Modern Roads Sculpted Around Northern Virginia Hills

WASHINGTON STREET covered the middle portion of the old Falls Rolling Road in colonial times. The rolling road followed a path starting south along Annandale Road and up to Washington St. until it passed through the current site of Bishop O’Connell High School to Williamsburg Boulevard before joining N. Glebe Road and connected to the Chain Bridge. (Photo: News-Press)

Long before it took on the names of Broad Street in Falls Church, King Street in Alexandria or Leesburg Pike everywhere else, Route 7 was the Alexandria-Vestal’s Gap Road — one of Northern Virginia’s first thoroughfares that shaped our current urban roadways by virtue of sustaining the colonial era’s economy.

Native Americans and settlers of early America accounted for the region’s natural up-and-down terrain when blazing their initial trails. What started as paths carved along ridgelines by native tribes in pre-colonial times became a network of “rolling roads” — which holds double-meaning for the area’s rolling hills as well as the act of rolling hogsheads (60-plus gallon barrels used to store goods) to nearby docks — once settlers arrived and began to transport the Virginia colony’s cash crop of tobacco from the fruitful hinterlands of the Piedmont to port along the state’s Coastal Plains region.

Ron Anzalone, the chair of the City of Falls Church’s Historical Commission, notes that the local rolling road was Falls Rolling Road, which ran from the Annandale area up, past the Falls Church to Chain Bridge in order to access the bustling port at Georgetown, the City of Alexandria’s major competitor.

The Alexandria-Vestal’s Gap was the main road that intersected with Falls Rolling Road, and later became a centerpiece that the town of Falls Church would form around. It ran from Winchester through Vestal’s Gap near what is now Leesburg to Alexandria’s port, just as Route 7 does today.

According to Charles E. Gage, former vice chair of the Historical Commission, who published his short pamphlet “Tobacco, Tobacco Hogsheads and Rolling Roads in Northern Virginia,” in 1959, the route was originally scouted in 1699 when Virginia’s governor sent a mission to see the emperor of the Piscataway tribe on Conoy Island, near what is now Point of Rocks, Maryland.

Sometimes it was abbreviated to Vestal’s Gap Road, or referred to Eastern Ridge Road, Keyes Gap Road and even New Church Road, for the Falls Church that was built right by it. When the turnpike era came about, per Gage, Route 7 became known as Middle Pike for lying in between Little River Turnpike to the south and the Georgetown-Leesburg Pike to the north.

A MAP OF VIRGINIA’S early road system that was used by the City of Falls Church’s former vice chair, Charles Gage, in his short work, “Tobacco, Tobacco Hogsheads and Rolling Roads in Northern Virginia.” (News-Press)

Tobacco was a driving force for development in colonial Virginia. Partially because the crop was so lucrative that it could be used as legal tender to purchase an array of items, and partially because colonial farming practices for tobacco exhausted the land so frequently that settlers constantly migrated to new plots, requiring new roadways to spring up in their wake.

“Roads” is used loosely in this context, since the trails were so difficult to traverse that manpower was preferred over working animals when transporting hogsheads, Gage noted.

“What has been attempted here to show that the lowly hogsheads and the crude roads prepard [sic] for rolling hogsheads in large numbers to navigable waters played an important part in the road history of Northern Virginia,” Gage wrote.

Other transportation holdovers from the early colonial to post-Revolutionary era include the Potomac Path — what Gage cites as the “oldest white man’s road in northern Virginia” — which runs along the western edge of the Potomac River and mirrors present day Route 1. Ox Road in Fairfax was created in 1728 in an effort to access the copper riches of Frying Pan Mine (of which there were few) and Braddock Road was constructed in 1754 to serve as the marching path for General Edward Braddock (which he rarely used).