I try to get out for a bike ride a few times a week, often as a break in the middle of my workday. My usual route is a loop that goes from North Arlington down to the Potomac River and past Reagan National Airport. I’ve ridden this circuit literally hundreds of times, and I always enjoy the scenery. But there’s some history along the way, too, as I learned last week.
Just off the bike path on the airport property are the remnants of 18th century Abingdon Plantation, a compact little space that is packed with history. This spot is easy to miss (apparently over and over), as it’s tucked in between two parking garages among a maze of roads at the airport. Even getting to it is a trick, as it requires a detour from the bike path through a long concrete tunnel.
The history at Abingdon Plantation is sometimes tough, but all of it is worth knowing. Over the course of hundreds of years, it has seen Native Americans, slavery, a working farm, US Presidents, a Union Civil War encampment, ownership disputes, prosperous industry, important railroads and parkways, possibly arson, and now an airport. It’s a lot to take in for a new visitor.
The original structures on the plantation were built in the 1740s and were owned by the Alexander family, for whom the city of Alexandria was named. In the 1770s, George Washington’s stepson, John Parke Custis, acquired the property so that he could live closer to the family estate at Mount Vernon. Nelly Custis Lewis, George Washington’s granddaughter, was born here in 1779. Over the next century, it was visited by three sitting Presidents (Polk, Tyler and Jackson), and 40+ acres was carved out to pay a debt to future President James Garfield. During the Civil War, it was occupied by Union soldiers and called Camp Princeton.
By the 1920s, the mansion had fallen into disrepair, and it burned down in 1930 under somewhat suspicious circumstances. National Airport was then built around it in the 1940s, and the site was largely ignored for the next 50 years. When the airport was expanded in the 1990s, the home site was preserved, along with the history that came with it.
What remains today is a peaceful patch of green in the middle of a bustling airport, with shaded benches, stone walkways, restored foundations, and a lot of interpretive signage. There’s not much left of the structures, but it’s amazing that there is anything left at all. If this spot was anywhere else, I might call it unremarkable. But here it feels unexpected, unlikely, and for me, unforgettable. Despite the development and exponential change–a busy highway, multi-story garage, the metro, and jets leaving every 30 seconds–it is somehow still here.
Oh, and one last thing: Abingdon Plantation is believed to be the location of first weeping willow planted in America. As the story goes, that first tree grew from a sprig given to John Custis by a British officer after the Siege of Boston in 1776. It came from a willow in England that was planted by British poet Alexander Pope.
That first willow is long gone, although there are still quite a few along the bike path. But the tale of that tree endures, and it’s one more thing that I learned on a visit to a hidden place that has always been right in front of me. Alexander Pope once wrote “Tis but a part we see, and not a whole.” I thought about that all the way home, wondering what else I was missing.