Colonial America... by train

Date Posted: 25/05/2011

Neil Murray climbed aboard the Amtrak route from Washington, DC to track the Virginia trail of the American Civil War, which marks its 150th anniversary this year.

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On the many trips I’ve made around the States, I reckon I could count on one hand the number of times I’ve travelled by train. But with the price of petrol shooting through the roof, the idea of journeying by rail is undergoing a renaissance in the US – no more so than on the two southern-bound Amtrak routes out of Washington, DC.

And if you’re going to start a train journey in the States, where better than Washington, DC’s splendid Union Station? A magnificent Beaux Arts-style building, it may be familiar though films such as Collateral Damage and The Wedding Crashers or the TV series The West Wing. As well as hosting five Presidential inaugural balls and Margaret Thatcher’s 70th-birthday dinner, it is also the HQ of the Amtrak rail company, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.

The main concourse – and an upper floor – offers a range of upmarket shops and restaurants, while, on the lower floor, I could have eaten my way round the globe in a couple of days, if I’d had the time to sample every one of the vast array of fast-food outlets there.

For our first stop, we headed south on the Newport News line to the colonial town of Fredericksburg, 50 miles from Washington, DC, and an easy outing to make on a day trip.

This year is the 150th anniversary of the start of the American Civil War and, as Fredericksburg changed hands seven times during the war and four battles took place around there, a visit to the Fredericksburg Area Museum and Cultural Centre was in order. There, we heard about the devastation the town suffered during the war (the “most-fought-over area in the country”), as well as the railroad’s involvement then, too. A trolley tour highlighted George Washington’s boyhood home and also the town’s British historical royal connections – with streets named Prince Edward, Princess Anne, Charlotte and Sophia – while, on a walk along Caroline Street, I popped into the Hugh Mercer Apothecary Shop and winced over a ‘costumed interpreter’s’ tales of leeches and bloodletting.

Farther down Amtrak’s Newport News line, Richmond is more of a town to make a base in, with the impressive Virginia State Capitol building, which was designed by Thomas Jefferson, a must-see once you’re in the city. Civil War buffs can fill in the gaps in their knowledge at the American Civil War Centre, the Museum of the Confederacy or the National Battlefield Park, while art lovers should head for the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, and shoppers to Carytown, known as Richmond’s nine block ‘Mile of Style’. An Irish festival was being celebrated when we visited, but the first sound I heard there was a pipe band playing Scotland the Brave, while, on a hill overlooking the James River, I could see why a similar view overlooking the Thames led to the area being named after Richmond in Surrey.

Culpeper is on Amtrak’s other route out of Washington, DC, about 90 minutes south of the US capital. After lunch at the excellent Foti’s restaurant, we had a captivating walking tour of downtown Culpeper, with enthusiastic local historian Mary Jo Browning, who regaled us with tales of General Custer having his horse shot from under him during the Civil War (there were more than 160 skirmishes in the war) and the little girl who saved the St Stephens Episcopal Church bell from being melted down by Union soldiers to make guns by covering it with a black cloth.

The town is full of historic sites, making it hard to choose which to visit if time is limited, but the decisions I had to make at Miss Minerva’s Tea Room & Gift Shop were which hat to wear (from a choice of about 20 that, traditionally, customers put on) and which tea to drink, from a list of about 50. I opted for a frothy, blue number and the Spiced Pear Black Flavour tea.

Our next stop, farther down the line, was Charlottesville, a modern-looking town that was never attacked during the Civil War as it was used as a hospital base by both sides. A light fall of snow overnight made our visit to nearby Monticello (pictured) – the 21-room mansion that was the home of Thomas Jefferson, the third US president and author of the Declaration of American Independence – all the more dramatic, and the tales of his talents (architect, landscape artist, farmer, plantation owner, founder of the University of Virginia) were an eye-opener, although money management was not one of them, as he was more than $100,000 in debt when he died. 

Our last train stop south was Lynchburg (here I am pictured inside the Cradock Terry Hotel), which is known as the City of Seven Hills – the hills being districts – and ‘living-history host’ Mary McIntosh guided us around the Diamond Hill Historic District, with intriguing tales of the various houses in the area.

But, for drama, you couldn’t beat the nearby village (correct) of Appomattox Court House, where, in the parlour of the McLean House, General Robert E. Lee sat down with Lt Gen Ulysses S Grant and surrendered the forces of the Army of Northern Virginia, thus ending the Civil War. Being in the room where the decision to end hostilities was made, you really get a sense of history.

Surprisingly, the most popular attraction in Lynchburg is the Old City Cemetery, with its Mourning Museum, Hearse House and chance to buy the To Die For cookbook or Dead & Gone to Heaven honey.

Journeying back to Washington, DC, we stopped in Alexandria, across the Potomac River from the capital. An interesting, civilised town with 20 historic sites, it also has the lure of a host of boutiques in cobblestone lanes, a mouth-watering array of restaurants, and a collection of galleries, as well as the Torpedo Art Factory. As a surveyor, a young George Washington helped lay out Alexandria village and, close by, on our last stop, we visited his estate and gardens at Mount Vernon and toured his mansion, a popular attraction that has a million visitors a year. The absorbing Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Centre at Mount Vernon follows his life, from being a young Virginian to his time as the “People’s President”, and gave us a fitting finale to what was a fascinating visit to Virginia.

Getting there

United Airlines flies daily to Washington, DC and Amtrak routes run from Washington, DC to Richmond and Lynchburg.

Useful contacts:

Fredericksburg (Laura N. Hill):
+1 540 372 1216

Richmond (Janie Lawson):
+1 804 783 7409

Culpeper (Beth Burns):
+1 540 727 0611

Charlottesville (Allie Baer):
+1 434 970 3632

Lynchburg (Courtney Hunter):
+1 434 845 5968 ext 31

Alexandria (Laurie Bledy):
+1 703 746 3308


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