Route 15 winds through history, development target zones

By

 Updated:

Halfway between the battlefield at Gettysburg and Thomas Jefferson’s home at Monticello, U.S. Route 15 passes through Loudoun County, an area that may be less known, but is no less steeped in American history.

Over the decades, Loudoun has been a colonial farming community, a Civil War battleground, a second home for presidents and statesmen, and a rural escape for long-haul commuters to Washington, D.C., and its inner suburbs. And like many other historical areas across the country, in Loudoun County preservationists and developers are struggling to determine the future of the land and the character of the county.

In May, preservationists won an important battle, when 175 miles of Route 15 in Virginia became part of the Journey Through Hallowed Ground National Heritage Area — a federal designation aimed at preserving the historic region and promoting tourism. Although the designation does not affect development regulations, it will help to foster pride in the history of the area, said Cate Magennis Wyatt, the founder and president of the nonprofit Journey Through Hallowed Ground Partnership. “Certainly there will be a greater pride in place when Congress and the president say this region is critically important to the telling of the American story,” she said.

The story of the land along Route 15 begins with Native Americans, who traversed what came to be called the Carolina Trail centuries before Europeans arrived and forced them out. Quakers were among Loudoun’s first settlers, establishing settlements in the 1720s in Waterford, Lincoln, Hamilton, and Unison. Germans from Maryland and Pennsylvania, Scots-Irish, Dutch, and English followed.

In 1757, Loudoun was cut from Fairfax County and named after John Campbell, the fourth earl of Loudoun who served as governor of Virginia. The following year, Leesburg became the county seat. In 1776, Francis Lightfoot Lee, who lived on land where the Dulles International Airport terminal stands today, signed the Declaration of Independence, which was read at the county courthouse that August. Loudoun boasted the largest militia — 1,600 — in the newly formed state of Virginia that year.

During the War of 1812, President James Madison and his wife, Dolly, escaped the British invasion of Washington, D.C., in which the White House was burned, and took refuge in Loudoun. During the Civil War, battles and skirmishes occurred at places like Ball’s Bluff, Point of Rocks, Middleburg, Unison, and Waterford. Confederate Colonel John S. Mosbyused Middleburg as a base camp for his rangers.

President James Monroe owned a home along Route 15 called Oak Hill, a classic federal style mansion designed by Thomas Jefferson. General George C. Marshall, who penned the Marshall Plan for rebuilding Europe after World War II, made his home at Dodona Manor in Leesburg. More recently, President John F. Kennedy and wife, Jackie, along with children Caroline and John Jr., retreated to a small estate just outside Middleburg in western Loudoun’s renowned “horse country” throughout his presidency.

In the last two decades, Loudoun County has faced extreme growing pains as developers profited from the strong demand for housing. Since 1990, Loudoun County’s population has grown 225 percent to 280,000, and developers have won and lost a series of battles to build more homes in areas where development threatens to overwhelm historical significance.

Lansdowne Community Development President Leonard “Hobie” Mitchel said the area can be developed to accommodate the influx of new residents while also preserving history. “There is a general mistrust between the two groups,” he said referring to developers and preservationists. “We’ve got to come to some reality that we are adding people to the county.” There are certain areas that developers must avoid, he added, including Civil War battlefields. But he said environmentalists are not being honest when they say they are not against all new development. “The issue is clear: they don’t want rooftops.”

Preservationists have also made strides. In 1942, Loudoun became the first rural county in Virginia to establish a zoning ordinance and the first county in the United States to adopt an anti-billboard ordinance, which remains in place today.

Much of the land where developers hoped to build lies just to the east of Mt. Zion Church, a Civil War burial ground that conservationists seek to preserve from the sights of suburban development. It was at Mt. Zion, which served at times as a hospital during that war, that Union Army Major William Forbes made an unsuccessful stand against Mosby’s Rangers after fleeing an earlier attack in western Loudoun. The Mt. Zion Church Preservation Association has worked to protect the land around the historic church, although the church itself was donated to the county in recent years.

“We were interested in protecting the viewshed,” which is currently unencumbered by power lines or any other modern blemishes, said Claude Bradshaw, the association’s president, whose great-great-grandfather is buried at the church. “You want to see how it was, untouched.”

Route 15 remains a two-lane road in Loudoun, with plans calling for no more than four lanes. But the road remains a thoroughfare for suburban commuters from the south in Prince William County to Fairfax, Arlington, and Washington, D.C. As Prince William County grows, the traffic pressure will continue to build in Loudoun and on Route 15.

The Journey Through Hallowed Ground, say its backers, is an attempt to highlight the deep cultural roots found at sites along or near Route 15 and provide a counterbalance to development pressures. Developers and some county officials may argue that growth is key to the economic health of the county, but preserving the historic land in Loudoun County is also good for business, said Wyatt of the Journey Through Hallowed Ground Partnership, adding that tourism is now an important part of the local economy.

“Growth is inevitable,” she said, “but it does not have to devastate our heritage and our history.”

Care about freedom of the press? Support independent investigative journalism.

Donate now
Donate now