Friday, July 6, 2012

Railroad Warehouses, Fort Belvoir, Virginia

Fort Belvoir is an expansive U.S. Army base located on the Potomac River in Fairfax County, Virginia, about 8 miles southwest of Washington, DC.

The U.S. Army began using the Belvoir peninsula as training area for the Army’s Engineer School in 1915. When the United States entered World War I in April of 1917, the army needed to train and equip tens of thousands of troops in a short period. This led to the development of a semi-permanent cantonment, named Camp A.A. Humphreys (the former Chief of Engineers from 1866-1879). Over 5,000 soldiers and 6,000 civilians cleared, surveyed, and constructed the camp in only 11 months under difficult conditions and heavy snowfall during the severe winter of 1918. At that time, the Belvoir peninsula was largely undeveloped, consisting of forest and some small farms.

Previously, access to the Belvoir Peninsula had been by boat down the Potomac from Washington, but the Army realized this would not be adequate for a major cantonment housing thousands of troops. The unpaved Washington-Richmond Highway (now US 1) was surfaced in concrete in 1918, and army engineers constructed a railway linking Camp Humphreys with the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad. Eventually, tracks led to numerous warehouses, supplying supplies, fuels, and vehicles for over 20,000 troops. The rail link also served to train Army engineer troops whose specialty was building and running railroads.

This is the only historical photograph I could find, showing construction of the rail bed using mules and manual labor (from the WashCycle web page).


Even more unusual, over 20 miles of narrow-gauge (2-ft) track was laid on the post. The narrow-gauge rail was valuable in the European war theater, where most local roads were dirt or mud then.

"From March until the end of the war on Nov. 11, 1918, hundreds of soldiers and engineers trained on the little Camp Humphreys railway, learning how to put together track, build railway trestles and run the tiny steam and gas locomotives. Many of these tiny trains accompanied the troops to Europe, where the Americans and their British and French allies used them to help turn the tide, bringing victory in Europe."

"The two-foot-gauge railway at Camp Humphreys also played an important role in moving supplies and workers engaged in construction projects for the rapidly expanding installation."
(Source: www.army.mil).


Now we come to the purpose of this blog. The last Army railway equipment left the base in 1993 and the track was subsequently removed. But many of the warehouses remain in place. In typical Army fashion, the buildings are secured, painted, and well-maintained, and look like they could be put into operation at a moment's notice (except no trains will pull up ever again). You can see the platforms at the right height for unloading boxcars.

I am not sure what was stored in the neat rows of galvanized steel buildings.


The brick warehouses were also in good condition, and I could not tell if they were being used. Notice the clever security grates designed to allow the swing-out windows to open.


The main base is closed to casual visitors, but the 1,200-acre Accotink Bay Wildlife Refuge is open to the public. It offers excellent birding opportunities. There were some plans to convert the old rail line to a rails-to-trails bike and running path, but I do not know how the army would manage the security aspects.

Warehouse photographs taken with a Sony DSC-W7 digital camera, tripod-mounted. This was a decent-quality early-vintage digital compact camera.  But, it did not record the RAW file, and the jpeg compression was too great, leading to odd artifacts. Still, it served well for six years until it finally developed power problems. The two wetland photographs were taken with a lower-resolution Canon PowerShot S330.

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