Because of its proximity to Washington, DC and the Potomac River, McLean, has been a part of many historic events. The town was named for John R. McLean in 1910, the publisher of the Washington Post and one of the owners of the Great Falls and Old Dominion Railroad. The electrified railroad, which was completed in 1900, went from Rosslyn to Great Falls and connected with Washington, DC. It was designed to carry travelers to visit the falls and the amusement park there. McLean was one of the stops of the railroad.
The town grew because of the railroad stop. The railroad crossed the Potomac River at Chain Bridge Road, which became McLean's main thoroughfare. Chain Bridge Road is named for the Chain Bridge. The first bridge to be built at the site of the current Chain Bridge was finished in 1797. It was called Falls Bridge, named for the Little Falls located nearby. The bridge was quickly washed away by the river. It was replaced by a second
bridge, called Long Bridge, which was then replaced by a third. This was the first one to be called Chain Bridge. The name has been kept for the bridges located there since. Chain Bridge Road is now one of the oldest roads in Fairfax County.
Legend has it that Captain John Smith was the first white man to view McLean, but this is, in fact, not accurate. Smith sailed up the Potomac River from Jamestown, investigating the tributaries. He got as far as current location of the Chain Bridge, where he saw the obstacle of the Little Falls and couldn't go any farther. Though he did not make it to where McLean is located today, he may have encountered any of the various Native American tribes in the area, which included the Algonquian and Piscataway Indians.
AFTER THE REVOLUTIONARY WAR, but before the railroad ran through the area and the railroad station brought business to McLean, not many people lived in the area. Because the land is farmland, it was taken up by some plantations and many homes with large land holdings. The only densely inhabited part of the area was Langley Forks, located at the current intersection of Georgetown Pike and Chain Bridge Road.
Many of the farm houses from that time and earlier are notable for various reasons. Though the area was mostly uninhabited, some homes do pre-date the Revolutionary War. One such home is Towlston Grange, at which George Washington used to stop on his way to Great Falls. Another historic home is Maplewood. It was a large, empire-style home that was a landmark in early McLean. Maplewood had the largest barn in Fairfax County. Though the buildings no longer stand, some of the brick wall and fencing still remain at the site of the home.
Because of its proximity to Washington, during the Civil War McLean became a temporary home to many troops. Though McLean had seceded from the Union with the rest of Virginia in 1861, most of the people in the area voted with the North. Salona, in McLean, though part of the Confederacy, was the headquarters for the Vermont brigade.
After the Civil War, the area of McLean now called Chesterbrook was named Lincolnville, for President Abraham Lincoln. There had been homes in Lincolnville before the Civil War but the area only became prominent afterwards. The area, because it is next to the Chain Bridge, was originally designed to be a city, though one never was formed. Many tobacco warehouses and other industrial buildings and facilities were located in the area; they moved there in an attempt to make the area the main source of tobacco purchases for exportation to England. The businesses had mostly left the area by 1820 and by the 1870s, Lincolnville, to some extent, finally achieved the large size to which its original inhabitants had intended for it to grow.
The property now known as Salona was originally owned by Thomas Lee, grandfather of Henry "Light-Horse Harry" Lee, Revolutionary War soldier, and great-grandfather of Robert E. Lee, Confederate army general. The Lee family never lived on the land but managed business establishments there from their home in Alexandria.
In August 1814, James and Dolley Madison fled to McLean when the British burned Washington, DC during the War of 1812. The home called Salona, in which the President spent the night, still stands, though the one where his wife stayed has since burned down.
ANOTHER HOME IN MCLEAN that has housed a president is Hickory Hill. When John Kennedy was a senator he lived there with his family for several years. The next residents of the home were President Kennedy's brother, Bobby, and his family.
Many reminders of the McLean's history have vanished only in recent years. Evans Farm was a home made to look historic. In the last five years, the farm's land has been filled by many townhouses. Another long-standing historic landmark was a windmill which used to be on Westmoreland Street, but was taken down a few years ago. It had been a reminder, until recently, that part of McLean was only farms and plantations.
The desirability of living in McLean today, as its residents are aware, comes from its proximity to Washington, DC. Much of the growth in the population of the area came following World War II. During the war, many people moved to Washington because of getting jobs in the war-enlarged government. After the end of the war many of these people wanted to stay in the area, but move out of the city. This caused the expansion of all the surrounding suburbs, including McLean. Additional movement to McLean came in the early 1950s, when the Central Intelligence Agency headquarters were moved to Langley. Employees moved to McLean so they could be close to their jobs at the CIA. Even now, these two locations are the among the most common workplaces of McLean residents. All McLean residents live near locations of various types of historical significance.