Friday, March 29, 2013

Lamenting the Disappearance of History Along Georgetown Pike

Nearly every workday on my return trip from Washington, I take the Georgetown Pike through Langley. This road, now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, retains a rural feel amidst the suburban sprawl of Northern Virginia. By and large, effective zoning and preservation-minded citizens have prevented the wholesale conversion of Georgetown Pike into just another two-lane highway outside of Washington.
A drive down the road sometimes feels like a trip back in time.  The countryside along the pike played host to Camp Pierpont, the quarters of the famed Pennsylvania Reserves during the first winter of the Civil War.  Union Gen. George McCall's old headquarters building still survives on a hill overlooking the road.  Other historic structures dot the landscape near the CIA.

Just over a rise by Langley High School sat a large, wooded piece of property to the southeast of the intersection of Georgetown Pike and Pine Hill Road.  (See map below.)  The sheer size of this undeveloped tract struck me as somewhat unusual in a place so close to the city.  I often drove past, wondering what stories that place could tell us about the boys in blue at Pierpont.  After all, their camp grounds and picket posts were scattered all around here.

One day, I saw the sign offering lots for sale.  I felt saddened to know that before long, this quiet and bucolic spot along Georgetown Pike in McLean would disappear forever.  Nothing would stop the builder's bulldozers from digging up the dirt and carrying away remains of the past.  I understand that not every inch of land can be preserved, and perhaps this particular plot would hardly garner the attention of most people.  Yet such undeveloped plots are rare in Northern Virginia, and likely hold clues about what happened here over 150 years ago.

Now, the woods are largely gone and the hills are muddy and barren.  The yellow excavator goes about its daily business among the felled trees and clumps of earth.  Perhaps a worker has uncovered a Minie ball or a metal cup and taken the find.  Or maybe relic hunters have already descended on the site when no one was looking.  I haven't heard of any serious efforts being undertaken to record what is found here.  The only shout out to the past was to name the plan after McLean's very own Confederate general, who apparently lived on this land after the Civil War.  For all we know, previous owners already discovered most of the artifacts while farming their fields.   

Such scenes have been repeated time and again around this area, and elsewhere.  Given competing priorities and the demands of modern living, we can't save every single parcel of land that witnessed the war.  And in this time of austerity, governments are hard pressed to find the resources required for serious archaeological studies.  However, that won't stop me from lamenting the disappearance of this vestige of McLean's past and wondering what we might have learned if we had been offered the chance to do so.

View Larger Map
A map showing the area of the new development, looking north.  This satellite photograph was taken prior to the recent development of the property.

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