Ashland’s magic mile, a postcard-like gift of lights for railroad travelers

Ashland VA Light up the Tracks

On December 9th the Channel 6 TV channel (CBS) presented a documentary about Ashland’s ‘Light up the Tracks’ tradition. You can see it here. The reporter ― Mark Holmberg ― not only toured the town, he took the train from Ashland to Richmond and made a video of what he saw.

He also interviewed passengers on the train.

Ashland VA Light up the Tracks

. . . it’s like suddenly riding into a landscape of happy lights after many miles of darkness.

“It was really pretty,” Amtrak passenger Danene Taylor told me after we had rolled through. “Some of the houses had individual candles in every window and the rest of them had Christmas lights. Very refreshing.”

Join us on a video tour of this magic mile as we ride Amtrak 83 through the “center of the universe. . .


Train Day: 2016

Train Day 2016 Ashland VA

This year’s Train Day is Saturday, November 5th. Please visit the event site to learn more.

The “No Third Rail” team will have a table in front of the museum on Hanover Ave. Volunteers will discuss the impact of the proposed project. (If you would like to help as a volunteer please let us know.)

Based on what we heard yesterday it appears as if what we have been calling ‘Case A’ (existing tracks stay in place) will not happen. So we move to ‘Case B’ which has an even greater impact. Therefore the sketch below, which is for ‘Case A’ (and which was derived from our limited knowledge as to what engineering standards are being used on this project), is probably too conservative, i.e., the impact of the Third Rail will be greater than shown. It is likely that there will be little or no road access and just narrow sidewalks. Some buildings will have to be be moved or eliminated. (We have not yet been able to access yesterday’s presentation that shows the DRPT sketch of the impact of the third rail — we will do so when the information becomes available. We can then update our own analysis.)

Impact of Third Rail on Ashland VA

CTB Meetings: November 1st – Details

Germanna Community College

One of our Ashland neighbors has provided the following additional information to do with the meetings on November 1st.


11:00 am Ashland Theater, OPEN TO THE PUBLIC – CTB and DRPT will be giving a presentation on High Speed Rail and their visit to Ashland. Then, Jim Foley, R-MC President Lindgren and a representative from the County will briefly speak (5 minutes each.) Next there will be a Q&A between the CTB and Town and County representatives… there will be NO PUBLIC COMMENT.

The group of officials will then walk from Lee Street (Library) north to College Ave where they will ride a bus up Center to Ashcake to check out a potential new rail station location. Then, as I understand it, they will drive along the Western Bypass route before leaving for their 4:00 meeting in Fredericksburg.

Let’s show them how much we love our Town… Come to the meeting at the Ashland Theater, beautify your properties for them to see, be out and about Town during their visit and please come to Fredericksburg for public comments during CTB meeting!

Commonwealth Transportation Board Meeting

Tuesday, November 1 @ 4:00

Germanna Community College,
Center for Workforce Development and Community Education
10000 Germanna Point Drive
Fredericksburg, VA 22408

There are already a few people planning on attending/speaking at this meeting, so if you would like to car pool contact kjamkjam at comcast dot net.

If anyone has questions, you can contact Jim Foley or Kathy Abbott or Josh Farrar (Acting Town Manager)


If you are planning on speaking at the Fredericsksburg meeting I suggest that you coordinate your comments with Jim Foley or Kathy Abbot.


Historic Properties

Ashland Baptist Church

The following information has been taken from an email from Rosanne Shalf, President of the Ashland Museum. Note that many of the buildings that she refers to will be destroyed if a Third Rail is put through town.


The Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation will be coming to Ashland on November 1 at the Ashland Theatre and will tour the town. They will have a meeting, not a public hearing, about their plans for the fast rail. It is important that as many well-behaved, friendly citizens as possible are at the meeting and also strolling the streets, eating outside, etc. so they can see our relationship and proximity to the rail right of way.  Please make no reference to the western bypass. We need to be united. See Jim Foley’s letter.

The Federal Rail people have to take into account any historic properties that might be in the path of the proposed rail.  The way they do that is to do a “Section 106 Study” that identifies the historic properties that any proposed route would affect.


“Contributing structures” within a historic district are ones that fit within the timeframe and architectural styles of the particular district. “Non-contributing structures” are ones like brick ranchers or other 1950s and later buildings or buildings that have been so altered that they don’t have the architectural elements of the period. I’ll point some out below.

“Historic Landmarks” are single buildings that are designated because they have some special significance because of people associated with them or because of their special architecture.

“Historic Districts” are large areas and neighborhoods that have a collection of mostly “contributing structures” of a particular time period. That’s us.

Our Districts

First, Ashland has two National Historic Districts and they contain over 200 buildings that are historic and considered “contributing structures” to the district. Most of the buildings on Center St and Railroad Avenue are within the district.  You can count on your fingers the non-contributing ones—Brock Gym, Ashland Coffee and Tea, and some mid-century homes along there or recently constructed homes. They are obvious, but there aren’t many “non-contributing”.

District #1

RANDOLPH-MACON HISTORIC CAMPUS, designated in 1979, the three oldest buildings that face the tracks built in the 1870s.  It is these that would be negatively affected by the proposed station improvements, to say nothing of having the campus split in two.  There are no non-contributing structures in this district.

District #2

ASHLAND NATIONAL HISTORIC DISTRICT, designated in 1983, contains over 200 buildings most of which are “contributing structures.” The date timeframe for our current district is pre-Civil War (Macmurdo House, The Center, Chopper Dawson’s house) to the 1930s, and “contributing structures” are those built in that time-frame that have not been so altered, especially the front facades, that they are no longer representative styles of their time. Most of the buildings on either side of the tracks are in the district from almost to Patrick St. on the north to Early Street on the south. They include but are not limited to the following, and this is a really rough breakdown. You can see the addresses in the attached file.

Historic Downtown Business District south of Rt 54, including the old Hughes Drug Store (1900), Tiny Tim’s (1901), Caboose (1870s? 1890s?), Iron horse (1913) — all the buildings on the west side of that block except for Bell Book and Candle.  On east side of that block, Cross Brothers, Shear Power, and possibly McCardle Insurance (under the permastone).  On the east side of the block farther south Fin and Feather and Chopper’s house (1858) and storefront (1871).

Historic Downtown Business District north of Rt. 54, including the old Hanover National Bank Building (1919) and the Ashland Train Station (1923). Even Homemades’ building itself was built as the USPO and Barnes Drug Store before the turn of the 20th century.  It has been modified a lot, so it might not be considered “contributing.”

Residential District South of Rt 54, including S Center St: the homes from the 300 block all the way down to Early Street and the Hendrixson’s house.  Some of those are not “contributing structures” such as the Sutton house, the house next to the Dyers that was so modified that it would no longer qualify, and the little brick cape cod on the east side of the street next to the Paces that was built in the 1950s.  The apartments next to The Center are also outside the district’s timeframe. The map extends also to much of Howard Street, part of Race Course, and part of James Street on the west and parts of Virginia St and Maple St on the east.

Residential District North of Rt 54, including the former residences along the tracks that RMC now owns, some of the other college buildings built between 1900 and 1930, such as Mary Branch and Thomas Branch dorms, Peele Hall, the security building on Caroline, the three brick homes on Caroline, the houses on College up to Louisiana St. The houses on Henry Clay Road from the Martins all the way to a couple of houses past Dewey Street. (there are some, maybe 4 or 5, brick 1 1/2 story homes in that area that are not contributing).


Ashland VA railroad tracks 1918
The Tracks in 1918


If you would like to see our estimate as to the impact of this proposed Third Rail please visit Impact of the Third Rail.

Impact of the Third Rail

Impact of Third Rail on Ashland VA

Based on data from the Basis of Design provided by the Department of Rail & Public Transportation (DRPT) we have estimated the impact of the Third Rail on the Town of Ashland. We have presented reports to the Hanover Board of Supervisors, the DRPT itself and the Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB).

We have also flown a drone down Center St. and superimposed the calculated impact of the project on the town. This has led to the creation of a series of images, some of which are shown in this post.

I have stressed many times that we are working with inadequate and sometimes ambiguous data to do with codes and standards. But it is unlikely that our estimates are drastically wrong.

Here is some background.

  1. The existing tracks were laid down in 1843 (some say 1834) and 1903 respectively — long before there were any standards to do with spacing between tracks and, more important, standards to do with the spacing between the tracks and the first public highway or footpath.
  2. The preliminary plan shows a new third rail to be located on the eastern side of Center St. The existing tracks would, it is assumed, remain where they are.
  3. The new third rail would have to meet modern code regarding its distance from the existing eastern track. There would then be a space (“no man’s land”) between the outer edge of the new track and a new fence. There is then a space between the fence and the first public footpath or road.

We are referring to this as Case A. Its impact is shown in the image at the top of this post and in the images shown below. Basically it would take out many buildings in the business district, quite a few homes, it would remove all the frontage from virtually all the other homes and from buildings such as the library. It would also create the odd situation that the east side of the tracks would be built to 21st century standards of safety but that the west side would remain in the 19th century.

In my judgment Case A is not be acceptable regarding codes and standards. If they touch the existing tracks then all the historical exclusion that they have enjoyed for a century and half would disappear. This means that the existing tracks would also have to be upgraded. We refer to this as Case B. We have not created images of the impact of Case B on Center St. but it would be quite similar to what is shown for the east side. All frontages on both sides would be lost and all buildings north of the Arts Center up to and including the existing train station would be gone.

The reality is that either Case A or Case B would tear the heart out of Ashland.


Shown below are the engineering sketches that we prepared based on the DRPT Basis of Design to calculate the pertinent distances. They are respectively:

  • The existing tracks.
  • Case A.
  • Case B.
Existing Tracks
Case A — Third Rail Ashland VA
Case A
Case B Third Rail Ashland VA
Case B

Another Ashlander Book

Saying Goodbye to Our Mothers for the Last Time
Bill Harrison Ashland
Bill Harrison

Ashlander Bill Harrison is co-editor of the just published book Saying Goodbye to Our Mothers for the Last Time.




The book includes contributions from 35 authors/contributors, both women and men, who write about the death of their mothers. The volume is rich in variety, from different locations to assorted cultures and ethnicities, from ways of dying to types of funerals, from methods of dealing with loss to strategies for self-care. Some of these stories are elegant in their simplicity, others intricate in their complexity. Some incite laughter and others elicit tears.

Further details are available at the Lisa Hagan site.

Auto-Train: Book Signing

Auto-train book cover

Bell, Book and Candle, Ashland, VAThe book Auto-Train by Ashlander Doug Riddell has just been published (224 pages with over 400 color and black and white illustrations).

Doug will be hosting a book signing on Train Day, November 5th 2016 at the Bell, Book and Candle book store (106 1/2 South Railroad Avenue, Ashland, VA 23005). Stop by and pick up your signed copy.

Ordering information is provided by the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad Historical Society.

The following information about the book has been provided by Doug.

Auto-Train, by Doug Riddell, is underwritten by the RF&P RR Historical Society, published by Outer Station Projects, 2016.

While it is a history of the original private auto ferry service between the Washington suburbs and central Florida inaugurated by attorney Eugene Garfield, the story is told largely in the words of, and through the eyes of it’s youthful workforce that at one time numbered over 700 employees. The rise and decline of its stock was meteoric, beginning in 1971 until the under-under capitalized railroad crashed into bankruptcy ten years later following a series of costly derailments and an unwise attempt to expand operations to the Midwest. The avant-garde train, decorated in red white and purple, traded traditional blue uniforms worn by elder railroaders, for yellow red and purple maxi and mini skirts and tunic donned by smiling youthful crews who looked as though they’d answered a Hollywood casting call. Travelers were feted to lobster and beef Wellington accompanied by complimentary wine and deserts.

In the end Garfield attempted to save his company by seeking financing from a seamy Las Vegas hotel/casino cartel, and was very nearly the unwitting victim of con artists purportedly fronting for a Swiss bank. After near two years absence, Amtrak acquired the rights and with its vast resources resurrected the service in 1983 and has since operated it as its flagship train.

Shirts Blanton Autotrain book
Shirts Blanton

The Town of Ashland was placed in the national spotlight by Parade Magazine, on its December 24, 1972 cover, featured the Auto-Train, stopped at the home of Lewis “Shirts” Blanton, who befriended passengers and crews of passing trains at the front door of his home from his wheelchair. Crews halted the train briefly to give him gifts and sing carols.




Guest Post #3 – Details, Details


The following is a guest post from Bob Brown, a resident of Ashland. Mr. Brown served as town planner for the City of Philadelphia for many years and is currently on the Board of the Main St. Association of Ashland.

Editorial Comment: It is likely that the impact of a new track through Ashland would be considerably greater than Mr. Brown has shown here due to the need to bring all tracks up to modern code (see Not Your Grandfather’s Railroad).

April 29, 2016

Friends and Neighbors:

The call for facts about the proposed “High Speed” Rail is fundamental. The following is my (initial) list of detail questions that everyone needs to know and have answered. Note that this list relates to Ashland (I assume some similar facts could be given for the Western route alternative.)

Note that they require several sets of evaluations:

  •             Railroad Engineering,
  •             Real Estate and Business Economics,
  •             Historic Analysis,
  •             Traffic and Pedestrian Analysis,
  •             Town Planning Analysis.
  •             College Planning Analysis

This is NOT merely a Railroad Engineering and Planning process…

Answers to these questions must be given before any position vote is taken, regarding the evaluation of possible train service changes in Ashland:


  •  Exactly how many homes and properties would lose any auto access (i think it is at least 12). These homes would have to be purchased and removed.
  • What will happen to the corner houses, once the East side street is closed? Will all those streets require Fire Engine turn-arounds, thus removing land from those properties?
  • Note that this assumes that the businesses on the East side of Downtown will have no front or street access. Will this not put them out of business? And, if this one side of Railroad Ave. is put out of business, and if there is only one south-bound traffic lane, how will the West side businesses survive?
  • What will be the functional (and visual) impact on the College when its main north-south frontage street is removed? (this could be a big question for Randolph Macon to consider.) Note that much of its on-street parking would also be eliminated,
  • How would Center St. & Railroad Ave. function when there is only one-way (South bound) traffic possible – in both the Downtown and residential areas (and at the College)?
  • Will fences be required – on both sides of the tracks? If so, will pedestrian crossings be eliminated, and the Town cut in half? If so, what will that do to the quality of life of the houses on the West side of Center St.? What is their future? What will the College do, since it now exists on both sides of the Tracks?
  • How can the existing Train Station continue to function when there are three rails?
  • What will be the impact of all this on our historic buildings and Historic District?
  • What is will be the maximum speed permitted of all trains – especially including the “High Speed” rail?
  • Will the no-train-horn rule remain in effect as they pass through Town?
  • What are the projected number and size of freight trains that could come through Town? How is that different from what we experience now?
  • Will Amtrak still make stops in Ashland – or not?
  • And – the biggest question of all: What will be the future of historic and economically thriving Ashland if all the properties along the tracks, and in the Downtown (and perhaps parts of the College) cease to function? Will our beloved Community no longer exist?


  • Exactly what are the “improvements”? Exactly what changes could they impose on the operation and quality of all three parts of Center St. and Railroad Ave.: Downtown, Residences, College?
  • What construction will take place, and how long will it take?
  • What are the projected number and size of freight trains that could come through Town? How is that different from what we experience now?
  • Will Amtrak still make stops in Ashland – or not?
  • Will – once again – pedestrian crossings be eliminated?
  • Will – once again – fences be required? If so, the same questions apply:

Elimination of pedestrian crossings (dividing Ashland in half)?

What would be the quality of life and the property values be for the houses on both sides of the tracks?

What would be our ability to shop in Downtown on both sides of the tracks?

What must the College do if pedestrian crossings are limited, since the campus now exists on both sides of the Tracks?

  • Once again – What will be the impact of all this on our historic buildings and Historic District?
  • What is will be the maximum speed permitted of all trains – especially including the “High Speed” rail?
  • Will the no-train-horn rule remain in effect as they pass through Town?

This may just be a start. Does anyone have other questions that we need to have answered before working out our position?

Bob (Brown)

PS: A detail: sometimes illustrations (diagrams, sketch views, sketch plans and street cross sections) help explain the issues. If Main Street, the Town, or the neighbors feel they would be a help, I would gladly do some.

Problems and Predicaments

Ashland Town Hall

Yesterday the Town of Ashland held council elections. All four candidates were successful. Congratulations to all.

There was no competition for the open seats so the mood was generally amiable. Depending on the status of the rail project such amicability is less likely to be present in upcoming elections involving the town. By then many residents and business owners who have been rather detached from the discussions so far will begin to understand how this proposed project could destroy Ashland as we know it. They will not be so relaxed.

Prediction #1
Upcoming Ashland elections will be emotional and contentious if the 3rd track option is still on the table.

Prediction #2
Candidates will have to do more than simply express opposition to the project — citizens will demand detailed plans. (A starting point would be to stop using the phrase “High Speed Rail”.)

Prediction #3
The successful candidate(s) will understand that the rail project creates not a problem but a predicament.

The third prediction is worth thinking through. Town Council is experienced at solving problems such as rezoning a building or handling the impact of long-term hotel residency. Problems such as these (a) have solutions, (b) they are not existential (they do not fundamentally change the nature of the town), and (c) the solution can often be reversed if it does not work out.

The rail project, on the other hand, creates a predicament. A predicament (a) does not have a solution. Either the track is there or it’s not. Options such as “Minor Upgrades” are not realistic (see Not Your Grandfather’s Railroad).  Moreover, a predicament (b) is existential — it utterly transforms the nature of the town. Finally (c), the predicament cannot be reversed. Once the third track has led to the destruction of homes and businesses they can never be restored.

Hanover Meeting: 2016-04-27


We have just received the following information:.


Hanover Board of Supervisor’s Meeting

Wednesday, April 27th at 6:00 p.m.

Hanover Courthouse, first floor

Please make an effort to attend this important meeting:

This Wednesday, 4/27 at 6:00 pm, Buckey Stanley, Hanover Supervisor of the Beaverdam District (which includes the western part of Ashland) will introduce a resolution to change the Board’s position on high speed rail/CSX rail development.