August 6, 2002
Excerpted from www.arlingtonhistory.org, Arlington Bicentennial Celebration Task Force, 2100 Courthouse Plaza, Suite 414, Arlington VA 22201, 703-228-3314.
<sh>1801-1859: At the Turn of the Century
<bt>In 1801, Arlington's identity began to take shape as Congress passed an act making Arlington County, and the town of Alexandria, part of the District of Columbia. Known as Alexandria County, it was a backwater of scattered farms — the countryside between the bustling river port of Alexandria and the new capital of the United States.
Before 1801, Arlington's earliest inhabitants were Native Americans. Evidence of their settlements dating back 10,000 years has been found along the Potomac and throughout Arlington.
Europeans began settling in Arlington in the early 18th century. They were mostly tenant farmers, raising pigs and cattle and growing tobacco and corn. Gristmills, to grind wheat or corn into flour or meal, were built along several waterways, including Pimmit Run and Four Mile Run.
The main roads were horse paths and foot trails. The present-day Little Falls Road began as a rolling road, used to roll huge casks of tobacco to the warehouse and inspection station near the mouth of Pimmit Run.
Despite Arlington's new status as part of the District of Columbia, it remained sparsely populated and rural through the first half of the 19th century. The 1800 Census counted 978 residents in the "Country Park" of Alexandria County, compared to almost 5,000 in the city of Alexandria. By 1860, the population had only risen to 1,486 inhabitants. However, changes were happening. Roads were improved, bridges crossing the Potomac were built, and railroad construction had begun by mid-century, all of which made Arlington a prosperous rural community.
Politically, Arlington underwent one big change during this time period. In 1846, Alexandria County residents voted to have their county returned to Virginia. Retrocession became a fact on March 18, 1847. The Virginia General Assembly once again held the jurisdiction over the area.
<sh>1860-1900: The Civil War and Reconstruction
<bt>During the Civil War, Alexandria County was the most prominent gateway to the Confederacy, but within days of the firing on Fort Sumter it became occupied territory, home to tens of thousands of soldiers whose camps and forts dotted the countryside.
No battles were waged in Arlington, but the rumble of cannon to the south told of the terrible war, and soon hospitals to care for the sick and wounded sprang up alongside storehouses, cavalry depots and parade grounds.
Arlington was the home of the man the Union called upon to lead its forces against the rebellion. Instead, Gen. Robert E. Lee headed south to glory, leaving behind the home whose name the county still bears. Paying the price for the choice he made, he saw the reunited nation claim the home as the site of Arlington's National Cemetery, the resting place for one of the nation's heroes.
Others came to this place too, sowing the seeds of Arlington's African-American community. Freed from their bonds by war or the Emancipation Proclamation, former slaves made their home here in Freedman's Village.
The period following the Civil War was one of growth and development for both Arlington and the nation. Little villages became neighborhoods, country lanes became roads, the Washington and Old Dominion Railroad foretold the Metro system, country stores became shopping centers, and Alexandria County stepped confidently toward its future and its own destiny.
<sh>1901-1931: Arlington Grows
<bt>From the turn of the century to the Great Depression, the institutional foundations that support the county today were put into place. Arlington played a role in the evolution of flight, as the Wright brothers piloted their flying machines from the parade grounds of Fort Myer.
Supported by a court decision that prevented the establishment of incorporated communities, the county's strong system of neighborhoods emerged, and remains today a force in county policy and politics. Maps that had shown the names of individual households gave way to new ones that showed the new phenomenon of the subdivision. Communities within communities were constructed and the population increased as the county became part of a growing federal establishment.
The county's modern government structure took shape during this time, too. In 1920, Alexandria County broke from the City of Alexandria and was renamed Arlington. In 1930 a new form of government took charge, with a five-member County Board elected at-large. It replaced a three-member County Board of Supervisors, which was elected from three magisterial districts and met once a year, whether it needed to or not.
<sh>1932-2002: Modern Times
<bt>Depression-era government programs continued to build the role of the federal government as one of Arlington's major employers. This trend continued during World War II, especially with the construction of the Pentagon, completed in 1943.
Defensive troops were stationed at Fort Myer during World War II, when it also served as a processing station for soldiers entering and leaving the Army. The U.S. Army Band (Pershing's Own) and the U.S. Army School of Music moved to the post in 1942, joined later by the U.S. Army Chorus.
The early postwar years saw a newly energized citizen activism that has become a hallmark of Arlington community life. Through the "Better Schools Movement" Arlington citizens wrested the dilapidated hidebound county school system from the hands of the conservative "old guard" and launched a new school system that made education the topmost community priority.
Soon after, in the wake of the Supreme Court decision "Brown vs. the Board of Education," Arlington confronted head-on the explosive issue of race. The division of black and white was a barely concealed social fault line for decades in the Jim Crow south, and it tested Arlington's values. Arlington rose to the occasion, defying Virginia's enacted policy of "Massive Resistance" to school integration.
These years began to lock into place the community's commitment to diversity. The barriers of segregation and discrimination came down. At the same time, the Vietnam War, unrest in Latin America, and famine and turbulence in Africa drove thousands to American shores and to Arlington borders. Today, enlarged and enriched by the many colors, cultures, customs, and contributions of those who found both safety and opportunity here, the area's citizens have demonstrated that diversity can unite a community.
Yet, as the population grew and diversified, the county also grew physically and economically.
The last third of the 20th century saw Arlington County move from a down-at-the-heals inner suburb to a modern metropolis. The change centered on the county's commitment to the Metro system, the single most important decision in Arlington's strides toward economic prosperity.
This decision was buttressed by the county's determination to upgrade and improve areas of blight, its support for higher education and its recognition that public spaces and a sense of history help ensure a community's success.