Friday, September 11, 2020

Hiking, History and a Heck of a good Time | Adventures in Hemlock Overlook Regional Park

This past weekend I was itching to go hiking with my nephew and his parents, but I tried to be temper my expectations. We were trying to coordinate an outing with two families and two babies. Figuring out a location and time that worked for everyone was going to be the major accomplishment, the actual terrain we hiked was going to have to be secondary. Heck, I would have been happy hiking through the mall.

After some discussion we decided to hike Union Mill / Bull Run Occoquan Trail which is found within Hemlock Overlook Regional Park. It was marked as an easy, 3.6 mile hike.

It took us about 45 minutes to get to the trailhead, and by 8am a good chunk of the parking area was full. I started to worry that the area would be overwhelmed by crowds. Within a few minutes of hiking, I forgot all about my concerns and the joy of being on a hike with those I love took over.

The trail started off as a delightful woodsy affair that felt like a proper backcountry experience. Just as I was fully appreciating the forest trail we found ourselves at the edge of Bull Run, a picturesque river (or, well, run as they are called in this area). From there, the trail continued along the water for a little over a mile. The scenery was perfect, and my brother I agreed that this would be a top notch place to fish.

Along the river we passed a graffiti covered block house which turned out to be the remnants of an early hydroelectric plant. Nearby, though we didn't see them, may have been some ruins of the civil war era Orange & Alexandria Railroad. This railroad is the source of the "Union Mill" part of our trail's name. Despite what the name suggests, Union Mills, as it was known back in the day, wasn't a famous mill. It was the name of an influential Civil War railroad station that was coveted by both Union and Confederate armies. Railroads were critical infrastructure during the Civil War, but they were also easy targets for raiders. Rather than defend every mile of track, the Union army adopted a strategy of becoming experts in quickly repairing them. Union Mills became the poster child for this effort:

As the war got underway, it became clear to President Lincoln and his advisors that it was going to be impossible to guard long stretches of track against attack by Confederate raiders. If the rail lines could not be protected from damage, they would have to be repaired and returned to service in the shortest time possible. In April 1862, Herman Haupt, a railroad construction genius who had a reputation for getting things done, was called to Washington by the Lincoln administration and asked to fix the vexing problem. Haupt was appointed to the position of Chief of Construction and Transportation of the newly established U.S. Military Railroad (USMR), an organization responsible for all railroad operations on captured Confederate tracks.

As Haupt went to work, it was at places such as Union Mills that his highly organized and specialized repair crews honed their skills as they struggled to keep the Orange and Alexandria line functioning. The rapid repair procedures Haupt developed to replace bridges, track and just about everything else involved in keeping a railroad operating allowed the USMR to keep vital rail supply lines functioning.

The USMR established a base of operations at Union Mills. It was a facility to service equipment and store replacement parts for railroad rolling stock, water tanks, prefabricated bridges, ties and rails. The knowledge USMR crews gained in Northern Virginia proved to be an invaluable logistical asset to Lincoln's war effort. As new techniques were developed and tested, the information was passed along to the other locations where the USMR operated trains. During the later years of the war, Gen. Sherman's Union army drove into Georgia utilizing a sophisticated rail supply network that could be repaired almost as fast as Rebel raiders could wreck it.

Along with getting an up close view of history, the trail gave me the opportunity identify two new wild edibles. Thanks to Plant Snap, I was able to recognize spotted wintergreen and autumn olive. Now that I know what I'm looking for, I'm excited to go back and nosh on some samples.

If that all weren't enough, the hike also gave us a taste of the Bull Run Occoquan trail. We did a short segment of it; the full trail is 17.4 miles. I've already started nagging Shira about doing the whole thing.

Both babies enjoyed the outing. Each found himself being carried on the back of a parent, and dozed their way through the experience. Talk about living the good life!

When we finished the hike, we found a parking area full, with cars hovering waiting for spots to open. But here's the mystery: we saw just a few families on our hike. Where were all these people in the parking lot going?

I had planned for a fun day with my nephew, but got so much more. What a treat! If you're looking for a family friendly hike, Union Mill / Bull Run Occoquan Trail is an absolute winner. Just plan to start the day early!

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