Before the Hot Lanes: Little River Turnpike
By Michael McDonnell
Mgr. Hidden Oaks Nature Center
At Hidden Oaks Nature Center we have a wonderful “porous paver” parking lot with a rain garden. This diverts polluted run-off from vehicles away from the local forest. When designing this lot, the county had to also consider accessibility, since canes, walkers, and certain wheelchairs have a more difficult time with porous surfaces. The solution then is two centuries old and the scourge of many environmentalists and folk song writers – asphalt! Thus we have the rain garden. In our case we slightly inclined the asphalt so run-off from cars drains into either the rain garden or the scrubbing filters and pipes underneath. Asphalt, tarmac, blacktop, or paving, by any name was for many years considered the saving grace of rural economies and therefore struggling young countries.
Did you ever wonder why a road through the heart of Annandale is named for a river nearly 30 miles west in Aldie, Virginia? A wonderful aspect of this story illustrates how some situations several hundred years ago have remained the same or have exact parallels today!
Three major wagon roads were evolving for agricultural trade and migration in mid-eighteenth century northern Virginia: the Potomac Path, (today part of Route 1 to Fredericksburg); the nascent Leesburg Pike, (now Route 7 from Alexandria to Leesburg); and, the Philadelphia Wagon Road, tying German-speaking western Pennsylvania and Maryland families migrating into the fertile Shenandoah Valley, (now seen as routes 11 and 81).
In 1772, local Virginians petitioned for funds from the House of Burgesses for the Fredericksburg Road. The House rejected the proposal and recommended that local counties take over responsibility. Does this battle sound familiar? But something was changing in Virginia. By 1775, of the twenty listed mercantile firms in Alexandria – the wealthy regional trade center and river port – only three were exclusively dealing with tobacco. This agricultural shift meant changes in the Virginia landscape as well. Plantations needed rivers for tobacco. However, “inner” plantations – soon-to-be-smaller farms – had discovered that tobacco was very hard on the soil and they began the switch to wheat and other grains, which required wagon transport to mills and central shipping areas, rather than the larger plantations’ river routes.
Responsibility for the roads had returned to the Commonwealth by 1785 but, at a loss for funding, Virginia authorized private companies to set up toll gates. The tolls were used to pay for road improvement, eerily matching today’s beltway Express (H.O.T.) lanes and the Greenway projects. This change is recorded in city newspapers as distant as Baltimore, where a 1793 newspaper advertised a mill for sale, located a mile from Alexandria and, “within call of the Turnpike Road down which all the wheat, from extensive and fertile country, intended for the Alexandria Market, is conveyed.” By 1795, the first commission was granted to a group to actually rebuild roads with privately raised capital. That was the Fairfax and Loudoun Turnpike Road Company, which set about building what is today Route 236.
Stock sales for this new company took place from Alexandria to Blue Ridge; some stock advertisements were printed in German for the Shenandoah Valley residents. Not surprisingly, most if not all the commissioners owned homes and/or land along the route into the mountains. Although this company ended up in failure, they reorganized to become the Little River Turnpike Company in 1801, since so great was the desire to have passable transportation from the breadbasket of Virginia - the western farms into Alexandria. Investing partners included Richard Bland Lee, Northern Virginia’s first congressman and builder of Sully Plantation, located adjacent to the planned route in Chantilly. (It is open to visitors and a fun trip for the family).
Most of the property issues involved in building the road were resolved through laws of eminent domain. Virginia also confiscated building material from forests, farms, and quarries along the entire route. The turnpike laws required roads to be 60 feet across and an 18 foot-wide swath be covered with gravel or stone. Only then could the company set up toll houses and gates. Parallel to today’s arguments over Metro funding, there were some tricky border issues in 1801 as well as a shortage in private funding. By 1804 Virginia purchased most stock shares to keep the company from foundering making it privately run but government subsidized. Still seems familiar, doesn’t it?
By 1806 the Little River Turnpike extended 10 miles, with 2 toll gates, and had collected $787 in tolls. It ran from Alexandria past John Moss’ Green Spring Farm (today’s Green Spring Gardens) through Annandale and into the town of Providence, later named Fairfax. In 1812 the company recorded 35 miles of road, 7 gates and, by 1818, $30,000 in tolls; quite a profitable sum. An 1826 letter refers to Aldie, where a flour mill had been built on the Little River, and where the road forked into the Snickers Gap Pike to Berryville. The letter notes the turnpike as a, “busy road full of wagons morning and night.” Some folks counted at least a hundred per day. Another letter refers to the, “Roughest pavement I was ever on… paved all the way to Alexandria…not a bad policy to have one’s life and limbs insured before undertaking the trip.”
Now remember these weren’t the asphalt ribbons we see today! By 1827, letters display a hue and cry to use the “M’Adam plan” on the road, referencing Scotsman John Loudon McAdam’s method of using smaller stone crushed into larger stone atop a leveled but natural landscape surface. This method digressed from earlier road construction which required much large “boulder” rock as the first layer. Wide-wheeled wagons paid no tolls on “macadamized” roads, since the wider iron wheels helped to pack the road down. Today’s asphalted roads, trails and runways are often actually an engineered stone surface that has been bound with tar spray – thus the origin of “tarmac”.
Alexandria’s wealth started declining by the 1820’s. Many merchants were dealing with Philadelphia directly for overseas shipping and transport. However, the Little River Turnpike still was in use, and soon there rose a new American middle class, with expendable wealth, nascent “vacations” to western “baths”, and scenic trips to de rigor destinations such as Thomas Jefferson’s Natural Bridge. Road traffic for Greenbrier, Monroe, Bath, and Alleghany Counties all picked up in the Commonwealth, and 1835 records note nearly 15,000 annual tourists used the turnpikes, canals, railroads, and stage connections.
However the rollercoaster of economic dependence took its toll on tolls, and by the mid-19th century unstable dollars, farm depressions, high maintenance, and of course the American Civil War prompted citizens to avoid the now poorly-kept “shunpikes” and by 1896 Virginia had to take complete possession of most turnpikes. That is until the Greenway! And so it goes round again. Except this time we know more about consequences. When we lay asphalt, we try to do it with a thoughtful eye towards pollution mitigation, so all of that oil and antifreeze that washes off the cars doesn’t end up in our streams. We don’t want to pave paradise, but sometimes we still need the parking lot.
This article first appeared in ENDEAVOR, April 2012
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