A Look Back

A Look Back

Town Meeting dives into Braddock District's history.

It is hard to picture now, but Braddock Road was once one lane in each direction.

Ruth Miller, who has lived in the Ravensworth Farms development for 43 years, remembers the old days in Burke, before the beltway and the expanded Braddock Road. Traffic was better then, she said, except on Rebel Hill. "Cars would always go sliding up and down that hill," she said. "There was a creek at the bottom, and when it overflowed I would always see cars getting stuck in it."

Rebel Hill, the infamous stretch of Braddock Road that caused problems for so many Burke drivers, is gone now, leveled by development. But its legacy remains, and on tape, no less.

Over the past summer, Miller, along with 52 other long-time Braddock District residents, shared memories and stories of Rebel Hill and the Burke area in front of a camera as part of the Braddock District's "A Look Back at Braddock" project.

After a kickoff one year ago at the 2004 Braddock District fall town meeting, the project is nearing completion, said Supervisor Sharon Bulova (D-Braddock) at this year's fall town meeting Wednesday, Oct. 19.

Dozens of hours of interview tape were whittled down to a 15-minute presentation on the history of Braddock, played for the first time to a packed room.

The video, edited by Channel 16 crews, began with not-so-fond memories of Rebel Hill. In a 1931 Washington Post article, citizens complained that they "could not take another encounter with that hill."

Paul Kincheloe reminisced on tape about bringing truckloads of hay home along Braddock Road, taking two cars up Rebel Hill in case the wagon could not make it up its steep incline.

Now, said Kincheloe, Rebel Hill is barely visible.

THE BURKE landscape has changed in other ways, too. In 1941, a combination of dry weather and a train spark started a fire that swept through Burke Centre and down Route 123. It took hold in the tree tops and skipped right over roads and houses, said resident Lynn Brice in the video. Although the City of Fairfax Fire Department received assistance from firefighters all over the region and even prisoners from the Lorton penitentiary, said Brice, the fire burned for a week before it went out.

"I can’t remember how far it went," said Brice. "It just leveled everything through there."

In the video, former resident Paul Brown said he remembered box turtles exploding from the heat. "It was the hottest fire you ever saw," he said.

The video also touched upon the uproar in the 1950s over the proposed Burke International Airport, causing plans for the airport to be scrapped and moved to Dulles. When the government auctioned off the parcels of land it had bought for the airport, developers were able to buy those parcels cheaply, and the suburban boom began in rural Burke.

It took barely 40 years for Burke to change from a farming town to the busy suburban center it is today, said Bulova.

"We've seen a lot of changes in our lifetime, and that is why it is important to have these stories," she said. "Things never stay the same."

"Years ago, change came more slowly. Now it’s getting faster and faster," said Tawny Hammond, manager of Lake Accotink Park. "I look at what we're doing like putting together a very large time capsule."

Not all the interviews ended up in the video, but all 53 will go into A Look Back at Braddock's final project, a book recording the district's history from its earliest days.

First-hand interviews are especially important in drawing up a historical account, said Hammond. Brown, whose interview shed light on the 1941 fire, recently died, she said.

"It struck me how important it was that we capture oral history from people that lived in these communities while we still can," said Hammond.

Another element of the project involves layered maps, showing not only the shifts in the district's boundaries over the years, but also the transformation into a suburb.

Committee chair John Browne showed a series of these maps, some from as late as 1937 in which Braddock Road and surrounding byways were all dirt roads.

Miller and Browne aren't the only ones who can picture a different Braddock Road. When Penny Johnson moved into the Lee Forest neighborhood in 1952, the man who sold her the house told her the neighborhood's old slogan: "One traffic light from here to the Pentagon."

"That's hard to believe, right?" said Johnson. "Now, there are six or seven lights between [the Kings Park library] and the beltway."

Burke has changed drastically, said Johnson, but change has its perks. Burke is more convenient now, she said, because she no longer has to go to Annandale or the City of Fairfax to shop.

But for Miller, some things never change. Traffic may be bad, but she has no intention of leaving.

"This is the place I have lived for the longest in my life," said Miller. "There's no place I'd rather be. I've got half an acre, and half of it is woods."