Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

Reagan National Airport is sparsely populated in these pandemic dog days. So it was a cinch to find parking at short-term Lot B and walk to the southward exit to the beautiful park that hosts the reconstructed ruins of Abingdon Plantation.

The house, built around 1746 and once Arlington’s oldest, commanded a spectacular view of the Potomac.

It saw 11 generations cross its threshold before it burned in 1930. Those VIPs included several presidents, plus an array of historic characters I decided on this recent sunny Sunday to re-assemble in my mind’s eye.
Abingdon was constructed by Gerard Alexander (1712-1761), whose great-grandfather Capt. John Alexander is the namesake for the City of Alexandria.

Gerard’s sons during the Revolutionary War sold the house to Jacky Custis, stepson of Commander of the Continental Army George Washington. (GW thought Jacky was naïve and warned it was a rip-off.) Jacky and his wife Eleanor begat Nelly Custis (whose birth there merits a plaque at modern Abingdon arranged by the airport authority).

Eleanor in 1781 gave birth across the river in Prince George’s County to our county’s primo citizen George Washington Parke Custis. (He would go on to inherit Alexander land for the building of Arlington House.) Those Washingtons and Custises were steady visitors to Abingdon in the latter 18th century — George and Martha Washington favored a bedroom on the northeast corner.

After the widowed Eleanor remarried, she and husband and Federal City commissioner David Stuart occupied Abingdon before it reverted to the Alexanders in a lawsuit.

In came principal 19th-century owners, the Hunter family. “We lived on a splendid estate of 650 acres lying on the Potomac, between Alexandria and Washington,” reminisced Alexander Hunter in his 1904 Civil War memoir “Johnny Reb and Billy Yank.” The mansion’s “beams and rafters are of solid oak, two feet in diameter, and strong enough, as was proven, to bear the weight of two centuries.”

Hunter’s uncle was a U.S. Marshal and received presidents Jackson, Tyler and Polk at Abingdon. His household included 22 enslaved persons, according to an 1850 inventory uncovered by Arlington attorney George Dodge. Aged 2-70 years, those workers bore names such as Daniel, Dinah, Hannah and Bushrod. After his fellow Confederates lost the war and the enslaved were freed, nephew Hunter became a federal land clerk and noted author.

Listed along with livestock, they were valued at $5,035. After his fellow Confederates lost the war and the enslaved were freed, Hunter became a federal land clerk and noted author.

In the early 20th century, Abingdon was sold to a brick-making company, which leased it to farmers. Those Arlingtonians included Vivian Thomas Ford (born there in 1912), profiled as “Abingdon’s Last Surviving Resident” by Sherman Pratt in the Arlington Historical Magazine. “We often had beautiful warm and sunny spring days at Abingdon with numerous blooms from fruit and other trees,” Ford recalled. “The area was mostly quiet and peaceful, except for occasional trains” crossing the Potomac railroad bridge.

On that fateful March 5, 1930, Ford was a student at Hume School on Arlington Ridge Rd. She and classmates suddenly heard fire engines with motors grinding and bells clanging. Someone in her class shouted “Look! There’s a fire down below near the river!” Vivian told the magazine she rushed to the window and saw columns of smoke a mile away. She ran over to watch the flames engulf her childhood home of historic Abingdon.
Ford died in 2014 and is buried at Columbia Gardens.

Arlington author-historian Garrett Peck gets to relay his own “where I was on 9/11” story in his newly published “A Decade of Disruption: America in the New Millennium” (Pegasus Books).

Amid a broader look at the war on terror, financial scandal and divisive politics of the years 2000-2010, Peck describes how he was working from his apartment three miles from the Pentagon on that day that dawned beautifully. “Looking out the window, I saw a huge plume of black smoke rising,” Peck writes. After a CNN verification, he called his parents in California to report, “We’re under attack.”

Daresay our current decade is equally disruptive.