History Talk on ‘Everything Burke’

History Talk on ‘Everything Burke’

Burke Historical Society’s Brian Slawski gives a tour on Burkes around the world.

Brian Slawski greets guests after his talk on “Everything Burke” on Sunday, Jan. 28, 2018 at the Pohick Regional Library.

Brian Slawski greets guests after his talk on “Everything Burke” on Sunday, Jan. 28, 2018 at the Pohick Regional Library. Photo by Steve Hibbard.


A few dozen people attended the Burke Historical Society’s talk on “Everything Burke.”

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  • Sunday, Feb. 25, 2018, at 3:30 p.m. – Heather Bollinger and Jeff Clark: “Lost Towns of Fairfax County.” Learn about some of the once-vibrant communities in Fairfax County that have since faded from view.
  • Sunday, March 25, 2018, at 3:30 p.m. – Scott Diezman: “Col. John T. Wilder of the Union Army.” Learn about Union Col. John Thomas Wilder and his 17th Indiana “Lightning Brigade,” whose new Spencer repeating rifles were instrumental in the Tullahoma Campaign of Tennessee.

The Burke Historical Society presented a talk by Brian Slawski, 36, its program chair and vice president, on “Everything Burke” at its annual meeting on Sunday, Jan. 28, 2018 at the Pohick Regional Library.

In addition to discussing a history of Burke, Va., the utility patent examiner by day gave brief histories of other Burkes around the world. He made the point that “Burke” didn’t really mean “Burke,” exclusively; he allowed for variations on the name – such as Burkesville, Ky., and Burkeville , Texas, in addition to places like Burke, Vt., and Burke, N.Y., for example. And since he wasn’t able to go to local archives and find primary sources for each of these places, he said he picked from what he could find online.

“It was a bit of a struggle because I can’t go to all of these places and look up their local archives. I tried to find as much as I could online. A lot of that was from local historical societies or the municipal websites, or the state historical encyclopedia was online and had entries for different localities,” he said.

Here is an edited selection of Brian Slawski’s presentation on “Everything Burke:”

Burke, Virginia

European settlement in the Burke area began in the 1700s, but it wasn’t until the Orange & Alexandria Railroad arrived in the 1850s that Burke’s Station got its name. The man most responsible for that event was Silas Burke, who served as a director of the railroad as well as an official and entrepreneur in a huge range of other endeavors. Silas Burke died in 1854, and the village’s location on the new railroad brought the area some scattered action during the Civil War, including a Christmas 1862 raid by J.E.B. Stuart.

Life settled down in the farming village after the war, but new excitement was brought by Henry Copperthite, an impresario who had made a fortune selling pies in the District. Copperthite bought the Silas Burke House around 1900 and opened a racetrack in 1908 at the site of present-day Burke nursery. The track was a hit with locals and Washingtonians alike, but ran for only about eight years.

Two disasters struck Burke in the mid-20th century. The first was a huge forest fire in 1941, which took several days to put out. The second came 10 years later, when the federal government selected Burke as the site of Washington’s new international airport. The town fought hard to get the planners to look elsewhere, finally succeeding when Chantilly was chosen instead. Yet by then many in Burke had sold their land and moved away.

Surplus property was developed as Burke Lake Park or sold at auction. Developers built new suburbs like Kings Park and Burke Centre, and Burke gradually melded into greater Washington. Nonetheless, small-town atmosphere persists at events like the Burke Centre Festival.

Burke, Vermont

Burke, Vermont, was chartered in 1782 but without settlers for another 10 years. Like a fair number of other Burkes, it was named for Sir Edmund Burke, the British statesman who defended the Colonies in hopes of averting war. Early industries were in potash and lumber, shifting to dairy farming as the forests were cleared. Today Burke sits in the heart of the state’s Northeast Kingdom, a term coined by former governor George Aiken in exasperation with the region’s independent streak, even by Vermont standards.

As early as the late 19th century there was a drive in Vermont to develop the state as a tourist destination. The Burke area benefited from this movement largely by proximity to Burke Mountain. Ski trails were first cleared by the CCC, and in 1953, 13 locals founded the corporation that would develop the mountain as a luxury ski resort.

Burke, New York

Even farther north is Burke of Franklin County, New York; the town’s northern border is formed by Quebec province. It was partitioned from the town of Chateaugay in 1844 and named for Sir Edmund Burke.

Industries in Burke over the years included sawmills, grist mills, tanneries, sandstone quarries, and factories for producing starch. The Ogdensburg and Champlain Railroad arrived in the area in 1850. Among Franklin County’s more dramatic history, it was the staging point for some of the Fenian Raids of 1866 and 1870, when Irish-American militias, sympathetic to Irish independence, launched cross-border attacks on the British dominion to the north.

Burke County, North Carolina

Burke County lies in west-central North Carolina, along the Catawba River basin. It was founded in 1777 and named for Thomas Burke, one of North Carolina’s delegates to the Continental Congress and later governor. During the same period, residents of Burke County would head south to join the Patriot militias in the Battle of Kings Mountain.

In 1566, a Spanish expedition was sent from present day Parris Island to explore the interior. The party arrived the next January at Joara, a large native town in the Appalachian foothills, where they built Fort San Juan and left a force of 30 men. The next year, the colonial authorities learned that the natives of Joara had attacked and destroyed Fort San Juan. Beginning in 2001, a team of archaeologists studied a site near Morganton, finding Native American and Spanish artifacts and the burnt remains of a fort. They concluded that the site was that of Joara.

Burke County, Georgia

As in North Carolina, Burke County, Georgia, was formed in 1777 and was notable for contributions to the Southern theater of the War of Independence, though many residents remained loyal to the Crown.

Two engagements took place in 1779, the first a skirmish at the Burke County Jail, and the second the Battle of Briar Creek. This fighting is recounted by historical markers at the county courthouse, dating from 1857. While initial settlers in the area tended to be small farmers, by the late 18th century the plantation system using slave labor was well entrenched, and Burke County was a major producer of cotton.

Burke County saw fighting again in the Civil War, as Sherman’s cavalry under Judson Kilpatrick rode northeast during the March to the Sea. Encountering numerous barricades and fierce resistance from Confederate cavalry under Joseph Wheeler, Kilpatrick finally broke Wheeler’s last lines in the county seat of Waynesboro, allowing Sherman to close in on Savannah.

Burkesville, Kentucky

Burkesville is the seat of Cumberland County, Kentucky, named for the early local magnate Isham Burk. In 1768, the Iroquois deeded the land along the Cumberland River to settlers, though the county wouldn’t be born for another 30 years.

Burkesville was again three decades ahead of its time in 1829, when a local drilling for salt brine wound up striking oil instead. He was disappointed, since no one knew what to do with the stuff. The gusher was known as the Great American well, springing 30 years before the 1859 well at Titusville, Pennsylvania, that’s considered the birthplace of the modern petroleum industry. So, what did the folks in Burkesville do with their oil before there were machines to use it?

They bottled it and sold it as medicine, of course. Besides attracting visitors who came to see the well as a curiosity, the oil was sold across the country as a remedy for all kinds of ailments. Speaking of medicine, Burkesville is also thought to have the oldest pharmacy in Kentucky. And speaking of black liquid cure-alls, Burkesville was also the birthplace of the founder of Maxwell House coffee.

Burke, Wisconsin

Burke, Wisconsin, is a town of about 3,000 in Dane County. It lies in between Sun Prairie and Madison, and it’s due to be annexed by those two cities and the Village of De Forest by 2036. It was founded in 1847 and named for Sir Edmund Burke.

The Milwaukee & Mississippi RR arrived in 1854, later to become part of the famous Milwaukee Road. An early chronicle tells how, sometime in the decade after 1837, Winfield Scott, Jefferson Davis, and Zachary Taylor stayed in the Prairie House hotel in Burke. He wasn’t able to verify this story, but it’s plausible: all three were in the area then, having fought in the Black Hawk War and served at the regional garrisons.

Burke, Texas

Burke, Texas is a city of some 700 in Angelina County, part of what’s known as Deep East Texas. Built on the longleaf pine savannah, it was founded in 1881 with the arrival of the Houston, East and West Texas Railway, and named for a civil engineer who helped survey the railroad. Prior to that time, the region had been known for growing cotton and raising cattle.

By 1885, Burke had three sawmills, three cotton gins, a church, and a school, with more to come. However, Burke’s status as a commercial center was challenged by the rise of nearby Lufkin and Diboll, especially when the Southern Pine Lumber Company was founded in the latter. Today, Burke is mainly a bedroom community for workers in these other cities.

Burkeville, Texas

Even deeper in Deep East Texas, right beside Louisiana, is Burkeville. After its 1844 founding and naming for the man who plotted the town, Burkeville was chosen as seat of Newton County in 1848. Yet like Burke to the west, Burkeville would find itself eclipsed by local rivals.

A county courthouse was built in Burkeville, but in 1853 another election decided that the upstart settlement of Newton should be county seat instead. Burkeville put up a protracted fight but was overruled in the end. Nonetheless, it remained active as a center of local agriculture and trade, serving as a Confederate arsenal during the Civil War, and publishing its own newspaper.

Burke’s Garden, Virginia

Burke’s Garden is a fascinating community in Tazewell County in the southwestern Commonwealth. The Garden is Virginia’s highest upland valley, and completely surrounded by Garden Mountain, giving it the nickname “God’s Thumbprint.” The mountain itself abuts the long ridge called Clinch Mountain, immortalized in music by the Carter Family and Ralph Stanley. The valley was formed when limestone caverns collapsed, and the still-eroding limestone provides ideal growing soil.

That soil is what gave the town its name, at least by way of legend. In 1748, the valley was first surveyed for a local landowner, and James Burke of the surveying crew buried some potato peelings while cooking. On a return visit, a fresh potato crop was found on the site, and it was dubbed Burke’s Garden somewhat in jest. Another story from the Garden is that in 1880 George Washington Vanderbilt tried to buy enough farmland there for a large estate. Finding no takers, he settled on Asheville instead as the seat of Biltmore.

Burke Township, Pipestone County, Minnesota

In southwestern Minnesota, Burke is one of 12 townships making up Pipestone County. The township was incorporated in 1879, the same year that the railroad arrived, and named for Thomas Nicholas Burke, an Irish Catholic theologian sent in 1870 on an exhaustive and well received preaching tour of the United States.

Burke, Idaho

Burke, Idaho is a ghost town in Shoshone County, close to the Montana border. Burke’s story began with the 1884 discovery of silver and lead ore in Burke Canyon. Mines and mills quickly sprouted, a railway was built, and Burke was founded in 1887. The most famous operations were the Hercules and Hecla mines, but fortune seekers also came to stake small gold and silver claims. Wyatt Earp arrived in 1884, opened a saloon near Burke in Eagle City, and helped keep the peace before moving on after a few months.

Burke County, North Dakota

Burke County is in northwestern North Dakota; adjoining Saskatchewan. It was founded in 1910 and named for John Burke, who served as governor of North Dakota and Secretary of the Treasury under Woodrow Wilson.

The county seat is Bowbells, named after the famous bells of the Church of St. Mary-le-Bow in London; the town was established in 1896 on the Soo Line Railroad. The Burke County courthouse is on the National Register, built in 1928.

Burkeville, British Columbia, Canada

Burkeville, British Columbia is the only residential area of Sea Island, now part of the city of Richmond, which is itself within metro Vancouver.

If Burke, Idaho, was a company town, Burkeville, BC was even more obviously so. In 1943, the federal government decided that more wartime housing was needed for workers at the Sea Island plant of Boeing Aircraft of Canada. This highly planned community of 328 homes was their solution. Initially called Boeing Village, it was renamed Burkeville after Stanley Burke, the company president. All the streets had an aeronautical theme, and main street was called Boeing. Homebuyers had their choice of three models. After the war, returning veterans were given priority for the unsold units.

Burkes Pass, New Zealand

Burkes Pass is a small town of South Canterbury, in the South Island of New Zealand. It was named for the adjacent mountain pass discovered by Michael John Burke in 1855, where a rough road was soon cut. Authorities set aside some land for a traveler’s waystation, but Burke didn’t think much of the site, so he ignored the official township and built a hotel at Cabbage Tree Creek instead. Other settlers followed his lead.

The pass was the second and preferred gateway to the Mackenzie Country, New Zealand’s largest intermontane basin. While the Māori had lived there occasionally, it was rediscovered when the outlaw James McKenzie found a first pass while herding stolen sheep. Subsequent settlers also found the Mackenzie Country well suited to pasturing.

Bourke, New South Wales, Australia

Bourke is a town in northwestern New South Wales, with a population of about 2,000, but looms surprisingly large in the Australian consciousness.

As Burkes Pass is the Gateway to the Mackenzie, Bourke is the Gateway to the Outback. Permanent settlement began in the mid-1800s, when the location on the Darling River was found ideal as a trading hub. By 1885 Bourke had a rail connection and several paddleboat companies were shipping along the Darling. Bourke also depended on camel transport, though, using drivers hired from Afghanistan.

In 1890 torrential rains swelled the Darling River, causing a historic flood called simply “The Wet.” Then in 1892, a young writer for the Bulletin magazine in Sydney was sent by his editor to Bourke, to gather stories about “the real Australia.” Henry Lawson would write in praise of the hardworking outback farmers and ranchers of Bourke, saying, “If you know Bourke, you know Australia.” His accounts as well as those of visiting bush poets would contribute to the legend of Bourke as the quintessential outback post. Today in Australian parlance, “Back o’ Bourke” means the middle of nowhere.

Burketown, Queensland, Australia

About 1500 kilometers north-northwest is Burketown, Queensland. This town of about 200 is located on the Albert River near the Gulf of Carpentaria, amid the grassy plains known as the Gulf Savannah.

Burketown was named for Robert O’Hara Burke, who with William John Wills led the first recorded north-south crossing of the continent in 1860. After mounting bad luck and missteps, only one man of the party that reached the Gulf of Carpentaria made it back alive to Melbourne, giving the expedition all the elements of legend. Settlement of Burketown came soon after, with several nearby cattle stations, a store, hotel, and post office in place by 1866.

Burketown is home to a rare and spectacular phenomenon, the Morning Glory. These rolling clouds up to 1,000 kilometers long appear regularly from September to November, and the Gulf of Carpentaria is the only place in the world where they’re predictable. Burketown is also known as the Barramundi Capital of the World, hosting the Barramundi Fishing Championships each April.

Burkeville, Virginia

Virginia appears to be unique among states of the Union in having three completely distinct Burke-named places. The last of these is Burkeville, a town of about 500 in Southside on the western end of Nottoway County.

Burkeville appears to be named after the proprietor of Burke’s Tavern, though this isn’t quite certain. At any rate, the tavern dates from the 1820s and is on the National Register. The town came later, with the arrival of the Richmond and Danville and the Southside railroads in the 1850s.