Gertrude Sutherland bathed in her backyard until about 10 years ago. She’d walk into a shed behind her small house on Railroad Avenue in Woodbridge, and fill the tub with well water.
Even then, Sutherland, 89, didn’t have to worry about the peering eyes of neighbors or folks in multi-level apartment complexes less than a block away.
When Sutherland moved into her house in 1951, Railroad Avenue boasted all the accents of a rural lane, with a dairy farm at one end and houses spaced generously apart at the other. Now, on the southern end of Railroad Avenue stands the Belmont Bay community; where the farm once was.
Sutherland fondly remembers watching neighbors’ play, making the short walk to the train station across the street, and taking the train to Fort Belvoir.
The train tracks still sit between Railroad Avenue and U.S. 1, but the train station is long gone — even Sutherland can’t remember when it was razed. On a busy day, the train rumbles by her house almost every 20 minutes, shaking her furniture and cupboards.
“My favorite thing about living here is that it’s quiet. I never wanted to move because I like it here. The trains can come by 20 times a day but I don’t pay attention to them; I’ve been here so long,” Sutherland said.
Sutherland’s even used to the heavy traffic that travels U.S. 1 every day. She said the traffic used to run until about 5 p.m., but now it runs until about 7 p.m.
Most northbound travelers probably don’t notice the parallel Railroad Avenue on their right less than a half-mile before they cross the Prince William County line. The few houses remaining on the remote road sit concealed between rich green brush on the U.S. 1 side, and apartment complexes to the rear.
Even though life has drastically changed around Railroad Avenue, the street remains quiet and hidden from the hustle and bustle of the nearby community. Only a concrete slat remains of the old railroad station. And there’s no sign of the telegraph poles that lined the railroad, as seen in old pictures.
Rumors abound among the neighbors that the steps still exist, but the brush is too thick and inaccessible for any real exploration. The state of the road has also degenerated, as most of it is littered with potholes and rest is just gravel.
Meanwhile, apartments and increased traffic around the street reflect the face of a growing county. For the last 10 years, county officials have examined methods to revitalize U.S. 1, and reinfuse life to the Woodbridge stretch of road dotted with dilapidated buildings and vacant businesses.
Recently, the county’s policy makers examined draft plans to revitalize three areas on U.S. 1. Dubbed the “Potomac Communities Revitalization Plan,” it includes designating the properties along Railroad Avenue as a cultural resource.
Potomac Communities planner Pat Thomas said the last vestige of Kings Highway — the road that George Washington took to Yorktown — runs behind the homes on Railroad Avenue. Thomas said if the homes become available, the area could also become part of the Potomac Heritage National scenic trail under the plan.
“It’s the undisturbed piece of old King’s Highway and we’d like to identify all the resources in that area,” she said. “And we know the foundation of the first county courthouse is near there somewhere. We just need to find it.”
The Prince William Board of County Supervisors adopted a sector plan for areas of U.S. 1 in 2000, which included preserving the historic aspects of Railroad Avenue. Lawmakers considered the 10 acres for a park, where the county would incorporate historic markers, a visitor center and possibly a replica of the train station and courthouse. If the new plan is passed, it would repeal the existing sector plan.
Woodbridge resident John W. Dawson, 76, proudly owns a painting of one of Railroad Avenue’s first homes. Purchased by his grandfather Percy Wigglesworth on June 13, 1906, the two-level gray house initially sold for $1,150. The house today doesn’t much resemble the house that was painted around 1912.
Gone are the three large trees in front, the railing lining the porch, and white picket fence. But the house still retains its original color, and Dawson continues to work on the upkeep.
Dawson still has his grandfather’s log, which says he added two rooms to the house when he bought it from the railroad station master. Other entries from Wigglesworth include: paying $3 in labor; purchasing a window for $2.25 and cupboard for $10; and spending $13.50 to plaster the house.
Dawson’s mother, Ethel, inherited the gray house — along with three others — and passed them to him, which he subsequently gave to his children.
“I came here when I was a kid, and there hasn’t been much change to the street. It was nice here,” Dawson said. “My grandfather lived in the (gray) house and the three other houses were tenant houses for a farm.”
In regard to the increase in traffic on U.S. 1, and the burgeoning apartment communities around the street, Dawson said he doesn’t mind.
“If a person owns a piece of land, no one should tell them what to do with it unless they hurt someone real bad. I don’t care what they do with it,” he added.
County records from 1885 designate Woodbridge as a subdivision. Although all the land was never developed, the records cite 13 lots. Other records show that Corbin Thompson owned land on the north and south boundary of the avenue, which was part of his dairy farm.
Even though life has drastically changed around Railroad Avenue, the street remains quiet and secluded from the hustle and bustle of the nearby community.
Kathy Blanchard, 43, remembers when woods and fields filled the area behind her Railroad Avenue home. She moved to the house in first grade when there were two houses to the north, and she’d play with all the kids on the street. Now, the two houses have been taken down by the county, and the house she moved back to in 1999 represents the last house at the end of the street.
Blanchard has pictures in her attic dating back to the time when her great-grandfather, William Burdette, built the two-story house around the end of the 1890s. One of Blanchard’s pictures shows Burdette sitting amid flowers in the backyard with other family members. Blanchard said Burdette worked for the railroad and was the deacon of the first church in Woodbridge.
Although she moved out of her family’s house in 1986, Blanchard likened living in the house to being on a farm.
“It was great because we were secluded here. There were lots of kids to play with and we had a whole field in the back, with horses and a horse stable. The winter’s were great too. We’d have a big campfire, and sled down a hill … you can’t do that here now, because there’s a golf course there,” she said.
“We also used to ride our bikes on what was left of the roof of Thompson’s Dairy Farm. All the farm stuff was collapsing when we grew up. The only thing left now are three old trees where the farmhouse was.”
Both Blanchard’s grandmother and mother grew up in her house. Her grandmother, Sarah Elizabeth Sullivan, was one of nine children raised in the house. Growing up, Blanchard remembers living with no running water and having an outhouse at the end of the yard.
Of course there’s a bathroom in the house now, and lush greenery surrounds it. Still, there’s not much of a backyard and the sounds of cars behind the house can clearly be heard.
“Our backyard used to be just fields, and now I can hear people talking behind the house on their porches,” she said. “It was quiet and fine. We’d play army and explore the woods. We had a lot to do.”