Leesylvania State Park is a park in the U.S. state of Virginia located twenty-five miles south of Washington D.C. Before it was a state park, it was a hunting resort, but before it was a hunting resort, it was a plantation. (The name of the park is derived from the Lee family who had ownership of the property. It was called Leesylvania Plantation.) Before it was a plantation, it could possibly be a site of a village of the Algonquian tribe. A Civil War skirmish also happened here. Today, it is a park with a beach on the Potomac River, a fishing pier, picnic grounds, hiking trails and ruins of plantation houses and the remains of an old earthen fort. There is also a Visitor Center with a small museum explaining the history of the park. A day at Leesylvania State Park is truly a day well spent.
Some of you are saying, “This is great. This is a park that has much history. There is one problem. This park has no railroads. Therefore, as far as I am concerned, history will not see me at this park.”
Be advised. You are wrong. The park does not have a train that you can ride, but a railroad line does pass through this park, and it played a major part of the park’s history.
As you enter the park and pay the fee, you will continue along the park road for a mile, and you will see a railroad bridge. Originally, it was the Alexandria and Fredericksburg Railroad, but it is now owned by the Chessie and Seaboard Consolidated Railroad. (We simply know it as CSX.) The railroad goes through this park, but this is just the beginning. You continue to park your car. You then decide to go on a hike. Where? You hike the Lee Woods Historic Trail. Along this trail are the remains of chimneys of the houses of the Fairfax and the Lee families. You will also find the old Civil War fort, an amphitheater, and a cemetery.
Some of you are saying, “This is great, but what does all of this have to do with the railroad?”
As mentioned, the railroad bridge that you passed under was just the beginning. Another thing that you will see on this trail is an old railroad cut. This cut was dug out by the Alexandria and Fredericksburg Railroad in 1872. The railroad literally weaved its way through what is now the park. The result was many landslides and derailments. One of these accidents delayed a train owned by a man named Phineas Taylor Barnum. Yes, this is the same Phineas Taylor Barnum that began what would become the ‘Greatest Show on Earth’, commonly known as the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus, and it was the circus train that was delayed. The rail line was straightened years later, and it continues the current route to this day.
Some of you are saying, “That is interesting. It is great that they were able to straighten the railroad through the park.”
It is, but that is not the only thing that this park has with the railroad.
As you walk on the trail, you will see the amphitheater, and you will notice the old fireplace. This fireplace is what remains of the hunting lodge of the Wheelock Hunt Club. Started by a group of businessmen from New York and 1926 and later purchased by Gregory Wheelock and Percy Chubb in 1928, what is now the state park was abundant with waterfowl. Why was the hunt club built here? The abundance of waterfowl was one reason. The other reason is because of the railroad. Hunters were able to travel here by the railroad and go hunting for a day or a few days. Sadly, the waterfowl population went into decline in the 1940’s, and the hunting club closed in 1957. The hunting lodge went into disrepair and was eventually demolished leaving only the old chimney as a reminder of the old lodge.
There were plans to build a waterfront resort. Whether the railroad played a role in the plans of the resort is unknown, but the resort was never built. Daniel Keith Ludwig, a billionaire and businessman, was the last owner of the land. He donated the park to the U.S. state of Virginia, and, in 1989, it became Leesylvania State Park.
Leesylvania State Park is at 2001 Daniel K. Ludwig Drive in Woodbridge, Virginia. It is minutes from Interstate 95 and U.S. Route 1. There is an entrance fee to enter the park. Please note that access to the ruins and the old fort are not wheelchair accessible. You can get more information at https://www.dcr.virginia.gov/state-parks/leesylvania.
The next time you hear about Leesylvania State Park as a historic place, you can truly say that railroad history runs through it.