The story of Burke is, in many ways, the story of the railroad and, later, the roads that crossed and twisted through what once was a farming town. In Burke, the Orange & Alexandria Railroad had its roots; its roads connected places in the county to each other and to Washington, D.C.
Fairfax County in its early days — the 18th century — was made up of farms, many of which grew the "Indian weed" that formed Virginia’s export economy: tobacco. Pohick Creek was home to several tobacco storehouses along its banks, and tobacco farmers would pack up tobacco in hogshead barrels and roll the barrels along roads leading to Alexandria or Falls Church. This may be where the name "Rolling Road" came from.
Burke’s major families — many of whose names can be found on Burke’s street signs today — were the Coffers, Simpsons, Farrs, Burkes, Halls and Masons. Even as other families moved westward, the Coffers in particular stayed in the area.
In the early 19th century, Silas Burke married into the Coffer family. A bright entrepreneur, Burke led a busy life. He owned 14 slaves as well as a store, mill, blacksmith shop and brickyard. At the time of his sudden death in 1854, he had just started a public entertainment house at his home, the Silas Burke house.
At various points in Silas Burke’s life, he was the highest-ranked public official in the county; a lieutenant colonel in the Virginia militia; county sheriff; president of the Fairfax County Agricultural Society; school commissioner, guardian and appraiser; manager of the Ravensworth estate and state director of the Fairfax Turnpike Company as well as the Orange & Alexandria Railroad. In the 1840s, he donated part of his land to that railroad for its right-of-way, thus establishing "Burke’s Station" in the middle of the farmlands.
BURKE’S STATION became the center of life in the Burke area. At Burke Lake Road and Ox Road was Brimstone Hill, a house known as Arundel’s Farm during the Civil War. Its inhabitants were the Arundels, Union sympathizers in the midst of many Confederate families. In April 1865, Arundels gave information to Federal troops about a Confederate cavalry force moving toward Burke’s Station. Brimstone Hill was also the site of the last Civil War skirmish in Fairfax County.
By the end of the 19th century, Burke was a lively farm town. A writer in the Fairfax Herald described it as "The Forest" because of a preponderance of wildlife such as "terrapins, lizards, ’possums, coons and persimmons." Schools and places of worship began to be built, with Ashford School on Guinea Road, Fairview School on Ox Road and Belle Aire School on Burke Lake Road as the first schools and the Church of the Good Shepherd, Lee Chapel, Little Zion Baptist Church and St. Mary of Sorrows Catholic Church as the first churches.
After the turn of the century, Burke began to feel the pressures of the city and urban life. More people began to move into the area, even before the post-World War II suburban boom. There were still not many high schools, and Burke teens attending school in Washington, D.C. or Clifton would jump on the train. In the 1930s, Burke got its first school bus, a market wagon drawn by horses.
But as Burke expanded and its residents began to travel outside the area, the poor road conditions became an increasing burden. Many longtime residents remember the hard-to-drive on stretch of Braddock Road from the Beltway going west, nicknamed "Rebel Hill." The road there was steep and curved, and drivers hauling loads had to be careful going up it or else they would slide backwards down the hill. It would flood, too; at these times the road became impassable for many cars.
Such groups as the Good Road Ladies lobbied against bad road conditions. In a particularly bad 1922 winter, cars were of no use on local roads and citizens were reportedly "marooned" and had to take the electric trolley from Alexandria. But in 1932, the Byrd Road Act was passed, freeing the roads for the influx of people that moved into Burke in the later half of the 20th century.
Sources for this story are "Memories of Beautiful Burke, Virginia" by Nan Netherton and Ruth Preston Rose (1988), "Fairfax County, Virginia: A History" by Nan Netherton, Daniel Sweig, Janice Artemel, Patricia Hickin and Patrick Reed (1978), and "Braddock’s True Gold: 20th-Century Life in the Heart of Fairfax County" by Marion Meany and Mary Lipsey (2006). With special thanks to Nancy Makowski, Suzanne Levy, Anne Toohey and Michele Bernocco of the Virginia Room.