run Road. I suggest this is a place where we should stop so Henry can run around, as instructed. Henry howls at the insinuation, and everyone else laughs or groans.
We spend the rest of the afternoon talking about what we’re going to do over the next two weeks. Gradually, it becomes apparent that Elinor won’t be sleeping here while we’re visiting, but is taking the opportunity to stay with a friend for the duration. We agree that we will spend the next two days relaxing around Reston (unless we want to get up at the crack of dawn to take the commute bus into DC), and decide when we see Elinor again on Saturday what will happen thereafter. I use Elinor’s computer to read my e-mail using the Interactive Terminal Service, just as I do from home.
We get up late this morning, able to sleep in for the first time in almost a week. We spend the day finding our way around Reston, which is a planned community with tree-lined paths between the major housing and shopping areas that essentially are quite distinct from the roads and in fact rarely intersect a street with traffic on it. In the evening, Elinor comes over to discuss the transportation options, and we agree that we need to rent a car for next week and the following week.
No sooner have we arranged for a rental car to be picked up on Sunday evening at Dulles Airport than Cal Marlett calls from Pasadena. He wants me to spend one day next week accompanying Laura Ellersieck as she demonstrates some software to a potential customer at the XSIS Roslyn offices. To pay me for using my vacation time for this, he will provide the rental car for the duration of our visit. We’re happy with this, and make a mental note to ensure we pick up the XSIS-provided car on Sunday, not the one we had just ordered for ourselves. (I won’t cancel the personal reservation, lest it cause confusion as to which one is to be canceled.)
This morning, Elinor tells us she has concluded that the place to go today is the new National Aquarium which is located in Baltimore—something that none of us even knew about, much less had thought of going. So, we head in as far as the Capital Beltway, then around the northwest side as far as Interstate 95, which we take north to Baltimore. In Baltimore, we locate the Inner Harbor, and then the signs to parking for the National Aquarium. The Aquarium itself is located right on the Inner Harbor, one of many attractions that have now replaced to old wharves and warehouses that once made this a thriving port area. (Baltimore is still a thriving port, but the modern harbor facilities are located closer to Chesapeake Bay, where today’s deeper-draught ships can more easily access them.)
The National Aquarium is an early example of a new approach to housing, displaying and interpreting marine life, much in the way the wildlife parks provide a different approach from the conventional zoo to the housing, display, and interpretation of land animals and birds. As we walk around the facilities, we get different views into some very large tanks that represent attempts to create complete chunks of habitat for groups of marine plants and creatures. The whole is quite fascinating, and doubtless something appropriate for Henry to do, although probably not the way I would have chosen to spend a day.
Leaving the aquarium, we pass the old B&O Camden Station, still in use as a terminal for commuter trains in the area, although at this stage looking quite run down. We return to Reston by the same route we used to come north earlier in the day.
There is some kind of street fair in the center of Alexandria today, so we’ll visit that and have lunch there, before heading out to the west of the city to visit the double battlefield at Manassas, VA (“Bull Run”). We head around the Beltway to the southwest this time, exiting just before the Potomac River crossing, then park on the street several blocks south of the center of Alexandria. The ways in which the houses along these streets have been gentrified, and commercial buildings modified for ‘adaptive reuse’ are interesting—more so than the street fair itself, as it turns out (but then I’m not a nine-year-old, and Elinor is looking for things that will interest Henry), although the fair is a convenient source of food.
The Manassas battlefields (yes, plural—there were two Civil War battles here, in successive years) are just beyond the current extent of the built-up area of the Virginia suburbs, which explains the ongoing struggles to preserve the battlefields as open space for future generations to visit. We use Interstate 66 to get out to the area, then the old US Highway to get to the battlefields themselves. We start at the National Park Service Visitors’ Center, where we tour the museum and examine the three-dimensional “map” of the two battles. Then we head out to take the self-guided walking tour of First Manassas and the self-guided driving Tour of Second Manassas that, conveniently, cover the two battles in chronological order.
The first battle of Manassas was the first real encounter between the Union Army of the Potomac and the Confederate Army of Virginia. Many residents of Washington DC were so sure of a Union victory that they brought picnic lunches out to the area to watch the battle; when Lee’s forces gained the upper hand, the society folks had to scurry back across the river!
[First Manassas] was the first major land battle of the armies in Virginia. On July 16, 1861, the untried Union army under Brig. Gen. Irvin McDowell marched from Washington against the Confederate army, which was drawn up behind Bull Run beyond Centreville. On the 21st, McDowell crossed at Sudley Ford and attacked the Confederate left flank on Matthews Hill. Fighting raged throughout the day as Confederate forces were driven back to Henry Hill. Late in the afternoon, Confederate reinforcements (one brigade arriving by rail from the Shenandoah Valley) extended and broke the Union right flank. The Federal retreat rapidly deteriorated into a rout. Although victorious, Confederate forces were too disorganized to pursue. Confederate Gen. Bee and Col. Bartow were killed. Thomas J. Jackson earned the nom de guerre “Stonewall.” By July 22, the shattered Union army reached the safety of Washington. This battle convinced the Lincoln administration that the war would be a long and costly affair. McDowell was relieved of command of the Union army and replaced by Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan, who set about reorganizing and training the troops.
In August, 1862, the two armies met again in the same general area:
In order to draw [Major General John] Pope’s [US] army into battle, ‘Stonewall’ Jackson ordered an attack on a Federal column that was passing across his front on the Warrenton Turnpike on August 28. The fighting at Brawner Farm lasted several hours and resulted in a stalemate. Pope became convinced that he had trapped Jackson and concentrated the bulk of his army against him. On August 29, Pope launched a series of assaults against Jackson’s position along an unfinished railroad grade. The attacks were repulsed with heavy casualties on both sides. At noon, Longstreet arrived on the field from Thoroughfare Gap and took position on Jackson’s right flank. On August 30, Pope renewed his attacks, seemingly unaware that Longstreet was on the field. When massed Confederate artillery devastated a Union assault by Fitz John Porter’s command, Longstreet’s wing of 28,000 men counterattacked in the largest, simultaneous mass assault of the war. The Union left flank was crushed and the army driven back to Bull Run. Only an effective Union rearguard action prevented a replay of the First Manassas disaster. Pope’s retreat to Centreville was precipitous, nonetheless. The next day, Lee ordered his army in pursuit. This was the decisive battle of the Northern Virginia Campaign. 
As we walk back to the car at the completion of the tours, next to a cemetery established for the fallen of the second battle of Manassas, Elinor somberly says that she thinks the north should just have let the southern states go, and that the result would merely have been that the black people would have migrated to the northern cities a century earlier than they actually did. My immediate response is “But Elinor, they would still have been slaves”, which serves to terminate that line of conversation, at least until she later wonders how she could ever have missed that point.
We leave the battlefield area heading north, alongside the eastern edge of Dulles Airport, then drive to rental car pickup where I point the agent at the XSIS packet, ignoring the other one with my name on it. We leave the airport with both cars, and drive back to the apartment in Reston for dinner.
The transportation situation in and out of Reston is peculiar. The limited-access highway to Dulles Airport passes right through the center of the town, but it can be used only by the commuter buses, and only at those specific times. Mere mortals driving cars have to use the connecting road to Leesburg Pike, and then that two-lane highway in to the Beltway in the Tyson's Corner area. To get to the center of Washington, we then take the Beltway north for one or two exits, and get off on the George Washington Parkway along the Potomac until we reach our desired exit. (There is an Interstate highway, I-66, that heads into town from the beltway, but it is designated in its entirety, on this stretch, for “High occupancy Vehicles” with at least four occupants, so we don’t qualify to use it.) This is the same way that Elinor had driven out on Wednesday, but we weren’t really thinking then about where we would be driving by ourselves. The same connecting route to Leesburg Pike is used even if we’re heading away from Washington.
Reaching the central area, we follow the signs to a parking area along the east bank of the Potomac, between the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials (former to the north, latter to the south) which is served by the shuttle trams that also cover a route around the entire mall on an “all day fare” basis. There is also a route that crosses the river and goes through Arlington National Cemetery, for an additional fee. We elect to take this route before starting on our coverage of the museums around the mall, but first we visit the Lincoln Memorial, with its oversized statue and inscriptions from its subject’s famous speeches. The only previous time I had been here, my then boss, Herb Deich, made a point of reading all of the inscribed text out loud to me, to great effect, so I repeat that process with Henry, today.
The tour of Arlington Cemetery includes a stop at the Visitors’ Center and then a ride around the roads through the gravesites. It is possible to leave the tram to spend some time at the Kennedy (JFK and RFK) gravesite and eternal flame, which Chris wishes to do but I elect not to, since I don’t want to spend the rest of the day crying. Just seeing the site from the tram is quite enough. The tram also takes us past the Robert E Lee house that was also, earlier, the Custis Mansion where Martha Washington had lived before she married George.
Back on the Mall, we first take the tram around the complete route, to see exactly what and where we can go to, then stop at the American History Museum, especially to visit the railroad exhibit with the former Southern Ps-4 4-6-2 1401, resplendent in its green livery. This accomplished, we return to the car and to Reston, before the real onslaught of rush hour traffic can begin.
Today, we’re going to visit the Antietam (Sharpsburg) battlefield, alongside the Potomac some miles further west than Harper’s Ferry, so we turn the other way (west) on Leesburg Pike, pass the Xerox Training Center near Leesburg, then turn north in Leesburg itself. We cross the river into Brunswick, then turn west and cross back into West Virginia to reach Harper’s Ferry, where we stop to take a walking tour of the historic town, including the site of the arsenal that John Brown had raided before the Civil War, and some exquisitely-preserved housing of that period, as well as the railroad bridges across the Potomac. The weather is hot and humid, so we also stop for some ice-cold liquid refreshment (and lunch) before proceeding.
Continuing west through Martinsburg, we eventually take a right turn and cross the river again into the little town of Sharpsburg, located where the road crosses Antietam Creek. Here, we follow the directions out of town to the northwest, to the NPS Visitors’ Center, where we watch the introductory film and collect the necessary map and driving tour directions. We then drive around the places like the Cornfield, Orchard and the Sunken Road, as well as a specific bridge over the creek, that all figured in the bloodiest single day of battle that has ever occurred in North America:
On September 16, 1862, Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan confronted Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia at Sharpsburg, Maryland. At dawn September 17, Hooker’s corps mounted a powerful assault on Lee’s left flank that began the single bloodiest day in American military history. Attacks and counterattacks swept across Miller’s cornfield and fighting swirled around the Dunker Church. Union assaults against the Sunken Road eventually pierced the Confederate center, but the Federal advantage was not followed up. Late in the day, Burnside’s corps finally got into action, crossing the stone bridge over Antietam Creek and rolling up the Confederate right. At a crucial moment, A.P. Hill’s division arrived from Harpers Ferry and counterattacked, driving back Burnside and saving the day. Although outnumbered two-to-one, Lee committed his entire force, while McClellan sent in less than three-quarters of his army, enabling Lee to fight the Federals to a standstill. During the night, both armies consolidated their lines. In spite of crippling casualties, Lee continued to skirmish with McClellan throughout the 18th, while removing his wounded south of the river. McClellan did not renew the assaults. After dark, Lee ordered the battered Army of Northern Virginia to withdraw across the Potomac into the Shenandoah Valley. 
After completing the driving tour of the battlefield, somewhat sobered by what happened here, we return to Reston through West Virginia, bypassing Harper’s Ferry and heading directly east across the several hundred foot high ridge into Leesburg, where we rejoin our outward route of this morning.
Today we return to central DC, parking in the same area as before, and taking the tram to the National Air and Space Museum stop. This is the day that Henry has waited for, since he’s very much an aircraft and space vehicle enthusiast. The National Air and Space Museum, in 1983, is the most recent museum in the Smithsonian. It comprises a large airy building, with room to hang both a DC-3 airliner and Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis, and floor space for a Mercury space capsule, the mockup Moon Lander, a large commercial fan-jet aircraft engine, and many other exhibits. There are also smaller rooms, off to the side on two floors, covering the history of aviation from the Wright Brothers onward, and the history of space exploration. I’m not an aviation enthusiast, so I’ve seen what I want to see quite early on, but Henry has lots he wants to see, so we spend a long time here, both before and after lunch (which is at a sidewalk café just outside the building).
One of the exhibits in the museum is an anatomy of an airplane that crashed on final approach to Dulles Airport, failing to clear the top of the ridge over which we had passed the previous afternoon on the way back towards Leesburg. I found this quite interesting.
Once we’re finally finished at the museum, we walk westward along the south side of the Mall, stopping in the Smithsonian sculpture garden, comprising mostly ‘modern’ sculpture, and the main hall of the old Smithsonian ‘castle’ before returning to Reston.
This is the workday, in Roslyn with Laura Ellersieck. I drive in to town the usual way, but go into Roslyn at the bend on the Potomac, rather than continuing across the river to the parking lot. In Roslyn, I park at the building hosting the XSIS Washington Office and go in. Laura is already there, setting up her demo. The visitors arrive and are shown the demo. They show interest, but don’t get their checkbook out. Nor do they stay for lunch. The XSIS Washington rep, whose name I forget, takes Laura and me to lunch. Because this is Laura, we have to go to a place that serves just plain hamburgers, with just plain French fries and Coca-Cola (not Pepsi). After lunch, we continue talking for awhile, then Laura leaves to catch her plane from Dulles (she doesn’t want to ride out there with me, even though the trip out the Dulles highway to the airport and back to Reston might be faster for me than the drive via Leesburg Pike), and I return to Reston, where Chris and Henry are waiting in Elinor’s apartment. I use Elinor’s computer to report to Cal Marlett, via e-mail, the way the meeting went.
Civil War battlefields aren’t the only places of historical interest outside Washington. George Washington also lived in this area, both before it became of national importance, and after his presidency was over. Today, we’re visiting the home at Mount Vernon that he inherited from his brother and made the center of his life (if not his daily activities) for the remainder of his life. To get there, we head around the south side of the beltway, exiting onto George Washington Parkway just before the river crossing, and heading south the couple of miles to the estate at Mount Vernon.
The house and estate are not National Park Service properties, but are owned and maintained by a non-profit group established for the purpose. We pay our entrance fee and sign up for a tour of the house. The estate borders directly on the south side of the Potomac, and the house is on the crest of the slope rising up from that river, with broad views from the river (back) side of the house. The house itself is large without being palatial, and is maintained to appear as it would have when George and Martha Washington lived here. We tour most of the rooms in the main house, and a number of the facilities (including slave quarters) adjacent to it on the estate. We also visit the grave site.
The weather is extremely hot and humid, today, and after touring the house and adjacent facilities, and the vegetable garden area, we’ve had quite enough of being outside. However, that presents a problem, since we’ve been here just long enough for the Friday afternoon traffic jam on the beltway to have formed. So instead of returning directly to Reston, we drive instead to the river front in Alexandria, where we spend some time going around the restored warehouses now in adaptive reuse as a design center and home for arts and crafts vendors. Then we move on to the tavern that I had visited with Al Geiser some ten years previously, where we have some refreshing cold drinks and eat dinner—this restaurant is famous for its Maryland Crab Cakes (even though we’re on the Virginia shore), which are as enjoyable as I had remembered them.
After dinner, with the time approaching 7 pm, we return to Reston, with the traffic flowing quite well for a summer Friday evening.
We’re going to the battlefield at Gettysburg, today. To get there, we head northwest, across the Potomac and continuing east of the route we had taken to Antietam, passing Fredrick, MD and then the Maryland State Park that is the home of Camp David, then crossing the state line into Pennsylvania. As usual, we collect the self-guided tour materials from the NPS Visitors’ Center, but we also visit the adjacent cyclorama, with its pictorial representation of the whole battle in one large painting, before proceeding.
Gen. Robert E. Lee concentrated his full strength against Maj. Gen. George G. Meade’s Army of the Potomac at the crossroads county seat of Gettysburg. On July 1, [1863,] Confederate forces converged on the town from west and north, driving Union defenders back through the streets to Cemetery Hill. During the night, reinforcements arrived for both sides. On July 2, Lee attempted to envelop the Federals, first striking the Union left flank at the Peach Orchard, Wheatfield, Devil’s Den, and the Round Tops with Longstreet’s and Hill’s divisions, and then attacking the Union right at Culp’s and East Cemetery Hills with Ewell’s divisions. By evening, the Federals retained Little Round Top and had repulsed most of Ewell’s men. During the morning of July 3, the Confederate infantry were driven from their last toe-hold on Culp’s Hill. In the afternoon, after a preliminary artillery bombardment, Lee attacked the Union center on Cemetery Ridge. The Pickett-Pettigrew assault (more popularly, Pickett’s Charge) momentarily pierced the Union line but was driven back with severe casualties. Stuart’s cavalry attempted to gain the Union rear but was repulsed. On July 4, Lee began withdrawing his army toward Williamsport on the Potomac River. His train of wounded stretched more than fourteen miles. 
Then, we head south, along cemetery ridge where there are many memorials to individual state regiments that fought in the battle. Continuing south, we visit the area of the Round Tops, Peach Orchard, Wheatfield and Devil’s Den, all of which are east of the road on which we arrived. Crossing over that road, we pass the entrance to the Eisenhower farm, then drive north along the road just behind the Confederate positions on Seminary Ridge. Then we tour the areas of the fighting on July 1st, which are to the north of the Seminary Ridge area, and the northwest of Gettysburg town. Returning to the area around the Visitors Center, we stand on Cemetery Ridge contemplating the land across which Pickett’s men approached to their doom, and then visit the cemetery where Lincoln gave the famous address four months after the battle.
This three-day battle is too much to take in on a one-day visit, but we have at least stood at and looked at every significant location, according to the guides we had in our hands. We return to Reston by taking Interstate 40 to the beltway and then the usual Leesburg Pike route back to the apartment.
As a break, we thought, from history, we‘ve chosen to visit Annapolis and the Eastern Shore area of Maryland, today. The route to Annapolis is almost directly across the metropolitan area from Reston, so there’s little to choose between the ways to go around the beltway to get there. As tourists, we elect to go round to the south on the way there, and the north on the way back. As far as the river bridge, this is the same route we took on Friday, but today we continue across the bridge to the Maryland side, and continue around the southeast quadrant until we reach US 50, where we turn east to reach Annapolis.
Here, we park and spend an hour or more walking around the historic town center, looking at the historic state government buildings, merchants’ houses, and the like. We also go over to the US Naval Academy, and are surprised to discover that the Academy is offering tours, today. We sign up for a tour after lunch, then eat lunch in the facilities available to visitors inside the Academy. The tour takes us around the grounds and through classrooms, laboratories (this is an engineering school) and athletic facilities, as well as through one of the houses maintained for the officers stationed here. This is fascinating, and well worth the (unplanned) time it has taken to do.
When the tour is over, we leave Annapolis and head across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge to the Eastern Shore. The latter is a wild, marshy area, quite unlike more westerly areas of the state. Our original plans had been to drive all the way to the Atlantic Shore, but our visit to the Naval Academy has made it unrealistic to achieve that, now, so we limit ourselves to a drive along the eastern shore of Chesapeake Bay itself, until we conclude that dinner time is fast approaching. We had seen a likely restaurant just on the eastern approach to the bridge, so we return there, observing on the way that traffic back across the bridge is very heavy in this 6 pm hour on a sunny Sunday.
By the time we’ve had cold drinks and then dinner at the restaurant, the traffic level has abated considerable, so we return across the bridge, taking the northern route around the beltway as twilight approaches, and reaching Reston as darkness falls.
We still have museums on the Capitol Mall that we haven’t yet visited, so today is another visit to the city center. We’ve concluded that Henry wouldn’t tolerate our spending several hours in the National Gallery, so we won’t be going there. However, we will be visiting the Museum of Natural History, which we hope will be better received. Parking in the usual place, and taking the tram, we reach that museum by mid morning. To put the museum in its best light, we start in the Dinosaur hall, where the massive reconstructed skeletons are located. Henry had once been into dinosaurs (before airplanes, that is), so he’s quite taken with these, and is now willing to at least give the rest of this museum a try.
We walk around the areas with the many dioramas showing the way that animals of the past and present integrated into their environments, and visit the precious stones area, which Chris loves, but Henry hates. We have lunch in the museum cafeteria, in about the middle of our visit. Afterwards, we take the tram along to the Capitol itself, where we walk all around the outside of the building, take a look at nearby buildings such as the Library of Congress and Congressional Office buildings, and admire the view along the mall to the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial beyond the Reflecting Pool. We decide not to sign up for any of the tours of the inside of the building, due mostly to the lengthy waiting time involved. (We had long since concluded that we would not be touring the inside of the White House for the same reasons, but we do take the time to pass by the outside of the White House Grounds.)
Satisfied that we’ve covered everything that we can reasonably cover without spending hours waiting in lines, or exceeding Henry’s tolerance for “boring” things, we return to the car and go back to Reston.
Today, we’re going to visit the sites of the various battles that took place in the country just south of the Rappahannock River in central Virginia. These battles took place in several different years and phases of the Civil War, and do not present a coherent whole to the visitor.
To get there, we drive around the south leg of the beltway to Interstate 95, and then head south to Fredericksburg. In that town, we exit and follow the signs to the site of the eponymous battlefield. As with all battlefield sites, we first find the NPS Visitors’ center and acquire the instructions for the self-guided tours. We tour the sites along the hillside above the ex-RF&P main line, and walk to the area behind a stone wall near the Visitors Center where many men died. The sites in the woods on the hillside are so peaceful now that it is hard to imagine what it must have been like at the height of the battle.
On November 14, [1862, General Ambrose] Burnside, now in command of the Army of the Potomac, sent a corps to occupy the vicinity of Falmouth near Fredericksburg. The rest of the army soon followed. Lee reacted by entrenching his army on the heights behind the town. On December 11, Union engineers laid five pontoon bridges across the Rappahannock under fire. On the 12th, the Federal army crossed over, and on December 13, Burnside mounted a series of futile frontal assaults on Prospect Hill and Marye’s Heights that resulted in staggering casualties. Meade’s division, on the Union left flank, briefly penetrated Jackson’s line but was driven back by a counterattack. Union generals C. Feger Jackson and George Bayard, and Confederate generals Thomas R.R. Cobb and Maxey Gregg were killed. On December 15, Burnside called off the offensive and recrossed the river, ending the campaign. Burnside initiated a new offensive in January 1863, which quickly bogged down in the winter mud. The abortive “Mud March” and other failures led to Burnside’s replacement by Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker in January 1863. 
After touring Fredericksburg, we leave the town towards the west, and stop at a restaurant located in an old country house for lunch. An excellent repast prepares us for the battlefield tours to come. First, we visit Chancellorsville, along the highway to the west:
On April 27,  Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker led the V, XI, and XII Corps on a campaign to turn the Confederate left flank by crossing the Rappahannock and Rapidan Rivers above Fredericksburg. Passing the Rapidan via Germanna and Ely’s Fords, the Federals concentrated near Chancellorsville on April 30 and May 1. The III Corps was ordered to join the army via United States Ford. Sedgwick’s VI Corps and Gibbon’s division remained to demonstrate against the Confederates at Fredericksburg. In the meantime, Lee left a covering force under Maj. Gen. Jubal Early in Fredericksburg and marched with the rest of the army to confront the Federals. As Hooker’s army moved toward Fredericksburg on the Orange Turnpike, they encountered increasing Confederate resistance. Hearing reports of overwhelming Confederate force, Hooker ordered his army to suspend the advance and to concentrate again at Chancellorsville. Pressed closely by Lee’s advance, Hooker adopted a defensive posture, thus giving Lee the initiative. On the morning of May 2, Lt. Gen. T.J. Jackson directed his corps on a march against the Federal left flank, which was reported to be “hanging in the air.” Fighting was sporadic on other portions of the field throughout the day, as Jackson’s column reached its jump-off point. At 5:20 pm, Jackson’s line surged forward in an overwhelming attack that crushed the Union XI Corps. Federal troops rallied, resisted the advance, and counterattacked. Disorganization on both sides and darkness ended the fighting. While making a night reconnaissance, Jackson was mortally wounded by his own men and carried from the field. J.E.B. Stuart took temporary command of Jackson’s Corps. On May 3, the Confederates attacked with both wings of the army and massed their artillery at Hazel Grove. This finally broke the Federal line at Chancellorsville. Hooker withdrew a mile and entrenched in a defensive “U” with his back to the river at United States Ford. Union generals Berry and Whipple and Confederate general Paxton were killed; Stonewall Jackson was mortally wounded. On the night of May 5-6, after Union reverses at Salem Church, Hooker recrossed to the north bank of the Rappahannock. This battle was considered by many historians to be Lee’s greatest victory.
In this area, and old inn at a crossroads, used as a battle headquarters, is of particular interest. Driving south, there is an old ironworks alongside the road. Several miles further south, we visit the Wilderness, to the south of Chancellorsville:
The opening battle of Grant’s sustained offensive against the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, known as the Overland Campaign, was fought at the Wilderness, May 5-7, 1864. On the morning of May 5, the Union V Corps attacked Ewell’s Corps on the Orange Turnpike, while A.P. Hill’s corps during the afternoon encountered Getty’s Division (VI Corps) and Hancock’s II Corps on the Plank Road. Fighting was fierce but inconclusive as both sides attempted to maneuver in the dense woods. Darkness halted the fighting, and both sides rushed forward reinforcements. At dawn on May 6, Hancock attacked along the Plank Road, driving Hill’s Corps back in confusion. Longstreet’s Corps arrived in time to prevent the collapse of the Confederate right flank. At noon, a devastating Confederate flank attack in Hamilton’s Thicket sputtered out when Lt. Gen. James Longstreet was wounded by his own men. The IX Corps (Burnside) moved against the Confederate center, but was repulsed. Union generals James S. Wadsworth and Alexander Hays were killed. Confederate generals John M. Jones, Micah Jenkins, and Leroy A. Stafford were killed. The battle was a tactical draw. Grant, however, did not retreat as had the other Union generals before him. On May 7, the Federals advanced by the left flank toward the crossroads of Spotsylvania Courthouse. 
Finally, we move on, as Grant did, to visit the battlefield of Spotsylvania Courthouse, a bit further south yet. Here, we take the self-guided walking tour of Bloody Angle, as well as driving by many other places of importance in the campaign.
After the Wilderness, Grant’s and Meade’s advance on Richmond by the left flank was stalled at Spotsylvania Court House on May 8. This two-week battle was a series of combats along the Spotsylvania front. The Union attack against the Bloody Angle at dawn, May 12-13, captured nearly a division of Lee’s army and came near to cutting the Confederate army in half. Confederate counterattacks plugged the gap, and fighting continued unabated for nearly 20 hours in what may well have been the most ferociously sustained combat of the Civil War. On May 19, a Confederate attempt to turn the Union right flank at Harris Farm was beaten back with severe casualties. Union generals Sedgwick (VI Corps commander) and Rice were killed. Confederate generals Johnson and Steuart were captured, Daniel and Perrin mortally wounded. On May 21, Grant disengaged and continued his advance on Richmond. 
Overwhelmed, we make our way back to Interstate 95, stop for something cold to drink, and then return to Reston. We’ve visited the majority, if not perhaps quite all, of the battlefields of the Virginia Campaign that are within a reasonable day’s drive of Reston (with a nine-year-old), in as near to sequence order as we can (Gettysburg falls between Chancellorsville and Wilderness, so strict Chronological order would have required two trip to the area west of Fredericksburg). Having seen the terrain at each location helps with understanding the battlefield descriptions in the history books. It helps not at all in understanding the failures of the Union commanders to press their advantages after Antietam and (later) Gettysburg. Perhaps the Union strategy in Virginia was simply to defend Washington and tie up as many Confederate troops as possible while winning the war west of the Appalachians and then closing up behind Lee’s troop from the south!
For our last full day in the area, we have elected to cross the Potomac to visit the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historic Park and the Great Falls of the Potomac, which are adjacent to the most convenient area at which to visit the canal. To get there, we use the northbound beltway to cross the river at the Cabin John Bridge, then exit immediately on the Maryland side, turning west to follow the river past the US Navy’s Ship Modeling facilities and along to the Canal Park site and the area from which to view the falls. We spend some time viewing the falls from a number of different viewpoints, and observing the route of the (restored) canal that had once been intended to be a major transportation artery between the Potomac/Chesapeake area and the Ohio River on the other side of the eastern divide, only to be overtaken by the development of railroads (and particularly, the construction of the Baltimore & Ohio along essentially the same route as the canal).
We find an inn at which to eat lunch, after which we just miss the ability to travel in a restored barge over the restored segment of the canal, the last trip of the day having just left the dock (at 2 pm). After taking some pictures of the barge from the towpath, we elect to return to Reston, since we have to be there in good time to go to a “last night dinner” with Elinor. It appears we will have plenty of time to get there, at least as we leave the historic site to head back to the beltway and the bridge over the river.
As we traverse the onramp to the beltway, it’s obvious that traffic on the beltway itself is not moving. Ahead, we can see that a truck is on fire hanging over the guard rail on the fast lane of the southbound bridge span. It’s obvious that traffic will not be going anywhere any time soon. Fortunately, we can still access the off-ramp, so we get back off and head into town on the north side of the river. This soon proves less than optimal, since we reach the segment of road that is dedicated to outbound traffic only for the evening rush-hour, and have to take an alternate route further up the hill. Eventually, we find the road down to the Chain Bridge over to Langley, which we cross to reach the George Washington Parkway and our normal route out of town. We have consumed less than an hour of additional time over this detour, which is not bad for people who are only vaguely familiar with the area.
Elinor arrives and we describe our day and our difficulties in getting here in time. We eat dinner at a “Mexican” restaurant in Herndon, then say our goodbyes. Elinor will move back into her apartment on Thursday, after we leave for Washington Union Station to catch our train. She asks that we be out by early afternoon, since she needs to work on her computer to get something done for Friday.
Today, we pack our suitcases for the train trip home, have lunch, and load the bags in the car. We drive to central Washington one last time, crossing the center to the station. Here, I drop Chris, Henry and the luggage at the station, then cross the street to the convenient rental car office where I turn in the car. Back in the station, I find the family and we check the suitcases through to Los Angeles. We then settle down to wait for the Amtrak Crescent to arrive. There’s little to do in the station, since it is still a construction zone after the failed attempt to turn it into a National Visitors center.
In late afternoon (or perhaps early evening), our train arrives, and is announced on the PA. We head for the escalator leading down onto the lower-level through platform. As we’re descending the escalator, a man who has had a bit two much liquid refreshment falls as he is getting off at the bottom, and the escalator inexorably moves the people behind him into the crush. I hold Henry up so that he is at the top of the growing pile of people before someone finally gets the escalator turned off. Little damage has been done, although things could have turned much worse very quickly if the escalator had continued moving much longer.
We find our heritage fleet sleeping car (the usual 10 roomette-6 bedroom car on these eastern trains), where the attendant takes our carry-on bags and shows us to our room. We get dinner reservations for the diner, and eat dinner in southern Virginia. Darkness falls somewhere in the vicinity of Charlottesville.
As far as Alexandria, the Crescent Route is shared with the CSX (RF&P) Route to Richmond and the Deep South. As far as Manassas, the route is shared with Virginia Rail Express, and operator of commute trains to Washington DC. For passenger trains, the route starts in the low-level (through platforms) section of Washington Union Station. Immediately to the south of the platforms, the double track line plunges into a tunnel under Capitol Hill, and emerges among the federal office buildings to the south. As it passes among these buildings on the south side of the National Mall, the CSX (ex-B&O) and NS (ex-Conrail, ex-PRR) freight lines join from the east. The combined routes cross the 14th Street Bridge into Arlington and pass through the site, now largely cleared of the former PRR Potomac Yard, where electric locomotives from the north once delivered their freight trains to be switched into ongoing trains for the railroads to the south. Tracks of the Washington Metro run alongside this line for several miles. At Alexandria, the Amtrak station adjoins a Metro station. Immediately south of Alexandria, the line turns to the west and the route taken by the Southern Crescent and the Manassas VRE trains diverges to the south, then passes under the RF&P line to head west while the RF&P turns again to the south.
After passing under the ex-RF&P, the Crescent route continues west through Fairfax to Manassas, west of which the line to Front Royal and Strasburg heads west while the main line turns southwest to Culpeper, Orange, where the CSX line used by the Cardinal heads off to the south, and Charlottesville, where that same CSX line crosses east-west. The Southern main continues southwest along the foothills (“piedmont”) to Lynchburg, where it crosses the James River and the CSX (ex-C&O) line from Richmond, then south of the station passes under the ex-N&W at Cotton Mill Trestle. Continuing more southerly, now, the Southern main crosses over the former Virginian at Altavista and reaches Danville, almost at the North Carolina border. A number of NS branch lines that were once through routes leave the main line in the Danville area. In North Carolina, the line heads southwest again to Greensboro, where the line from Raleigh and Durham, used by the Carolinian, joins from the east and other NS lines to Winston-Salem and Sanford intersect the main line.
Retaining its southwesterly heading, the line passes through High Point, site of a number of furniture factories, where NS and High Point, Thomasville & Denton lines leave to the east, Lexington, where the Winston-Salem Southbound crosses, Spencer (the site of Linwood Yard), Salisbury, where lines to Asheville to the west and Albemarle to the east diverge, Kannapolis (more furniture factories), and Charlotte. At the latter, lines from Aberdeen to the east and Winston-Salem to the north intersect the main, there is a small yard adjacent to the Amtrak station, and the CSX route from Hamlet (east) to Shelby and Bostic (west) crosses.
From Charlotte, the line heads due west to Gastonia, where branches leave the main, then southwest again, into South Carolina to Blacksburg, where more branches leave, and Spartanburg. Here, the south end of the Clinchfield passes underneath, with connecting spurs, and the line to Saluda leaves to the north at the west end of Hayne Yard. Continuing almost due west, the line crosses above a CSX line at Lyman, and then crosses above more CSX lines in Greenville, passing through Seneca (more NS branches to the north and south) before reaching Toccoa, GA, where a shortline leaves to the south. Traveling southwest again, the junction with the Athens line (to the south) is reached at Lula. A CSX line passes underneath at Gainesville, the Southeastern Railway Museum is on the north side of the line at Duluth, and the line reaches metropolitan Atlanta, crossing over a CSX line and having an NS connecting line leave to the south at Armour Yard before reaching Peachtree station.
I awake during the stop at Atlanta, where several cars are being switched off the train. West of the station, various NS and CSX lines intersect at Howells interlocking, and the westbound line passes the NS Inman Yard before climbing Nickajack Hill. The NS line to Rome and Chattanooga leaves to the northwest at Austell, with the Crescent route continuing through rolling hills to Bremen, where the ex-Central of Georgia crosses, and on into Alabama. Continuing west through rolling hills, the line reaches Anniston, where the NS line to Talladega diverges to the south, crosses the Coosa River, passes through Leeds, where a former C of G line from Opelika joins from the south (crossing on an overbridge, then descending to join on the north side of the line, and enters metropolitan Birmingham. Here, the Crescent route passes under a CSX line, then passes Norrie Yard before reaching the myriad junctions with CSX and other NS lines in central Birmingham.
Now heading southwest, the line passes through the various steel-making communities, including Bessemer, before heading for open country and curving west to Tuscaloosa, where it intersects a former Mobile & Ohio line owned more recently by GM&O (Gulf, . . .), and ICG (Illinois Central Gulf). From Tuscaloosa, the line heads south and then southwest again, past an intersection with the former Frisco (St. Louis, San Francisco), now Burlington Northern, at Boligee, to York. The line then turns westerly again as far as Meridian, MS, where there are multiple intersections with ICG lines and a CSX line. We eat lunch in the diner with an off-duty ICG employee based in Meridian.
The Southern main then trends south-southwest through Laurel and Hattiesburg (where an ICG line intersects) to Picayune, and into Louisiana at Slidell. South of Slidell is the causeway crossing Lake Pontchartrain just a few feet above the water, then the line along the south shore of the lake into metropolitan New Orleans. At Oliver Junction, the Crescent turns west onto the former New Orleans Terminal line that it uses around the northwest side of downtown into New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal.
In New Orleans, we check into our hotel just across the street from the station, and have dinner in the French Quarter.
This morning there is time to walk around parts of New Orleans before having lunch, checking out of the hotel and returning to the station to continue our journey westward. The Sunset Limited departs New Orleans in the early afternoon. Again, we have two separate economy rooms on this Superliner train.
The Sunset Route is largely single track, with long sidings several miles apart for trains to pass. On leaving New Orleans, the line climbs steeply on the steelwork of the Huey Long bridge, crossing the Mississippi River then passes the large marshalling yard at Avondale, West of New Orleans, the line runs through the heart of the Louisiana bayou country, with tress festooned with copious quantities of Spanish Moss.. Between Lafayette and Houston, the line is into low-lying grass and croplands, interspersed with wide slow-moving waterways. The crops here are different from those further west, including fields of cotton and fields of hot peppers, used in famous hot pepper sauces such as Tabasco.
I’m asleep before the train leaves Houston.
I awake somewhere between San Antonio and Del Rio, TX
East of Del Rio, the countryside comprises scrub, and then stands of mesquite, as the aridity eases progressively. Just west of San Antonio, there are corn fields which are very dry, in marked contrast with those up the line towards San Marcos or east towards Flatonia, just a few tens of miles to the east. Arizona and New Mexico, and western Texas, are all arid desert, although full of desert wildlife and the interest of the mountains along much of the way. East of San Antonio, the landscape is quite different, as is the human impact on it. In this vicinity, the railroad crosses the invisible line between the arid areas further west and the non-irrigated (i.e. normal) farmland to the east. All the way from San Antonio to Houston, the line runs through grass and cropland, a distinct difference from the open arid grassland west of San Antonio. The further east (and lower in altitude) it gets, the lusher the crops and grassland are. Use of this land for crops is, of course, quite recent -- in the nineteenth century this was all open range cattle country.
Down in the broad river plain in the first fifty miles or so east of El Paso are irrigated fields and orchards that provide strong contrast to the scrub that is still evident in unirrigated areas. El Paso is one of those cities with very slow track approaches; in this case, 20 mph for the first 15 miles east of El Paso Union Station. As we climb higher towards Paisano Pass (highest point on the Sunset Route at just over 7000 feet), the vegetation gets ever more sparse. Scrub has given way to rocky ground and spiky clumps of “grass". Immediately west of Paisano Pass, the line runs through flat (but not level) open country, still sparsely vegetated, but east of the Pass are some quite spectacular desert mountains. The line is now in the Chihuahuan desert, descending towards the Rio Grande (again) at Del Rio. The line passes through Sanderson, and a couple of hundred miles further east crosses the Pecos River High Bridge. It now passes through the Amistad National Recreation Area, crossing over the reservoir called Lake Amistad. Lake Amistad is 1119 feet above see level, 6000 feet down from Paisano Pass.
The terrain east of Tucson, and especially between Benson and Dragoon, has become quite mountainous in nature, as it climbs up toward the continental divide. However, before the divide is reached, the terrain turns into areas of large salt flats and dry lakes. The continental divide itself is virtually unnoticeable. Across the rest of this part of New Mexico, the line runs through open semi-arid country. Nearing El Paso there are once again two separate tracks, one built by the SP and one by the EP&SW. At Anapra, the southernmost track passes within 20 ft. or so of the Mexican border, through an area where freight trains are often robbed (there is a shanty town just across the border). The lines cross the Rio Grande, into Texas, on separate steel girder bridges. At El Paso, there is an on-line fuel rack adjacent to the station, and another adjacent to the roundhouse a mile further east. At this latter location, the former El Paso & Northeastern, later SP, line to Tucumcari and the former Rock Island, now "Cotton Rock" route to Kansas City, splits off to the north. There is no fuel-rack at this location on that line; hence the additional fuel rack adjacent to the station.
Darkness has fallen by the time the train reaches Benson.
The line passes through Winter Haven, CA, crosses the Colorado River on a large through-truss bridge, and enters Yuma, Arizona (eastward). East of Yuma, this part of the Sonoran Desert has many saguaro, as well as cholla and yucca cacti along the line. At Picacho, the Phoenix branch joins from the north, and the line's direction turns from slightly north of east to southeast towards Tucson. At Tucson, south of the station, are a large yard with on-line fuel rack, beyond which is the junction with the line to Mexico and then the split between the two eastward tracks, the original SP down in the curving valley of the local watercourse, and the former EP&SW up on the level ground. At Cienega Creek, in a nature reserve, the upper track crosses the lower track on a steel trestle.
The line now passes alongside the Salton Sea. Here, the track is almost a hundred feet below sea level, but when it was built it had been almost three hundred feet below sea level, at the bottom of the Salton Sink that was then completely dry. The present body of water was created in the first few years of the twentieth century, when a flooding Colorado River burst through the control gates at the irrigation outlet, and the flood water poured downgrade to the Salton Sink. Over the next several years, numerous attempts to close the breach in the Colorado's flood walls were unsuccessful, and the level of the new Salton Sea continued to rise. As it did so, it began to cover the lines of the Southern Pacific, which was forced to lay a new line higher up. Several years later, when forced to move the line for the third time (to its present location), the SP's management had had enough, and the railroad took on the challenge of sealing the breach. With all of the engineering resources of the railroad at its disposal, it was successful where others had not been, and the breach was closed. In the ninety plus years since then, evaporation has reduced the level of the “sea” so that in most places it no longer washes adjacent to the tracks, and in so doing has raised the salinity of the water well above that of the Pacific ocean, just 200 miles away.
After crossing the Santa Ana River eastward, the line then climbs the almost 2% grade of San Timoteo Canyon until it reaches the broad 2500 ft. summit of Beaumont Pass. Across the broad valley, located between the 10,000 foot peaks of San Gorgonio to the north and San Jacinto to the south, there are several large fields of electricity-generating windmills. At the east end of the valley, the line begins its descent to the Salton Sink. Although the actual lowest point is below sea level, Indio is the nominal start of the steady 2500 foot, 50 mile long, climb to the summit of Beaumont Pass. There are very few railroad facilities, even very few artifacts left in Indio now, except for a helper track or two, where once was a large freight yard, massive icing facilities for refrigerated cars (reefers), and a large locomotive depot, as well as a passenger station.
The Sunset Route starts at Shops Yard in Los Angeles (across the Los Angeles River from Mission Tower), and runs east through Alhambra and San Gabriel in a line that has now been sunk below grade in a trench. In El Monte, the line rises to grade level and crosses the Rio Hondo and San Gabriel River. (In 2001, Amtrak's Sunset Limited runs along the Metrolink line down the middle of the San Bernardino Freeway, as far as El Monte.) It then passes the City of Industry yard, latterly concentrated on intermodal traffic, passes through Pomona and Ontario, along the north side of Ontario Airport, and reaches the vast classification yard at West Colton. East of West Colton, the Palmdale cutoff diverges to the north, followed by a flat crossing with the BNSF San Bernardino subdivision, at which there is now a connector permitting UP trains that have come via Loma Linda and Riverside to join the Sunset Route. All of this part of the route remains within the urban fabric of greater Los Angeles.
We awake already in the Los Angeles Basin, albeit an hour or so late. Frank Saumur is waiting when we arrive in Los Angeles, where we reclaim the checked baggage and drive home.