Northern Virginia…this fast-growing region is often associated with the urban sprawl that’s engulfed the western suburbs of Washington, D.C. Yet as many folks around the Beltway know, just 30 miles west of the Oval Office, beyond the subdivisions, traffic jams, and shopping centers, lies gently rolling countryside, the upper Piedmont and heart of the “Hunt Country” where tree-lined country roads run for miles across fertile pastures and through small hamlets, past large estates, patches of woodland, wineries, and horse farms. Tucked into the wooded folds of the land are small creeks or “runs”, old farmhouses, stone bridges, and a few remaining gristmills that remind us of a time when this region supplied large quantities of flour for early America’s daily bread.
Making the 100-mile journey from his home in Charlottesville to the nation’s new capitol in Washington, D.C was a bit of an adventure for President Jefferson, and he bemoaned the many fords he had to cross. “Of eight rivers between here and Washington, five have neither bridges nor boats.” – Thomas Jefferson, 1801, letter to Attorney General Levi Lincoln.
Waterloo bridge, a few miles west of Warrenton
“Such bridges as may be built without the assistance of artificers (skilled workers or craftsmen), they are to build. If the stream be such as to require a bridge of regular workmanship, the county employs workmen to build it at the expense of the whole county. If it be too great for the county, application is made to the General Assembly, who authorizes individuals to build it and to take a fixed toll from all passengers, or gives sanction to such other propositions as to them appear reasonable.” -Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, 1785
Stone arch bridge over Bull Run, adjacent to present-day Route 29, Manassas National Battlefield Park.
Throngs of local citizens from Washington, including socialites and politicians, naively rode out to the Manassas countryside one fateful July afternoon in 1861, wine and picnic baskets in hand to see the Union army quickly put down the southern rebellion. Before the smoke cleared in what came to be known as the First Battle of Manassas, shocked picnickers joined thousands of Yankee soldiers as they “skedaddled” 35 miles back to the relative safety of Washington, D.C. Timely direct hits by Confederate artillery on this stone bridge upturned a supply wagon, blocking the way and turning the retreat into a chaotic mob scene as the army and high-brow spectators fled for their lives. Ironically enough a year later in August of 1862 Yankee troops again crossed the Bull Run at this spot, in a hurry but in slightly more organized fashion this time, after being defeated on the same ground in the Second Battle of Manassas. Intentionally destroyed by Confederate troops in the spring of 1862 when they retreated south to defend the capital of Richmond, the original stone bridge was replaced by the current replica span in 1884 and was in use until the 1920’s. Now closed to vehicle traffic, it serves as a footbridge and bike path for one of many trails that crisscross this hallowed ground.
“The enemy appeared upon the hill by the thousand. Between six and ten regiments were visible. It was a hell of bullet-rain in that fatal grove. The ranks were cut down as grain by a scythe. Whole platoons melted away as if by magic. Cool, unflinching and stubborn, each man fought with gallantry, and a stern determination to win or die. Not one faltered. Col. Bartow’s horse was shot under him. Adjutant Branch fell, mortally wounded. Lieut. Col. Gardner dropped with a shattered leg. The officers moved from rank to rank, from man to man, cheering and encouraging the brave fellows. Some of them took the muskets of the dead and began coolly firing at the enemy.”
– The Battle of Manassas: The 8th Georgia Regiment in the battle at Stone Bridge, published in The Richmnd Times-Dispatch, July 29, 1861
Old stone house on Route 29, Manassas National Battlefield Park. Bucolic hillsides today invite kite flying and pleasant walks, but on a hot July afternoon in 1861 this setting was anything but serene.
“Today will be known as BLACK MONDAY. We are utterly and disgracefully routed, beaten, whipped by secessionists.” –Union diarist George Templeton Strong, July 21, 1861
Capture of Rickett’s Battery, First Battle of Manassas, Sidney E. King (1906-2002), National Park Service painter
President Woodrow Wilson was our first Chief Executive to embrace the automobile and the scenic drive; it helped him “to loose his mind entirely upon the problems before him.”
George Washington Memorial Parkway, Arlington
Photo above is directly across from downtown Washington, D.C. (non-rush hour of course). This scenic “greenway”, now a major commuter route, runs adjacent to the Potomac River for 15 miles and connects several historic sites, parks, and natural areas. Many stretches of roadside are bordered by azaleas and dogwood trees, strikingly beautiful when they flower in early April. At its southern end is George Washington’s home at Mount Vernon; driving north one passes thru Old Towne Alexandria, past the Pentagon, Arlington National Cemetery, Memorial Bridge (seen in the background above, a symbolic link between the North and South), the Iwo Jima Memorial, and Theodore Roosevelt Island. The last few miles at its northern end climbs hundreds of feet atop forested bluffs, the Potomac Palisades, before ending near the Great Falls of the Potomac. The “GW Parkway”, as locals call it, offers a scenic parkland setting in the heart of a big metropolis; but beware, rat race drivers zip thru here like it’s a Nascar speedway. That’s where the National Park Service motorcycle cops come in…
Route 626, James Madison Highway, Halfway
(Photo above)Officially called the“Carolina Road”. This north-south running colonial road was founded in large part due to the many reliable springs along its route. Roadside bandits often preyed on innocent travelers, families and merchants, earning it the infamous nickname, the “Rogues Road”.
During the Civil War, Confederate John Mosby and his band of rangers, all excellent horsemen, harassed and eluded larger Union forces for three years in these parts.
Belvoir Rd., Old Tavern
From June 17-22 of 1863, in the events surrounding the battles of Aldie and Middleburg, Union and Confederate troops fought for control of the Snickers Gap and Ashby’s Gap Turnpikes, which were of strategic importance since beyond Snickers and Ashby’s Gaps, General Robert E. Lee’s army was moving north through the Blue Ridge Mountains on its way to Pennsylvania. Loudoun County was also the home of the Confederate guerilla fighter, John Singleton Mosby, and he made the county his base of operations. The turnpike was within the area frequently described as “Mosby’s Confederacy”. In August of 1864, Union cavalry of the Eighth Illinois began operations against Mosby. One third of this 650-man party traveled the length of the Snickers Gap Turnpike from Aldie to the Blue Ridge destroying mills, factories, barns, bridges, and driving off or killing livestock.
-Virginia Department of Historic Resources
“An Island of Thought”, private lane at Airlie Center, Warrenton
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his entourage were heartily welcomed to stay at Airle en route to Washington, D.C. where he gave his famous “I Have A Dream” speech in 1963. They stayed a couple of days as they rested and finished final preparations for the March On Washington. Airlie today continues its noble tradition of welcoming global leaders and policy makers in a quiet, rustic setting where free and open dialogue and the exchange of ideas is nurtured.
Dead of a dry winter, Eccentric Road, Old Tavern vicinity, looking east toward the low-lying Bull Run Mountains.