Transporting Inmates, Brick, Coal & Sewage
By Irma Clifton – From Cable to Steam to Diesel – 11 Miles of Track & 65 Years of Service
Early last century, only fifteen miles south of the Nation’s Capital was a little railway about as unique as the institution it served. Characterized by almost unheard of 7 percent grades, pine-shaded rights-of-way, passenger escape-prevention systems and engineers who wore DC Prison badges on their caps, the Lorton & Occoquan Rail Road (L&O RR) is virtually unknown in the annals of American railway history.
In 1909, progressive President Teddy Roosevelt ordered the US Govt. to purchase thousands of acres in nearby Virginia for use by DC’s penal system “… to render to the lawbreaker committed to its keeping a different method of treatment and care, based on sane, practical ideals designed to teach the unfortunate assurance, self-respect and a more correct version of that which means for the general betterment.” The first 150 men lived in tents next to a quarry on Occoquan Creek in 1910 and a ferry-barge service was begun between Occoquan’s DC Wharf and the 9th Street Wharf in Washington. A narrow gauge track was laid to the quarry and stone was hauled on small flatcars attached by cables.
A workhouse at the top of the hill was to be connected to the river by an electric railway of the type used between Roslyn and Great Falls. With a reformatory about 2 miles beyond the workhouse, expansion of the railroad was necessary for the transport of massive amounts of brick, stone, cement, and other supplies.
By 1919, the grueling grade between the Occoquan and the Workhouse meant that an electric line would not suit the railroad’s needs. The new Reformatory and the amount of construction material needed for it dashed dreams of using the railroad for just passenger and light freight. Officials then located a heavy-duty steam locomotive costing $5,000.
Track construction moved along steadily. By 1922 the line had been graded to the reformatory, with a connection made by 1925 to the RF&P RR near Pohick Creek. According to Edson Lynn, the L&O’s first engineer, “The first 10 years we operated w/out air-brakes and it was only by luck that we never killed anybody going down those grades!” With completion of a RF&P connection, coal and supplies that were previously only barged now came by rail.
An added burden was the transport of “sewerage sludge” that was carried in gondolas from Washington by the R. F. & P. and dumped untreated into a gully along the L & O right-of-way. This sewage disposal service (precursor of trash later brought from DC) was continued until Blue Plains Sewage Plant opened after WW II. With the amount of coal needed for brickyard, foundry, slaughterhouse and boiler plants being brought in by the RF&P at one end of the line and the quantities of brick transported from other end, the railroad was kept busy especially with also having to shuttle inmates and staff around.
The railroad was never used as an inmate-escape vehicle due to careful precautions. De-rails were located at points along the line with a locking-switch mechanism; the engineer also performed a search of his train for hidden inmates before the gates from the reformatory would be opened. If the tower guard wasn’t satisfied with the search, the engineer often found a shotgun blast aimed in his direction.
The L&O replaced its steam engine in 1937 with experimental Army diesels. Engine maintenance was done by one paid employee and several inmates, usually in the two-engine shed at the workhouse, that later became a fire house and crafts work shop.
The demise of the L&O in 1977 was more the result of non-penal societal impacts than of its usefulness to the prison. Beginning in late 1950’s, coal mines servicing the prison’s brickyard, industrial foundry and heating plants were often on strike or experienced environmental and other constraints that jeopardized the supply of cheap/usable coal. These factors, along with aging railroad and prison-industries’ infrastructure, lead DC to close the brickyard, convert the coal-heating plants to oil and increase use of truck transport for prison supplies and materials.
Some interesting vignettes about working on the L & O as part of prison life were:
- The several spurs along the line were mainly used to park boxcars temporarily while the engine took cars up or down the steep grades; these more-than-usual spurs accounted for much of the 6 miles of track beyond the 5 miles of actual running track that connected the prison’s Occoquan Wharf to the RF&P RR’s main-line track at Pohick Creek.
- Due to crowding in late 1960’s, DC Govt. thought it could not only relieve the prison’s over-capacity but also save money otherwise required for permanent facilities by buying surplus Army hospital cars which were then placed on a spur next to the Reformatory; this “mobile/modular prison dormitory system” (precursor to FC’s later use of so-called “Parko-Trailers” as temporary classrooms at Lorton schools) was abandoned as inmates trashed the new hospital-ward cars and caused many security problems.
- 2 mini-section or work cars (powered by gas-fed/chain-driven engines) were stationed at the Workhouse’s RR Tool Shed/Section House and at the Locomotive House.
- 60 inmates were transported at once, mainly between the Workhouse and Brickyard.
- 2 paid civilians (1 engineer; 1 track man) and 19 inmate “volunteers” (4 on the engine squad and 15 on the track squad); more were required during the early steam period.
- The Prison Supt’s “Big House” (Widow Violett’s House of Civil War fame) was located along the RR, south of Barrel Bridge/Underpass under Furnace Road; early superintendents could be considered FC’s first “slugs”, since they commuted to/from work by “thumbing rides” while trains were making their runs to/from prison activities.
- A one-way/non-stop trip over entire 4.5 miles of the L & O’s running track took 30 minutes, with the biggest barrier being the Reformatory’s Salle-port security gate.
- Excess engines were sold in 1980 to a company that resold them to existing RR lines; one is still in use transporting tourists along a historic railway line in West Virginia.
- Although most of train track was sold as scrap, some is still visible at the Reformatory Heating Plant while other track remains hidden under gravel or asphalt; many old track-support ties and spikes are scattered along the rail bed.
- The railroad underpass tunnel (connecting the L&O to the RF&P) that went under I-95 and over Pohick Creek was demolished and the tunnel entrances covered over in the late 1980’s during construction by VDOT of the I-95 HOV expansion project.
- “Worst thing about working on the old L & O”, according to the prison’s last engineer, “was the mental strain of always having to be ‘on-guard’, especially when inmates were around, along with constant safety measures for machinery, inmates and staff.” Prisoners were continually “scheming” (from either boredom or pent-up anger) to disrupt/aggravate the management of prison life essential to safe institutional operations.
In the end, the L&O was an integral part of the prison’s 92-year history — from its initial start, to meeting its everyday needs. It was a vital necessity for DC’s Penal System, as well as an important aid in “helping inmates to learn a trade and to earn their keep.”