Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

clark-fcnpOur county’s best-hidden landmark could use some TLC.

The original Powhatan Springs, off Wilson Blvd. behind the Dominion Hills swimming pool, was once a vital watering hole for Indians, soldiers and presidents.

But when I poked around the site Labor Day weekend, Arlington’s unusual freshwater spring appeared worse for wear. The stream still ripples gently, but its concrete footbridge is tilted and in disuse. The lonely wooded setting near a picnic table and volley ball net is easy to ignore.

Yet folks great and ordinary have been wetting their whistles here going back to the 17th century – and beyond if you consider nearby Indian trails. Chief Powhatan himself, the legend goes, held harvest festivals here.

According to the 2004 Dominion Hills Neighborhood Conservation Plan, “Captain John Smith’s map of 1612 fixes the northern boundary of the Confederacy of Powhatan in the vicinity of Powhatan Springs. Archeologists and others have uncovered artifacts – including fragments of vessels and quartz implements for stone carving – nearby, indicating the former presence of an Indian soapstone workshop at the springs.”

The obligatory link to George Washington came during the French and Indian War, when soldiers returning from General Braddock’s defeat in 1755 “refreshed themselves and disbanded near these same springs.”

Around the Civil War, Confederate sympathizer Moses Febrey (the son of major Arlington landowner Nicholas Febrey) built a house nearby and leased the springs to the Harper Company. That operation bottled the waters and made daily deliveries in the District of Columbia, including the White House. Powhatan Springs was also used for cold storage, and it is said Teddy Roosevelt drank from it during horseback rides through Arlington.

By 1920, the area we call Dominion Hills was known as the Powhatan Springs neighborhood, which included a roadhouse that is now the pool’s quaint clubhouse. In the mid-1950s, when the Dominion Hills Recreation Area Association was formed, founders named the pool Powhatan Springs (a carved sign remains over the locker room entrance). That name also appears above Dominion Hills on the club’s sign facing the street. The name Powhatan Springs was later attached to the nearby skateboard park.

Arlington historian Eleanor Lee Templeman featured Powhatan Springs in her inaugural column in the Northern Virginia Daily Sun, March 22, 1957, applauding the recent formation of the Arlington Historical Society and sounding the alarm about vanishing landmarks.

Current society board member and mortgage banker Johnathan Thomas, who grew up in the neighborhood, recalls exploring with his pint-sized pals the drainage pipes leading to the grilled entrance to the Powhatan Springs tunnel.

My old football coach at Yorktown High school, Jesse Meeks, who was resident manager of the Dominion Hills pool beginning in 1955, sent me his recollections. He used to receive visits from neighboring farmer Nelson Reeves, and in the 1970s, an Asian church group that rented the clubhouse cooked with watercress taken from the springs.

By 1974, the springs’ entrance and stone storage house were in disrepair. So the Powhatan Springs Woman’s Club (now-defunct) won a county grant and worked with the Dominion Hills association to restore the masonry. A November 1975 dedication, the Arlington News reported, drew three state delegates for remarks from Woman’s Club president Mrs. Skip Jeffries and association leader Donald Van Shiver.

A half-century later, I say time for a new restoration. And a nice, enduring, Powhatan Springs historical marker.

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A “Mister Holland’s Opus” event unfolded in Arlington last month. I sat in on a reunion of some dozen H-B Woodlawn program graduates who have a particular love for physics.

To be precise, they have a love for Mark Dodge, H-B’s longtime physics instructor who retired this summer. (His first project? Getting over a heart attack, he told me.)

But he showed up looking healthy for the gathering at Spider Kelly’s in Clarendon, where he was toasted and roasted by former students, several of whom had gone on to get doctorates in Dodge’s tough subject.