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Potomac Yard Collection (MS050)

Identifier: MS050

Content Description

Records, correspondences, authorizations for expenditure (AFEs), notebooks, ephemera, and blueprints, all documenting the Potomac Yard rail yard in Alexandria, Virginia.


  • 1927-2000


Biographical / Historical

Potomac Yard was one of the busiest rail yards on the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. Today, it refers to the neighborhood encompassing the same area, located southeast of Arlington County, just north of Old Town Alexandria. It is bordered by U.S. Route 1 to the west, George Washington Memorial Parkway to the east, Four Mile Run to the north, and Braddock Road on the south.

Railroad development between Alexandria and Washington began in the 1850s with the first being the Alexandria and Washington Railroad which began service in 1857. Hoping to compete with Balitmore for trade with the west, construction of the Alexandria, Loudoun and Hampshire Railroad began in 1855, with the first trains running between Alexandria and Leesburg by 1860. Both rail lines crossed into the area that would become Potomac Yard.

During the Civil War, Alexandria remained under Union control. Railroads to and from Alexandria served as a major depot for shipment of supplies and troops to the front, as well as a hospital and convalescent center for those injured. The U.S. Military Railroad Complex, a secure and stockaded 12-block area enclosing the facilities of the Orange and Alexandria was constructed. During the war, rail lines were connected to the North, crossing the Long Bridge to the Balitmore and Ohio Railroad.

In postwar years, the Washington, D.C. became a major point of transfer of freight between northern and southern rail networks. At the turn of the 20th century, rail traffic was significantly heavy going through Alexandria creating a bottleneck, and Washington sought to beautify the city by moving the railroads out of the central city. The solution to these issues came when the six competing rail lines banded together to construct a rail yard to facilitate the movement of freight between northern and southern rail lines. Potomac Yard, known as the “Gateway Between the North and the South” became the largest railroad yard for freight car interchange on the east coast. When Potomac Yard opened on August 1, 1906, it had 52 miles of track that could handle 3,127 cars. The yard grew to a maximum of 136 miles of track crammed into a 2 ½ to 3 mile stretch of land. At its peak, it services 103 trains daily before being decommissioned in 1987.


.85 Cubic Feet (12 boxes)

Language of Materials



The Potomac Yard Collection consists of three series: Authorization for Expenditure (AFE) files, notebooks which were kept by railyard staff, and blueprints of various sections of the rail yard and rail lines. There are 12 boxes in the total collection: 8 boxes on Authorization for Expenditure Records, 1 box consisting of notebooks, and 3 oversize boxes that contain blueprints. AFE files are arranged numerically according to the Authorization For Expenditure number. This mostly coincides with the dates of the commissioned projects, purchases, or sales ranging from the 1940s through the 1960s and their approval. Blueprints are mostly from the 1960s and are in 3 subseries which includes plans for projects throughout Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia.

Existence and Location of Originals

Local History/Special Collections, Alexandria Library

Potomac Yard Collection Finding Aid
Aaron Hoppenstedt
April 2018
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description

Repository Details

Part of the Local History and Special Collections Branch, Alexandria Library Repository

717 Queen Street
Alexandria VA 22314 United States