An Alexandria and Virginia Institution Reaches 150

An Alexandria and Virginia Institution Reaches 150

August 1, 2002

Editor's Note: This is the first of three parts in the 150-year history of Burke & Herbert Bank and Trust Co.

In the annals of American history, Aug. 14 is noted for three memorable events. In 1935, Social Security was enacted into law. In 1941, Roosevelt and Churchill signed the Atlantic Charter. In 1945, Japan surrendered, ending World War II.

In the annals of Alexandria history, Aug. 14, 1852, marks the date of the founding of what was to become the oldest existing bank in the commonwealth of Virginia — Burke and Herbert Bank and Trust Co. It has remained under the stewardship of one of its founding families for all of its 150 years.

Each 50-year segment of its existence has been marked by what the Chinese dual blessing implies: "May you live in interesting times." Those times have been marked by wars, depression, human endurance, and challenges to the very foundation of this nation's existence. But through them all, the institution and the individuals it personifies have prevailed.

With three banks already operating in Alexandria in 1852, two young men — John Woolfolk Burke, 27, and Arthur Herbert, 23 — decided the city needed a third. And theirs was destined to survive all the others.

Burke had come to Alexandria in 1848 from his home in Mount Ivy, Caroline County, Va. He married Julia Thompson, who died soon after the birth of their son, Julian Thompson Burke, in 1854. He and his second wife, Martha Jefferson Trist, had six children.

Herbert was a fourth-generation Alexandrian. He was born in 1828 in the Carlyle House, which was built by his great-grandfather John Carlyle, one of Alexandria's founders. Herbert was the last person to be born in that historic residence.

KNOWN ORIGINALLY as the "Burke and Herbert Banking and Exchange Office," its first headquarters was at the northeast corner of Prince and Lee streets directly across from the Bank of The Old Dominion, which was housed in what today we call the Athenaeum. Lee Street was then known as Water Street. It was renamed to honor Gen. Robert E. Lee.

"The water came up a lot farther in those days," according to E. Hunt Burke, son of the late Charles Sinclair Taylor Burke Jr. and the bank's present senior executive vice president. "There was just the two of them in the beginning, and they did everything."

That "everything" was not just in the field of commerce and banking, as related by Dorothy Holcombe Kabler in her "A History of Burke and Herbert's Century of Service to Alexandria and Virginia" and Julia M. Williams' booklet titled "Burke and Herbert Celebrates 150 Years."

When Burke and Herbert opened their doors, "Ships at Alexandria's wharves were unloading goods from ports on the trade lanes of the world for the city's great commission houses and rails from the British Isles for the "iron horse" roads. ... Such innovations as a gas lighting system for streets and houses; and running water ... for householders modern enough to try it, had just been introduced," Kabler noted.

The first eight years saw the bank make two moves. In 1859 it moved to the northwest corner of Prince and Fairfax streets, and in July 1860, to the north side of King Street into No. 59. This is now the 300 block of King Street, where Market Square is located.

But even as success mounted, storm clouds were gathering. On May 23, 1861, a statewide referendum was passed on the Ordinance of Secession, which had been adopted by the Virginia Convention on April 17.

"In the early morning of May 24, Lt. Reigart B. Lowrey landed an occupying force ... at the waterfront, and the marching regiment of N.Y. Fire Zouaves entered the town from the north," Kabler explained.

ON THAT SAME DAY the commander of the 11th Zouave Regiment, Col. Elmer Ephraim Ellsworth, a personal friend of President and Mrs. Abraham Lincoln, entered the Marshall House hotel, now the site of the Holiday Inn Old Town. He climbed the stairs and ripped down the Confederate flag flying from the top of the building.

The proprietor, James W. Jackson, was waiting for Ellsworth as he descended and shot him with a double-barreled shotgun at point blank range. Jackson was then shot and bayoneted by Corp. Francis E. Brownell of Troy, N.Y.

That event marked the first blood of the Civil War spilled on Virginia soil and the commencement of a physical and emotional odyssey for John Woolfolk Burke and Arthur Herbert, as they pursued different paths to a common goal. Herbert became a colonel in the Army of the Confederacy, and Burke was instrumental in preserving a national landmark that all Americans today revere - The Mount Vernon Estate.

Over the next four years, Herbert saw action in 12 battles in four states, was wounded twice and cited for gallantry on the field. He eventually ended up with Gen. Robert E. Lee at Appomattox in the surrender to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant.

Burke, now 36, with a family, remained in Alexandria. The bank was forced to close in the winter of 1861-62, "but he ensured that no depositors lost their money," Williams said, although "he was frequently under house arrest. At one point he was confined at the Old Capitol Prison in Washington."

"For four years the military authorities ruled Alexandria with an iron hand, giving advantages only to those willing to take an oath of allegiance to the Union. This the Burke family steadfastly refused to do," according to Kabler.

Mrs. Burke, the great-granddaughter of Thomas Jefferson and the last person born at Monticello while he was alive, was raised in Philadelphia and abroad. Her father, Nicholas Philip Trist, was a diplomat, serving in various international posts.

As Kabler noted, "Mrs. Burke did not approve of the secession of the Southern states, but she did not allow her point of view to divide her household." And she was as instrumental as her husband in saving Mount Vernon.

ONE OF THE MORE compelling stories of the Burkes' ingenuity was their role in protecting the proceeds from the sale of Mount Vernon by John Augustine Washington Jr. to the Mount Vernon Ladies Association. Washington deposited the $200,000 at Burke and Herbert before joining the Confederate forces. He did this because of his strong trust in Burke and also because Herbert was a godfather to one of his children.

"The Union troops suspected that the money was in the bank and came to confiscate it. Landon Randolph, another relative, was standing on the dock. He saw them coming and fired a musket into the air," Hunt Burke related.

"John Burke took the money from the bank to his home at 208 Wilkes St. and hid it in his wife's closet. When the troops couldn't find it in the bank, they went to the home and began to search. When they got to Mrs. Burke's closet, an officer asked what was in there, and she said her clothing, which he was perfectly welcome to search. Out of modesty he refused," Hunt said.

Later, the funds were smuggled across the river by a family friend, Sarah Tracey, who was working to preserve the Estate as a neutral landmark. They were placed in a safe deposit box at Corcoran and Riggs Bank, where they stayed until after the War, according to Burke.

Tracey held a Union pass, allowing her to pass through the lines between Mount Vernon and Washington. "She put the money in the bottom of a basket of fresh eggs and took them across the river to Mr. Riggs' office. To avoid suspicion, she left the eggs with Mr. Riggs, which he paid for," according to Williams.

John Burke, in addition to his various times of imprisonment, was also used as a hostage and forced to ride on the outside of a train that carried Union troops and supplies to Harper's Ferry, according to Hunt Burke.

"Attacks on Union trains staged by Col. John Singleton Mosby and his Raiders were serious threats, as the supply lines for Grant's army became longer," Kabler explained. The theory was that Mosby would not attack trains with Southern hostages. Mosby indicated he would attack, hostages or no hostages.

This hostage duty continued for weeks, but there was no loss of life. It even caused the closing of the Alexandria Gazette because the editor, Edgar Snowden Jr., was one of the hostages. His reason for closing the newspaper for those weeks was that "his efforts to delegate the responsibilities of publishing the paper to others in his absence had not been successful," Kabler reported.

IN THE SUMMER OF 1865, after the surrender at Appomattox, Burke reopened the bank at 29 King St. under the name of the Banking House of J.W. Burke. Following Col. Herbert's return they eventually re-formed their partnership and took in a third partner, Jourdan W. Maury. The new firm was titled Burke, Herbert and Co.

But this threesome lasted only four years. In the fall of 1869, Maury moved his family to Washington and sold his interest in the bank to the two original partners. And, the name was changed to Burke and Herbert.

"The reconstruction period was a particularly rough time, in many respects as hard as the War," Hunt Burke emphasized. The situation was further exacerbated by Lincoln's assassination. But, in spite of the slow and arduous regrowth, the bank grew, and finally in 1871 it relocated to its present site on the northwest corner of King and Fairfax streets.

The property was purchased from Dr. Francis James Murphy. He sold the property with the proviso that "Mr. Burke should pay him $600 a year" during his lifetime in four equal quarterly payments. These were to begin Dec. 12, 1871.

The deed was signed on Sept. 15, 1871. Dr. Murphy wrote his will on Feb. 17, 1877, and died that spring. After probate it was decided Burke had met the terms of the agreement with a final payment, during the doctor's lifetime, of $118.33. Burke, therefore, gained full title.

Even the present site of the bank is significant, not only to Alexandria history but also to the nation. "During the Colonial and Revolutionary War periods, it was the home of Col. John Fitzgerald, an Irishman and Catholic, who emigrated to Alexandria probably by way of Philadelphia," according to Kabler's account.

He served as an aide to Washington during the Revolution and later operated an export-import business in the city. He served as Alexandria mayor from 1792-94.

ON ST. PATRICK'S DAY 1788, a historic meeting was held at his home to discuss plans to establish a Catholic church in Alexandria. It was completed in 1795 on the present site of St. Mary's Cemetery. During the period before completion of the church, Masses were celebrated in the Fitzgerald home, now the site of Burke and Herbert Bank, Kabler explained.

"The Burkes are of Irish descent, and we still fly the Irish flag once a year on St. Patrick's Day," Hunt Burke said. They also participate in Alexandria's St. Patrick's Day Parade.

In 1877, another partner was taken into the firm - Julian Thompson Burke, son of John W. Burke by his first wife. He was the first in a long line of sons, grandsons and great-grandsons to serve in the family and Alexandria institution.

During the succeeding years Burke and Herbert Bank continued to prosper and expand. Among its many assets was The Greenbrier Hotel at White Sulphur Springs, W.Va.

In 1899, Col. Arthur Herbert decided it was time to retire, although at 77 he was four years younger than Burke and he had no sons to follow him into the firm. He and his wife, Alice, had five daughters.

On his decision to retire, he sold his interest in Burke and Herbert to the three Burke brothers who were then active in the bank. He lived for another 19 years at his family estate at Muckross near the Episcopal Seminary. John Burke continued on as president at age 81.

It was the end of a century and the beginning of an era for a new generation of Burkes to move the bank forward. It was a time for planning, growth, and a new building.

It would also prove to be a time of despair and challenge, both economically and politically. Three wars, the Great Depression, a signal change in the nation's economic structure encompassing the banking industry, all would test the mettle of the next generation to shepherd and nurture the legacy of John Woolfolk Burke and Arthur Herbert.