The next time you’re on a Manassas Line train that pauses at VRE’s Backlick Station, take a moment to ponder why there’s a rail line here at all. The answer lies 17 decades in the past.

In the 1840s, a group of Alexandria merchants, seeking to compete with the ports of Baltimore and Richmond, decided to build a railroad to bring the products of the Virginia heartland to the Potomac River. Trains were still rickety, unreliable contraptions, yet the group persuaded the Virginia General Assembly to sanction a rail line to Orange County, about 90 miles inland. Orange County was already connected to Richmond by the Louisa Railroad, which was later known as the Virginia Central Railroad. They named the new railroad the Orange & Alexandria Railroad (O&A).

One of the directors of the O&A, Henry Daingerfield, subsequently bought 900 acres of land just west of Backlick Road. There were several natural springs on the property, so he called the area Springfield. He then persuaded the railroad to build its first station west of Alexandria on his land. Soon the station was also serving as the first post office for the new town of Springfield, and it made Daingerfield a lot of money.

Indeed, the O&A was the first railroad from the nation’s capital region to the south. Its completion in 1850 meant that for the first time, someone might travel from Boston to Richmond almost entirely by rail.

Then came the Civil War, the first conflict to move whole armies by train. Thanks to a rail junction at Manassas, the O&A was the easiest way to travel between the war’s opposing capitals – and was therefore a route of immense strategic value. In July 1861, Confederate forces marched on the O&A’s Manassas Junction, and so began the war’s first major battle. Later, Rebel troops moved eastward to occupy Springfield Station. Union soldiers eventually chased them off, but the Confederates raided the station again the following year. The warring sides ultimately fought up and down the O&A for three long years, turning the line into the most fought-over stretch of track in the country.

The O&A railroad itself barely survived the war, its tracks pummeled and rolling stock decimated. But like many American railroads, it merged with another line and lived on, eventually becoming part of the Southern Railway. In 1982, the Southern merged with the Norfolk & Western, itself the product of scores of mergers, and formed the Norfolk Southern.

A decade later, as the Virginia Railway Express prepared to open its Manassas Line, the old Springfield rail stop got a new structure, a new name – Backlick Road Station – and a new generation of passengers to travel a route laid out nearly 150 years earlier.