Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

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Welcome to the Eastern Shore of Virginia, said the roadside greeting in Northampton County.

My wife and I used a vacation for a pilgrimage to the original Arlington Plantation, from which our fair suburban county drew its name.

The off-the-tourist-circuit site is reached by driving northward from Norfolk over the miraculous Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, or by heading south from Chincoteague down Highway 13.

In its own quiet way, the site of the 346-year-old home known as Arlington Plantation is a near-forgotten motherlode in the history of our county, state and nation.

Once Virginia’s finest residence, it was briefly the Old Dominion’s capital and is the original source of the wealth married into by George Washington.

Mystery hovers around origins of our county’s name. The basics are clear: George Washington Parke Custis, the grandson of Martha Washington raised at Mount Vernon, inherited the 1,100-acre tract of land on the upper Potomac from his father, John Parke Custis. Beginning in 1802, he built the home he called Arlington House after his ancestral home on the Eastern Shore.

That Chesapeake mansion, built by John Custis II (1628-96), was named, most likely, for his father’s English home in Gloucester, in the Cotswolds west of London, called Arlington. (A competing tale says Custis was honoring Henry Bennet, Earl of Arlington.)

Either way, “Virginia’s finest 17th-century mansion rose from planting tobacco in well-drained sandy loam and factoring shipments to Europe,” reads the signage.

In our era, Arlington Plantation merits only a squib in tourist brochures for the Eastern Shore—a struggling region dependent on fishing. The local visitors center gets few inquiries.

A historical marker on Highway 13 reads, “Arlington on the Potomac was named for this Arlington.” After we turned onto Arlington Road and Custis Tombs Road and drove by cornfields, we arrived at the labeled site of a well-manicured and marked open grass lot. Alongside is a small parking lot and a brick enclosure next to a modern private home.

We found the pamphlet produced by the Arlington Foundation Inc., founded in 1997 and run out of nearby Eastville. It owns the historically protected property, and its archaeological digs in 1988 and 1994 uncovered ancient jugs, wine bottles and decorative masonry.

“This house dwarfed other fine homes in Virginia,” its sign says. Expanding from seven to 1,000 acres, the Custis property was populated as of 1677 by five slaves (later 17) and nine indentured servants. Despite the high Old Plantation Creek water table, the fancy home had a proper English basement.

In 1676, after the famous Bacon’s Rebellion in Jamestown, Gov. William Berkeley fled and took shelter with Custis, making Arlington the temporary capital.

Two tombstones contain remains of John Custis II and IV. The dimpled inscription on that of the younger—signed by its London manufacturer Wm. Coley Mason of Fenn Church Street—contains the ironic claim that he died “aged 71 years, and yet lived but seven years which was the space of time he kept a bachelor’s house at Arlington on the Eastern Shore of Virginia.”

In fact, as explained in a booklet by the late Arlington Historical Society president Sherman Pratt, this statement was a dig at Custis’ wife Frances. Their relationship was so icy, they communicated only through servants. Going to hell, Custis once told her, is “better than living in Arlington with you.”

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Finally, the county board disgorged its post-streetcar plan for a premium transit network for the impatient residents and merchants along Columbia Pike.

Its July 16 approval of a 10-year countywide bus improvement plan was welcomed as a “step in the right direction” by my two transit experts who opposed the streetcar, Sam Zimmerman and Robert Dunphy.

The coming “customized bus vehicles, larger articulated buses and more frequent off-peak service that could encourage more people to use transit” will allow Arlington to join 150 communities worldwide using “bus-rapid-transit-type” systems, as Zimmerman noted.

“Reluctance to ride the bus is understandable when a system is poorly planned, operated and maintained,” he wrote in the June TR News. But when rapid buses are well planned and operated, “the patronage includes significant percentages of people who once traveled by private vehicle.”