Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

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Now we learn that the Declaration of Independence once made a pit stop in Arlington.

On Nov. 15, a dozen history buffs assembled on the Virginia side of Chain Bridge (braving scant parking and the noise of the GW Parkway) to dedicate the county’s latest official marker celebrating our local-cum-national legacy.

This tale’s hero is a 19th-century State Department clerk named Stephen Pleasonton. Two years into the War of 1812, he had the foresight to perceive that, with hostile British troops at the gates of the capital, some precious historic documents needed safeguarding.

On instructions from Secretary of State James Monroe, he defied direct superiors and grabbed the original copies of the Declaration of Independence, various laws, the secret journals of the Continental Congress and some correspondence of George Washington. He put them in linen sacks and transported them by horse cart over Chain Bridge, where they were secreted in an abandoned Lee family grist mill off Pimmit Run. Fearing discovery, Pleasonton the next day moved the documents further out to Leesburg.

“I never learned about this in school,” said Steve Dryden, a local history activist who was instrumental in the research that nailed down the likely site. “I have a feeling it was not commemorated because it wasn’t exactly a glorious moment in American history. But it was glorious for this gentleman,” who went to become top auditor at the Treasury Department and head of U.S. lighthouse operations.

Last week’s humble unveiling was attended by officials from the American Foreign Service Association as well as Potomac Heritage Trail enthusiasts (mostly invaders from Fairfax) glad to see hikers get another outdoor attraction.

County Board member Jay Fisette presided over the ceremony held on land shared by the county, state and federal governments. He called it is another sign of Arlington’s historical role as a “pass-through” linking north and south. He recited a litany of Arlington’s historical firsts, from being the only Virginia county not to vote for the 1861 secession, to being home to the first Federal Housing Administration-financed apartments in the 1930s.

Looking on with satisfaction was Arlington historic preservation coordinator Michael Leventhal. It was his team that wrote the text for the marker and added it to the new wave of educational signage enriching our suburban setting.

Other recent markers include one crediting creation of the Internet to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and another labeling the parking garage where Washington Post reporter Watergate Bob Woodward met in secret with the source inelegantly named “Deep Throat.”

This May, Leventhal was given an award by U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar for his work over the past decade recognizing thousands of historic properties during nominations to the National Register of Historic Places, and for helping some 200 property owners earn historic rehabilitation tax credits.

Arlington is “not as rich, colorful and well known as other places,” he told me. “We don’t have dozens of house-museums. But we’re pragmatic as we move through time-we’re a real working type of community.”

The story told by the new marker near Chain Bridge is “iconic in that that it was a government bureaucrat who came to save the documents on account of his job.”
Arlington has been “in the thick of history,” Leventhal said, but we don’t have major events to mark. “We do it in snippets.”

 


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