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Preserving Hunter Mill Road History

Local group wants to place over 50 sites on county's historic register.

Soon after Michael Park and his wife moved into a house near the corner of Hunter Mill Road and Lawyers Road a few years ago, they found they were surrounded by history. Park, an amateur historian, got to work, joining the history committee of the Hunter Mill Defense League, a community group working to protect the area's resources. Together, they scoured archives in the Virginia Room of the Fairfax Library, researched old deeds at the county courthouse and talked to descendants of long-ago residents on the Hunter Mill Road corridor.

Now, their work has come together with a proposal to place 52 sites on the county's historic inventory. The proposal, filed as part of the county's biennial review of the county's comprehensive plan, would signal the county's recognition that the 7.2 mile stretch of Hunter Mill Road is historically significant. But it would not be enough to prevent developers or the county from widening the road or developing alongside it.

Because the road crosses over several magisterial districts, the Hunter Mill Defense League had to file separate nominations in the Hunter Mill, Providence, Sully and Dranesville districts.

"There's so much change in this area going on, and we think it's important that we document these sites," said Park, who filed the nomination in Hunter Mill.

THE SITES that the group wants to register span a couple hundred years of American history, said Jeanette Twomey, president of the Hunter Mill Defense League. A log cabin in pristine condition dates from the 1700s and sits on private land on the northern end of the road. A site next to Difficult Run served as a bivouac for 10,000 union soldiers during the Civil War. A high point along the road was used to relay smoke and fire signals from Washington, D.C. to Civil War troops at Bull Run. The former home of an old mill — Hunter's Mill — is located on Difficult Run, where at different times during the war, Union and Confederate soldiers would camp and fish.

"Eight or 10 years ago, the Department of Transportation was doing some work at the bridge and they found a whole box of minnie balls," said Twomey, referring to ammunition used during the Civil War.

Also on the road is a shuttered general store that hasn't been touched since the 1930s. "When Virginia put in a sales tax, the owner closed the doors of the store. We understand it has never been disturbed since then," she said.

And at the corner of the Washington and Old Dominion trail and Hunter Mill Road, an entire town once existed. Known as Hunter's Village, it had a post office and general store — still standing — a train station and a military hospital.

"There have been several settlements, I guess they call them hamlets, all up and down the corridor," said Park.

Right now, only four sites are documented on the county's historic inventory, he added. They include the old Oakton schoolhouse which used to house the Appalachian Outfitters store at the corner of Route 123 and Hunter Mill Road and which may be moved. The most recent addition to the county's register is the Cartersville Baptist Church at the corner of Sunrise Valley Drive and Hunter Mill Road, which served a congregation of freed African-American slaves.

THE EFFORT to preserve historic sites along the road dates from 2000 when the league was able to get the road eligible for listing on the state's historic registry. That means that the state's Department of Historic Resources would have to review the site of any transportation or development proposal that would receive federal money, said Twomey. But even if the review finds historically relevant sites, local governments can still build.

"[Department of Historic Resources staffers] don't have the power to stop it, but what it does is it gives the public notice of what might be in jeopardy and gives government officials notice of what might be in jeopardy," she said.

County officials say that they will try to preserve historic sites as much as possible but that it might become necessary to widen Hunter Mill Road or develop it as the county grows.

"Yes, it has a lot of wonderful features that we'd all love to keep," said Supervisor Cathy Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill). But she added, "we still have the increased flow of traffic in the area and we have to be able to accommodate it safely."

Eventually, she said, the two interests could "butt heads."

Supervisor Linda Smyth (D-Providence) said the plan changes wouldn't prevent development from taking place along the road. "I think this is just like other things in the Comprehensive Plan," she said. "It says, OK, this is a red flag. If something comes up we need to check for."

That has residents of the Hunter Mill Road corridor worried.

"The residents in the Hunter Mill Road area are in a battle for the soul of our community," said Twomey. "And there's certainly forces on the other side that see Hunter Mill Road not as a community-serving road but rather a commuter-serving road."