The Ghost of Snapped Shot

Or, welcome to my low-maintenance heck.

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Commonwealth #2: What's in a Name?

Mount Air, 1960s (FCPA)
One of my earliest memories of moving to Fairfax County was the drive from Interstate 95 up Route 1, and then up Telegraph Road through Lorton. As a Tidewater boy, I was intimately familiar with the history of Princess Anne County, which became the Virginia Beach of my youth, but hadn't learned much else about our Commonwealth yet. It therefore comes as no surprise that names like Colchester, Gunston, and Pohick didn't mean anything to me yet.

In the 18 years since first coming to Fairfax County, it has changed in innumerable ways. Neighborhoods have sprung up from nowhere, virtually overnight, and become completely occupied within months. In the midst of all this change, it isn't surprising to notice that the threads of history sometimes become obscured by the inevitable march of "Progress."

Take, for instance, The Village at Mount Air, near the intersection of Telegraph and 7100 (formerly Backlick Rd) in the Newington area of Lorton. I have driven past it countless times, even looked at houses for sale there, and never once had I even considered the origin of its name!
Mount Air Plantation, Virginia (2007/BCL)
For my younger readers: You may have noticed hints to the name's origin on the Mount Air website above. I can assure you that the luxury of "instant" knowledge was not afforded us in the proverbial "way back then." While it's easy to find information like this in the "digital age," back in my day, you had to actually go and sit down in a library to discover stuff like this.

So anyway, back to the present. After finding a passing reference to "Mount Air Plantation" while reading about Fairfax County history, my memory was jogged back to the neighborhood of the same name. I began to wonder whether there was any connection between the two. The documentation I had read indicated that the plantation was high overlooking the banks of Accotink Creek, and while I was aware that there were areas of higher elevation around that general area, I remembered that Accotink Creek in that area was not navigable, which seemed odd, so I discounted the thought that there could be a plantation there. After all, rivers were the primary means of travel in the 1750's, so the site didn't seem like anything approaching a match to me.

On the way home from work one day, I finally succumbed to my own curiosity, and went for a drive down Accotink Road, and quickly came to discover that the mansion was there right underneath my nose the whole time! I spent a good 30 minutes on-site, exploring all of the various ruins, and just generally feeling a sense of awe at discovering that a piece of history had been so close, yet completely unknown to me for all of this time.

The following information was transcribed verbatim from the Fairfax County Park Authority signs--other than the links, which I added:

Mount Air: The Story of a Home

Keeping it in the Family
The McCarty's, who built Mount Air, were an important Virginia family. Dennis McCarty patented the land where you stand in 1727. Dennis McCarty served as Sheriff, Justice of the Peace, a vestryman for Truro Parish and was a representative in the Virginia House of Burgesses. He married George Washington's cousin, Sarah Ball, in 1724.

By 1732, the McCarty's had a house and garden on the property. There was also a public warehouse on this land, used to store produce that would have been shipped to England. Many generations of McCarty descendents [sic] continued to live in the house. In about 1850, the house was damaged by fire for the first time. We learned this through archaeology and historical documents. The house was rebuilt or repaired and sold out of the family in 1860.

On the Verge of War
In 1860, Aristides Landstreet, his wife Mary, and his family moved into Mount Air. When the Civil War started, Aristides enlisted with the Confederate Army. For a time, his family remained at Mount Air, near the shifting lines of Confederate and Union troops. Finally, the estate was occupied by Union troops, and the family relocated for the duration of the war. The house and the lands suffered greatly as a result of the war. The property value declined over the years and after Aristides died in 1910, his daughters were forced to mortgage and subsequently sell the property in 1914.

From Home to Historic Site
In 1914, George (sic) [ed: "sic" in original. Her name was "Georges."] Shirley Kernan purchased Mount Air. In 1918, Mrs. Kernan made the grounds available as quarters for Army men who were constructing a railroad [ed.: See the bottom of this page for photographs of the remnants of this abandoned Railroad line.] to Camp Humphreys (now Fort Belvoir). Abandoned lumber from this encampment was used to panel one of the rooms in the main house and to construct a garage. In 1962, Mrs. Kernan left the estate to her daughter, Elisabeth Enochs. Although Elisabeth traveled extensively in her work for the Children's Bureau and as a journalist, her home remained at Mount Air. Sometime in the 1960s, Elisabeth began exploring means of preserving Mount Air. In 1969 the main house was registered with the Fairfax County Historic Landmarks Survey. Several weeks after Elisabeth died in May of 1992, the main house at Mount Air was completely consumed by fire.


It's interesting to note that, according to Fairfax County, there was a McCarty family cemetery located 300 feet north of the main house. This is presently the location of the driveway of an average, everyday suburban home, and very close to where I parked my car during my tour of the park.

What makes that so interesting?

Well, from the Fairfax County website, while the tombstones were moved to nearby Pohick Church, "it was unclear whether any bodies were removed with the stones."

The moral of this edition of Brian's Commonwealth? Never take anything for granted. Unseen history can lie behind any corner, ready for you to discover for the first time.

Or under any driveway.

Update: 27th of August, 2007.

I have received and read a copy of Edith Sprouse's wonderful Mount Air: Fairfax County Virginia, and have learned some very interesting little tidbits about the property:

* The rail which was used to build the spur to Camp A.A. Humphreys (now Fort Belvoir) was originally ordered by the Russian government. When the unfortunate events surrounding the revolution of 1917 came to pass, the order could not be completed, so the rail was instead sent to our new spur alongside Mount Air, where it remains to this day.

* The brick verandah off to the west of the house has what appears to be cement columns. While these are not of long-term archaeological value, they are originally from the Old Botanical Gardens in Washington, D.C., and were salvaged by Mrs. Kernan when it was demolished in the very early 20th century.

* Before the farmland in this area of Fairfax County was allowed to return to its wild state, the estate at Mount Air had visibility all the way to the Potomac River. As late as 1920, it was reported that the view remained that way from the third floor.

* There was a set of lace curtains in the Living Room which were reportedly donated to Mrs. Kernan by a Russian princess.

* General William Walker, who was an American soldier executed in Nicaragua, visited the house shortly before his death in 1856. He left an inscription under one of the eaves of the house, which read: "Cada oveja con su pareja."

* The millstone pictured below served as an impromptu back porch for the mansion. It was originally from George Washington's Grist Mill, and was moved to the estate after the Mill ceased to function.


There's plenty more that I've left out—I highly recommend finding a copy of this book for yourself, so you can learn more about this truly historic plot of land.

Site Map


(Open in Google Maps | Open in Google Earth)


Photographs


Click on the picture below to start the slideshow. Be sure to wait until the page has finished loading beforehand, and let us know if you run into any problems using this feature.

The front yard.


Formerly, the front porch.


Ruins, Mount Air, 2007.


The front yard, as it appears today.


Mount Air, 1960s (FCPA)


Mount Air, 1970s. (FCPA)


The Destruction of Mount Air, 1992 (FCPA)


Parade of Dogwoods.


Lonely bench, immediately to the West of the manor.


Pleasant Times—this patio, off to the West of the house, at one point in time had a commanding view of Accotink Creek.


Stately Columns—detail of the base of the patio railing.


Here's what the patio looks like from the outside. It looks like it is most likely of more recent construction than the main estate.


A second house on the property, which looks to have been built sometime around the 1940's or 1950's (check out the air conditioning unit).


Ominous Stables—a large barn, which was most recently used as a horse stable.


Two Lonely Sheds—these were used as a smokehouse, amongst other things.


Forlorn Barn.


As you can see, part of the barn is beginning to show signs of decay. If Fairfax County doesn't do something to abate this, the rest will surely follow.


This was a really cool little building, apparently a "corn crib."


The foundations ought to hold, right?


Should we look in?


Formerly, a corn crib. Currently, storage.


It's not so spooky from here, right?


Here's what it looked like when it was actually maintained.


Forlorn Corner—here's a detail view of the barn.


Chimney of Hopes.


Formerly, a Stool—This is behind the two sheds. There appears to be an underground area below them as well, which was probably used to store ice.


Another view of the barn.


The well-house.


"T. M. Murthy 45th Engs." Mr. Murthy was most likely one of the soldiers encamped at Mount Air to build the Camp Humphrey (Fort Belvoir) railroad spur, and kindly offered his assistance in building the well-house foundations.


Ruins, from the rear.


Ruins, from the side.


Ruins, from the side.


Intrestingly, this millstone served as the bottom step of the back porch.


Park Entrance.


This is the approximate location of the graveyard. According to Fairfax County, it is "unclear" whether the bodies were moved with the gravestones.



Brian's Commonwealth of Virginiana is Copyright © 2007, Brian C. Ledbetter, except where otherwise noted.

  #YeOldeDominion


Comments:

#1 Hapkido 30-Apr-2007
Brian,
Definitely keep these going! I'm a huge fan of history - particularly American History - & eat this stuff up when it comes in such a well-written format. :-)
Great post!
#2 BelchSpeak 30-Apr-2007
Brian,
As a fellow Fairfax resident, thanks for publishing that. You have piqued my curiosity. I may go visit Gunston Hall soon.
#3 Brian 30-Apr-2007
Many thanks for the kind words, y'all! As always, let me know if there's anything I can improve in these features!

Belch, if you do make it out to Gunston Hall, see if you can take a peek out across Accotink Bay. There is a squat, concrete building over there with a dome on top (in the secluded part of Fort Belvoir's southern post). It has a remarkable history that I hope to share with y'all sometime soon!

;)

Oh, and would you believe that in all of my time in Fairfax County, I've never been to Gunston Hall? I think I'll try and schedule a Family Saturday over there, too! Thanks for the idea!

Warmest regards,
Brian
#4 DEBORAH SHELTON 16-Aug-2007
Please contact me ,I don't know if my first e-mail went through, I grew up across Telegraph rd. on Accotink and would like to correct some of your information as well as to tell you about another family gravesite down Accotink rd. and about Miss Elisabeth and what the estate waas like in the early 60's especially the interior that was historically intact from the pre-civil war times. Also there was an article in the Post by a reporter who spent the night as I had and wrote about the "ghosts"

[i][Ed.: Originally posted on 10 Aug 2007 at 19:58 EDT][/i]
#5 Randy Cook 02-Nov-2007
Thanks for the information! I live in Mount Vernon Manor, and I had no idea. Recently retired from the Army, I'm just beginning to explore Virginia, my new home. We finally got across the river to see the big fortress looking structure, not too long ago. If you haven't been to Fort Washington, I recommend it, although they may already be closed for winter. As for that squat building with the dome, that is what remains of SM-1, a nuclear reactor that was used to train Army and Navy Prime Power soldiers and sailors. Long after it was shut down, we still held classes in the building (as late as 1985). By the time my class, 86-02, came through, it was just used as storage. The last time I was in it, last year or year before, it was pretty much a mess inside, but enough of the electrical and control infrastructure remains that it was still worth the visit.
#6 Brian C. Ledbetter 02-Nov-2007
Randy,

Glad you enjoy it! My apologies for not having the time to update the Virginiana section in a while. Glad to see someone knows the secret of SM-1! I've been dying to get out to Belvoir and take some pictures of that site for forever now, but alas, haven't had the time to do so. Hopefully, I'll be able to coordinate with someone to do that sometime before too long!

Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts with us!

Regards,
Brian
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