Time Travel On Loudoun’s Unpaved Roads
By Emily Houston
“This is a Disneyland experience!” exclaims Douglas Kemmerer, as he describes how visitors to Loudoun County respond when he takes them driving in his four-in-hand horse-drawn carriage over our unpaved roads. He tells the story of taking a former ambassador from the United Kingdom (who had also been an ambassador to Russia) out for a coaching drive and was told by his guest “We have nothing like this in England.” “He became like a little boy,” remembers Kemmerer, delighting in recalling the ambassador’s excitement. “And I thought, here’s a guy who’s travelled the world and he had that reaction” to a carriage ride on Loudoun County’s unpaved roads, he says. “There is no place else in America you have this,” according to Kemmerer, referring to our extensive network of gravel roads and the pristine countryside they traverse.
Loudoun’s unique unpaved road network attracts horse driving enthusiasts to locate in the County. Flora Hillman and her husband Owen Snyder moved to Bloomfield in southern Loudoun from Chester County, Pa. 30 years ago, specifically for the gravel roads on which to drive their Welsh ponies. Chester County also has a reputation as a horse-friendly locale, but, according to Hillman, it didn’t compare with Loudoun. “We grabbed a map and started looking and we were astonished at the gravel roads in Loudoun,” she recalls of their search for a new home.
What do carriage drivers like so much about gravel? Gravel is a relatively forgiving surface that provides grip for the horses’ hooves. It preserves the horses’ “soundness,” meaning the proper function of their legs and joints. And despite the well-recognized pressures of development in the County, many of its roads are still relatively lightly travelled, with cars going at slower speeds and presenting less danger to horse-drawn vehicles.
But before our unpaved roads were the hardened, gravel-covered surfaces we typically see today, what were they? For starters, they were simply dirt.
In colonial Virginia road “construction” simply meant cutting down trees and removing as many natural obstacles as possible, along routes that took the high ground when they could and crossed water in the most tolerable locations. Many accounts of travel in colonial Virginia describe treacherous conditions, and during wet seasons, roads were often impassable. One visitor described Virginia’s roads as “hopeless seas of mud with archipelagoes of stumps.”
One solution to many of our region’s road surfacing and maintenance woes of the latter 18th century and into the 19th century came in the form of a “public/private partnership” — turnpikes. Many turnpikes, because they relied on income from travelers, could afford to “improve” their surfaces with gravel, broken stone, or the surface known as macadam. “Macadamizing” (as the process became known, named after its developer John Loudon McAdam) involved placing tightly-packed layers of broken stone of very specific sizes onto a well-prepared road bed, then rolling and tamping them to a uniform thickness. The top layer would consist of finely crushed stone to “bind” the surface and make it relatively impervious.
McAdam’s instructions for his “paving” system were extremely detailed and properly macadamizing a road was expensive. As a result, his system and comparable broken-stone paving methods remained relatively rare in Virginia. “Well into the 20th century, the majority of Virginia’s roads were surfaced primarily with native soil, and perhaps a small amount of broken stone or gravel spread on the roadbed,” according to VDOT historian Ann Miller. Despite the advances of the “turnpike era” and macadamizing, most roads remained dirt and in miserable condition because superior surfaces were costly.
Who do you think finally provided a national impetus for road improvement late in the 19th century? Bicyclists! The League of American Wheelmen (LAW) grew out of the 1890s bicycle craze, and by 1900 had become the nation’s largest special-interest group, advocating for macadamizing roads on which to ride bicycles. The LAW worked to convince America’s farmers that a road fit for bicycles benefited them as well. In 1891, it published a treatise titled “The Gospel of Good Roads: A Letter to the American Farmer,” making the case to farmers that improved roads reduced the costs of their horse-drawn transport because they could travel faster, sustaining less damage to both the vehicles and the animals.
The LAW joined forces with farmers to form a new lobbying group, the National League for Good Roads, and then a surprising ally joined the cause — railroad companies. Railroads saw road improvements as a good way to get people and products to their rail stations, and began sending “Good Roads” trains to rural stations to build a mile or two of macadamized road away from the station into the countryside.
All across Loudoun in the period before World War I, farmers began to form local clubs to share information and promote local agrarian interests. Macadamizing the county’s roads was high on the list of things they lobbied for. In 1915, at the monthly meeting of the Lovettsville Club, the topic of discussion was deciding which would be most beneficial to the local famers — an electric supply to the area or improved public roads with a bridge at Brunswick (enabling access to the rail station there). The farmers chose the road and bridge over electricity.
Gradually, in the first part of the 20th century our old dirt roads began to sport drainage ditches, crowns and a surface of gravel. Those improved roads were better for the motor cars that revolutionized transportation, and later, they appealed to the revival of carriage driving, this time as a sport.
Nationally, according to Paula Bliss, the owner of a local driving horse training business, carriage driving as an equestrian sport is now a fast-growing discipline. “In our immediate area,” she says, “there are several U.S. team members and dozens of high-performance drivers.”
Bliss has tapped into a synergy between her business and other rural enterprises; most of her clients live either out of Loudoun County or in its eastern half, and come to enjoy western Loudoun’s amenities along with their horses. “Some rent B&Bs over the weekend, and almost all of them are members of various winery clubs,” she says, “so that has been an interesting selling point for me.”
“The overwhelming beauty of our area is best seen from a carriage!” says Bliss. “As I drive, I think of how many generations have used our roads the way I do.” Horse-drawn vehicles have travelled Loudoun’s roads for centuries and it is the two-hundred-year-old surfacing technology that makes it such a pleasure today.
Pedaling Loudoun’s Unpaved Roads
By Emily Houston
When you search for a map of Loudoun County’s unpaved roads (by “Googling” it of course), what comes up? Gravelmap.com, a nationwide database of gravel roads submitted by the people who ride them. Biking on gravel roads (called gravel grinding by some, simply gravel riding by others) is a national trend. And where is one of the most popular spots for riding gravel? Why, right here in Loudoun County!
On Gravelmap, Loudoun County immediately stands out. Unpaved roads are marked on the map in bright yellow — Loudoun is a spider web of yellow threads, while surrounding rural areas such as the 93,000 acre Agricultural Reserve across the Potomac in Maryland, and the Panhandle of West Virginia, are relatively lacking in the vibrant indicators of unpavement. There is a section of Maryland around Westminster and running northeast into Pennsylvania that is populated by numerous yellow dots indicating bits and pieces of gravel, but clearly Loudoun stands out visually on Gravelmap as a place where an entire network of gravel roads exists.
Riding gravel in Loudoun offers a “unique experience” that attracts riders from all over the country. The ability to ride loops of up to 100 miles with a high percentage of those miles being on gravel, is a big draw.
But it’s also the varied terrain, historic houses and barns, dry-stacked stone walls, wildlife and the sometimes unexpected scenes are the features that excite the riders. Its also not uncommon to encounter a fox hunt, and find yourself on a back road surrounded by hounds. Its truly a special place.
Danielle Nadler, a local author, got into gravel riding with her husband because they were terrified they would be hit by a car on the paved roads. Paved road riding “just wasn’t fun anymore,” says Nadler. “The second you go from pavement to gravel, the whole atmosphere changes,” she says. The gravel roads slow everything down, including the traffic. “Drivers are much more chill on a gravel road,” she says. “We found a safe haven on gravel.”
So why does this unique and rare network of unpaved roads exist?
According to Richard Gillespie, Historian Emeritus of the Mosby Heritage Area Association, the early settlers of Loudoun “staked out this rich land with a purpose…trade. Water- born transportation was experimented with here — a brief flirting with canals by George Washington and others made some use of the Potomac. Railroads were given a go in the 1850s through the 1870s. But roads on land were inevitably the winner,” he says, connecting prosperous, ambitious Loudoun farmers with easy ways to reach the growing ports of Alexandria, Georgetown and Baltimore.
On the verge of the Civil War, Loudoun was Virginia’s richest county, but “the Civil War played out on this land with a heavy hand,” says Gillespie. Wealthy Loudouners suffered serious financial losses, having invested in Confederate bonds, had their barns and mills burned by the Union cavalry near the end of the war, and seen their huge investment in slaves turned to naught by the Emancipation.
Additionally, taxes increased to pay for the new public school system established in Virginia after the war. According to Gillespie, “There was little money for public or private investment in road infrastructure well into the third decade of the 20th century…The existing roads, patched and repaired from time to time, would just have to do. In this sense, they were preserved — or at the very least, not modernized or replaced.”
Horses, or more specifically, the “equestrian lifestyle,” helped preserve Loudoun’s unpaved roads too. Beginning in the 1890s, the financial/industrial elite discovered Loudoun as idea foxhunting territory, according to Gillespie, and “purchasing farms in the northern Piedmont of Virginia became all the rage. For the Hunt Country set, keeping the region underdeveloped was an asset…Dirt roads were idea for riding and for crossing in chase of the fox without rapidly moving modern automobile traffic to interfere.”
Some good old-fashioned political rivalry also lent a hand in the preservation of Loudoun’s rural roads. As Gillespie tells it, “Loudoun’s best-known politician of the highway-building era of the early 20th century was Westmoreland Davis,” known locally today for his magnificent estate at Morven Park. Elected Governor of Virginia in 1917, “Davis was often at loggerheads with the conservative Democratic machine led by Thomas Staples Martin, Hal Flood and later, Harry Flood Byrd,” says Gillespie. “Davis owned the county’s largest and most influential newspaper, The Loudoun Times Mirror, and it often railed against what came to be known as ‘the Byrd Machine.'”
When Byrd got his turn as Governor beginning in 1926, he instituted a “pay-as-you-go” approach to road funding — no bonds would be sold to fund road construction and improvement, which would only occur once enough taxes and fees were collected to pay for it. In 1932, the Byrd Act was passed, putting responsibility and control over most county roads into the hands of the state government. “Somehow, Loudoun did not fare well as highway funds were allotted!” says Gillespie.
Fast forward a bit to the 1960s. “Loudoun was discovered by the “back to the land” movement of young families looking to escape suburbia’s ‘little boxes’ and strip malls,” says Gillespie. “Dirt lanes and roads were part of the ambiance, and were bragged about more than criticized. With this ethic came a demand for vestiges of an earlier time,” which included gravel roads as well as village fairs, an artistic culture, a strong interest in local history, and a revitalized preservation movement, he recalls.
Today, Loudoun’s approximately 290 miles of gravel roads support vehicular traffic never dreamed of by the early settlers who built them, yet they endure, as do millions of miles of unpaved roads across the nation. The U.S. has 4.1 million miles of roads — 2.2 million of those miles (53%) are gravel.
Local cycling clubs echoes that admiration for Loudoun’s special network. “You can ride gravel in many parts of the U.S. but most are forrest service roads with little or no character, so you don’t get that sense of history that you have here. Recently, Shimano Corporation Hiroshi Matsumoto, Assistant Manager of the Planning Section for Bicycle Components Bicycle Components Division (maker of high-end bicycle components) visited Loudoun County from Japan to experience Loudoun’s unique landscape first hand. To have a large company like Shimano come here to test gravel components really speaks volumes as to the importance of Loudoun’s unique and historic road network.
“Many of Loudoun’s roads yet remain uncannily as they were 150 years ago,” says Rich Gillespie, “A thing of rare beauty and value….a national treasure.”