Distance: 2.96 miles
Parking: A few spots at the trailhead and the Franklin St. lot. Many more at the municipal parking lots on West Lee and 3rd streets
Refreshments: Pubs and Cafes along Main Street in Old Town Warrenton
Pets: Under control pets welcome
A pleasant and popular walk along an old railway spur through Warrenton a distance of 3 miles out and back. The grade is gentle and there are several interesting bridges, a restored caboose, an old turntable pit, benches, and pre-civil war culverts. Easy detours to the shops and restaurants of historic downtown Warrenton make a pleasant way to walk off lunch, or sharpen the appetite for some shopping. Of interest for history and railroad enthusiasts, as well as bikers, joggers and roller-bladers.
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The Warrenton Greenway is the town’s central walking trail. Following the course of the Warrenton railway spur, a branch of the old Orange to Alexandria line completed in 1852, it follows a relatively straight, easy grade about 1.5 miles to the southeast through shady trees, across two bridges and three streets, to terminate at Old Meetze (pronounced ‘Metz’) Road. The trail is 10-feet wide and paved and a favorite with old and young, two legged, four legged, and one, two and three wheeled visitors, especially during good weather. The railroad right of way extends east 9 miles through rolling hills and pastureland eventually connecting to the main rail line in Calverton (formerly Warrenton Junction, formally Owl Run) but only the first section in Warrenton is available for public use.
There is a little parking at the trail head on 4th Street South in downtown Warrenton. Bike racks and an information kiosk frame a big red caboose donated by the Norfolk and Southern Corporation sitting on a short run of track maintained by the Friends of the Warrenton Caboose, a small group of dedicated railroad enthusiasts. Caboose-related tours and activities are available monthly during the summer. The trail is a short and pleasant walk from some of the municipal parking lots on West Lee and 3rd Street South as well and there is usually a crowd in the old Warrenton Depot enjoying the upscale eatery Claire’s. Old railway structures are still visible near the Depot including the Mill (on the north side of Claire’s) and the Granary from when Warrenton was an active rail terminus (it closed to passenger service in 1941 and altogether in 1988). There are also a few spots in the parking lot off Franklin St, to your right before going under the pedestrian bridge.
Stand near the caboose and enjoy the scene. The trail heads off next to the reconstructed section of track through what would have been the bustling rail yard and over a lovely (not original) arch and truss foot bridge spanning 5th Street South. Go to the plaque at the side of the caboose and look to your left at the old train depot, now harboring a more decrepit caboose that looks like the dodgy older brother of the clean-cut one in front of you, and a rail-side granary that used to hold the Galloping Grape but now is home to a personal trainer service. The concrete slab to your left is what remains of the original train platform minus the canopy where people would have waited to board the train. Down the stairs behind you is Franklin Street and the low white spire of Christ Church. The white building to the left of the church is the old “ice house” that sold block ice to the greater Warrenton area until the late 1930s. The Tudor building across from Claire’s is the back of St. James Episcopal Church School.
The Friends of the Warrenton Caboose has lovingly restored the old 1969 Norfolk and Western caboose and erected a working track signal and vintage railroad signs along the trail to recall the railroading atmosphere that once surrounded the area. President Franklin Pierce, the Union General George McClellan, Col John Mosby, William Jennings Bryant, and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt are all notable figures whose steps you follow here. Close your eyes and see if you can discern the distant tramp of Army troops shipping out to the battlefields of the Civil War or the Mexican territories in search of Poncho Villa.
Proceed down the trail along with the joggers, dog walkers, cyclists and big wheel enthusiasts, over the beautiful red-trussed bridge and to the old turntable pit on the right. This was once a section of track set on a disc that could rotate a steam engine around at the end of its trip to get it pointing back in the other direction. Before diesel engines replaced steam engines, the turntable was an indispensable bit of infrastructure. It also served as a place to unload cattle, sheep and horses. All that remains now is the circular pit and a few stubs of railroad ties protruding from around the ring like old brown teeth. If no one is watching, stand in the middle of the circle and whisper towards the wall to hear the echoes reverberate back to the focal point. The turntable was removed in 1951.
The trail continues through back lots and neighborhoods, some shady and pleasant, some industrial with parking lots and warehouses. Some of these were side yards where train cars were offloaded or stored. In summer, black raspberries grow in thorny brambles along the sides and can render your mouth sticky and purple by the end of a hike. At a half mile along you pass the protected crossing of sleepy Madison Street. Notice the curious black and white signs on either side. These are ‘whistle posts’ and the dots and dashes give a Morse code pattern that the engineer would sound on the train whistle to warn the buggies near the tracks to take care.
The Greenway continues straight on but an alternative for the thirsty and wearied is to take a left at Madison Street here and head up the hill to make another left onto Falmouth Street and through downtown Warrenton where you can grab a bite or a pint at the many restaurants or do a little shopping. Turning back down 4th Street South will return you to your starting point. This loop walk is about 1.6 miles not including trips to the bar at Molly’s Pub.
If you continue down the Greenway, another 0.4 mi will bring you to the Falmouth St. crossing where you can see the giant carcass of the Super Walmart on your right across the street. But head on because the second metal railroad bridge spanning busy Rt. 29 is not too far ahead. You can hear the cars zoom by underneath in their perpetual hurry to get wherever they’re going as you stand in the middle of this curious open topped steel box. Currently, the trail ends on the far side with a short ramp down to another parking area for bikers heading out into the countryside. Near here was the Meetze Flag Stop where likely lads and thirsty farmers would flag the train down to ride into the town for libations and socializing.
Soon the Greenway is slated to expand another 1-2 miles to link up with the Stafford Connector Trail near Lord Fairfax Community College (see Stafford Trail and Future Trails). Turn back and enjoy the trip in reverse, smiling at all the people going the other way. They are smiling because they are going downhill. But, being a railroad line, the grade is gentle either way.
There is one more treat in store on your way back to the caboose, one more glimpse back into the past, when the railroad was the ‘new thing’, replacing the fast fading glory of canals as arteries of growth and transport. The oldest, in fact, likely the only original structure from the yard dating back to the 1850s is unknown to most. Coming back up the Greenway towards the caboose, after you pass the turntable pit but before the bridge, look to the left to find a small access track going down into the Franklin Street parking area. Go around the car gate and about twenty feet along, on the embankment on the right, you will spot a narrow tunnel under the Greenway. It provides passage for a small runnel of water but the large, hand cut stone blocks, somewhat jumbled by the invasion of roots and time dates back to the earliest era of the train yard. After this detour, you can rejoin the trail for the last section or, if you are parked in the Franklin Street lot, retire to your vehicle.
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