Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

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Mystery solved! The curious rusted objects encountered by hikers along the Arlington portion of the Potomac River banks are in fact….well, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Vienna reader John Haffey III in June asked me to explain the odd “steel pipes and boiler-type structures” he has seen since the 1970s during jogs along the Potomac Heritage Trail. “One of the structures is on cement support, so it’s not like they washed up there,” he wrote.

I waited for a lovely day to enjoy the river with autumn leaves at their peak and made the trek to what for me was new territory. I couldn’t compete with the hardy souls who hike or run (stumble?) the whole 4.2 miles of rugged trail from Roosevelt Island to Chain Bridge. But I learned you can access the mystery objects more readily using the Windy Run Trail that begins off of North Kenmore Street at Lorcom Lane.

Or you can begin at the nature center of Potomac Overlook Park on Marcey Road, from which, after about 35 minutes of clambering over jutting roots and creek-wet stepping stones (nearly twisting both ankles), I hit paydirt.

Poking from the shoreline foliage stood two rusted, cylindrical, rivet-lined metal tanks, one perhaps 12-feet long and a taller one perhaps eight, half-buried alongside a square concrete shed.
Many of the hikers I chatted up were familiar with the objects, but none knew the back story. So I asked Martin Ogle, chief naturalist for the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority, who delivered the goods on a rich local tale.

The site was a quarry, dating from the late 19th- early 20th century. Bluestone and gneiss were dug and moved by barge across the river to build St. Patrick’s Church, the Healy Building at Georgetown University, St. Elizabeths hospital, abutments to Chain Bridge and the seawalls at Hains Point. Rubble from the palisades was also used for the foundations of D.C. streets.

The hunks of metal were boilers used to generate steam to drill holes to penetrate the cliff rock of the Potomac Palisades. The shed was likely used to store dynamite.

The whole operation is discussed in the “Field Guide to Potomac Overlook Regional Park” (October 2003 edition). Though the stone was quarried for centuries by Native Americans and then 18th-century colonists, the original capitalist was Arlington’s Vanderwerken family, who launched the “Potomac Bluestone Company” after buying the land in 1851.

Even more fascinating is the social history. As described in Eleanor Lee Templeman’s “Arlington Heritage,” many of the quarrymen were Italian immigrants, aided by African American laborers from Westmoreland County and Arlington’s Halls Hill.

Some 24 Sicilians occupied a village called “Little Italy” in early decades of the 20th century near Donaldson Run. Prominent landowner Emma Donaldson recalled hearing explosions that shook her house, saw quarrymen struggle with packed wheelbarrows and watched tugboats pull barges across the Potomac.

Once in the late 1870s, work on the university’s building was delayed because the tug couldn’t break through ice on the river, according to Georgetown spokeswoman Maggie Moore.

The quarrying stopped in 1938, when the George Washington Parkway was well underway, and “Little Italy” was dismantled after the National Park Service took title to this part of Arlington in 1956.

All that’s left of this bygone adventure, devoid of signage, are the rusty boilers.

 


Charlie Clark may be e-mailed at [email protected]