The District of Columbia: Shaping Northern Virginia

There's a law of unintended consequences. What you plan to happen may actually occur, but along with your hoped-for results... other things happen too.

In Northern Virginia, many Washington Post and television news stories on the success or failure of legislation will include a report on the unintended consequences of the law. The Congressional mandate to close Lorton Prison, for example, resulted in the expected rise in land values in southeastern Fairfax County. However, it also resulted in a new hardship for Washington DC families trying to see their jailed relatives who have been moved to other prisons in Ohio or Southwest Virginia. One unintended consequence was the emergence of entrepreneurs who created van transportation and carpool systems for family visits.

George Washington pushed hard to get the national capital located on the Potomac River, with Alexandria included with its boundaries. Why place the capital here, rather than in the population centers of New York City or Philadelphia - cities that already had the infrastructure of roads and taverns and boarding houses, so they could handle the crowd that would assemble for the meetings of government?

Well, it's true that Washington's home, Mount Vernon, was nearby. He shopped in Alexandria, knew the planters in the area personally, and represented Fairfax County in the House of Burgesses. But Washington was already wealthy when he pushed for the capital to be on the Potomac River. He was already well-positioned to leave his step-children financially secure. He had no children of his own who might have started a family empire, so there's little reason (aside from modern cynicism about the motivations of all political leaders) to believe his political advocacy for the Potomac was purely selfish greed.

Fairfax County provided national leaders who opposed the Constitution too, in the great national debate over replacing the weak Articles of Confederation. George Washington's politics were aligned with the Alexandria/merchant faction in Fairfax county, while George Mason represented the small rural farmers who feared a stronger government. While Mason's faction might have believed strengthening the government could facilitate trade and commerce, it also feared a strong government might increase taxes and limit the freedom of individuals. The conflict between Mason and Washington on this issue even led to a personal breach of the once- close relationship between these neighbors.

Washington won the battle to establish a strong national government, and then determined where to place the national capital on the Potomac. It was a "greenfields" development in an artificial location, not a natural "central place" defined by prior settlement. The Virginia delegation was able to find a bargaining chip (payment of Revolutionary War debts) that enabled them to have the capital moved to the new District of Columbia in 1800.

When the bargain was struck, George Washington knew he would never be President in the new location. He never slept in the White House - he died in 1799, before Washington DC became the seat of government and the Presidential Mansion was first occupied. And he never knew that his expectations for the impact of the capital on Virginia were flawed.

Washington expected the capital city to grow into a commercial center, with a large population that engaged in business and banking and shipping and manufacturing as well as government. By manipulating the legislation and bending the rules a little, he managed to get Alexandria included in the District of Columbia. That way, when the capital grew into a new urban center, Virginia farmers and investors would have access to a major city with opportunities and services equivalent to those in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Charleston, South Carolina.

But Washington developed more like Williamsburg than like Philadelphia. It became a center of national government - but of little else. After the completion of the Erie Canal and the failure of the C&O Canal to reach the Ohio, New York rather than Washington became the transportation center of the Atlantic Coast. By the time the B&O Railroad had crossed the Appalachians and built an extension of its line directly to Washington, there were stronger rail connections to the west through New York and Pennsylvania. Those railroads prospered and grew rich during the shutdown of the B&O during the Civil War. [Lincoln's first Secretary of War, Simon Cameron, overtly steered Federal business to his Pennsylvania Road and hindered the growth of the rival B&O.]

There was little to ship from the District of Columbia anyway. Farmers brought their crops to Western Market, Central Market, and Eastern Market, but crops were sold primarily for local consumption. It was faster for shippers to sail up the Chesapeake to Baltimore, or up the James to Richmond, rather than up the Potomac to Alexandria and Washington. So those other cities became export centers. Look at the pictures of the ruins of Richmond after the Civil War, and you can see the walls of the mills that exported flour to South America and imported coffee on the return trips.

The mineral resources in the area are minor. Native Americans mined soapstone near Clifton in Fairfax County, but by the American Revolution it was easier to import china and pewter for setting a dinner table. There was enough iron ore to trigger development of colonial iron furnaces and forges at Neabsco Creek and Occoquan, but most ore was imported from Maryland. Northern Virginia had the available forests for essential charcoal and waterpower for the bellows to blast air and increase the temperature, rather than mineral wealth.

Sulfur was mined at today's Prince William Forest Park in Prince William County in the 1890's until the end of World War I. There's a little gold in the Piedmont quartz veins west of Washington. Gold mines in Arlington and Fairfax County were promoted by boomers or worked by hard-scrabble miners, until President Roosevelt took the United States off the gold standard during the Depression.

[Dreams of mineral wealth never die, however. During the Reagan Administration, some hard-core advocates of the mining industry actually proposed blocking housing development in western Montgomery County, Maryland, so the gold mining potential would not be "locked up." In their perspective, mining small veins of gold was a higher, better use of the land than building multi-million dollar mansions.]

And the Washington area never developed a manufacturing base. The cash crops of the South, tobacco and cotton, were processed in communities closer to the prime growing regions (or overseas in English mills). The water of the Potomac powered few mills, and Washington never developed a reputation for any specialized product. Today you think of furniture coming from the North Carolina Piedmont, of bourbon coming from Kentucky, of maple syrup from Vermont - but what do you think of coming from Washington?

That's right - government paperwork and political hot air. George Washington knew the district named after him would be a center of government, but for nearly 200 years it was *only* a government town.

And one effect of the law of unintended consequences was that Alexandria suffered, perhaps more than benefitted, from being included in the District of Columbia. When the District was established, Fairfax County lost its county seat and had to move its courthouse again.

The Fairfax County courthouse was originally located at the center of the county, when Fairfax was split off from Prince William in 1742. There's an historical marker near the site, at the "toilet bowl" building at Route 123 and Courthouse Road (one half mile south of the intersection with Route 7).

[That's why Courthouse Road does not go near the current courthouse... Also, Gallows Road is presumed to be named after the route to the execution site near the original courthouse. FYI, Glebe Road in Arlington marks the route to the farmland set aside for the Anglican pastor who served Christ Church in Alexandria, Falls Church, and a chapel near modern-day Leesburg.]

The courthouse was moved to Alexandria after Loudoun County was created in 1757, and the original location was no longer central to Fairfax County. Alexandria became the primary population center for Northern Virginia after the town was chartered in 1749. Alexandria officials ensured the county seat would be moved to the eastern edge of the county, where people were concentrated on the banks of the Potomac River, by offering to donate a new courthouse building.

But once the District of Columbia boundaries were formally established, Alexandria was no longer part of Fairfax County or Virginia. Alexandrians no longer voted for county or state officials, and elected officials in Fairfax gained nothing by locating county offices among non-county residents. The remaining Fairfax residents did not consider it convenient to go "out of state" to transact routine official business, so the courthouse was moved back to the center of the county.

The historic 1800 county courthouse still stands in the City of Fairfax. The county moved most government offices to a spacious new Government Center two miles to the west in the 1980's, but the old courthouse - and the modern one where trials are held now - are still located on a parcel of county land, one that is completely surrounded by property that is in Fairfax City.

old and new Fairfax courthouses - on county land, surrounded by the city
old and new Fairfax courthouses - on county land, surrounded by the city
(Source: Fairfax County Map Gallery)

Alexandria merchants were very active in financing transportation projects that would attract Virginia trade from the Piedmont and Shenandoah Valley. The Board of Public Works and the General Assembly favored different regions of Virginia, depending upon the political effectiveness of the representatives from those regions. Even though Alexandria was not represented in the General Assembly, Northern Virginia was able to get state support for turnpikes, canals, and finally railroads in Northern Virginia.

The Alexandria officials were less successful in getting support from the District of Columbia. Instead, Georgetown and the two-thirds of the District north of the Potomac River known as Washington County received the lion's share of infrastructure improvements. Alexandria County, south of the river, lacked the influence to obtain its fair share of investment.

And Virginians elected to national office were instrumental in handicapping the potential development of roads and canals in the Potomac River watershed. The debate in the early 1800's over Federal responsibility for "internal improvements" led to a limited role of the national government in financing highways across the Appalachians, without steering Federal funding to improving the District of Columbia.

When President James Madison limited the Federal role, he blocked the Federal government from implementing George Washington's vision. Washington had desired cheap transportation corridors to the Atlantic, to ensure a commonality of economic interests between eastern and western settlements. He had used his personal influence, and funds, to support construction of the Potowmack Canal system that would have crossed three separate states to connect the Potomac and the Ohio watersheds.

James Madison envisioned a narrow role for the national government, leaving the responsibility for transportation improvements to the states. The boundaries of the state of New York stretched from the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes... and New Yorkers financed the transportation system that implemented Washington's vision. Because of economic ties based on the Erie Canal, the "Northwestern" states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin supported the North rather than the South during the Civil War.

James Madison was raised in the Rappahannock watershed, with no water connection to the western side of the Blue Ridge. If you're a fan of alternative history, consider the possible differences if he had been raised in the Potomac watershed, had shared Washington's vision... and the C&O canal had been completed before the Erie Canal.

So Alexandria became an orphan, ignored by the Federal government and isolated from the state government. "The people of the county and town of Alexandria have been subjected not only to their full share of those evils which affect the District generally, but they have enjoyed none of those benefits which serve to mitigate their disadvantages in the county of Washington." 1

The political boundary constrained Virginia support for the area, but the issue came to a head when there were proposals to eliminate slavery within the Federal District. This would have created an enclave at Alexandria for runaway slaves to flee masters in Virginia, and would have blocked the busy slave trade in Alexandria. This threat was eliminated when the portion of the District donated originally by Virginia was given back in a "retrocession" to the state in 1846, four years before slavery was abolished in the District.

Clearly Washington did develop as a political center for the United States. Prior to the Civil War, however, the role of the national government was far more limited than today. Southern politicians in particular ensured that the 10th Amendment of the Bill of Rights was followed. The compact between the states was maintained by the balancing of slave and free states into the Union, until the Compromise of 1850. The result was a Federal government that was small and seasonal. Today the Federal government is a pervasive force that affects every part of day-to-day living, but it took five major spurts in Federal growth for that to occur.

The Civil War transformed the role of the Federal government, but was not one of the stimuli for substantial growth in Northern Virginia. It did help shape the culture of the region, however.

At the very start of the war on May 24, 1861, the Union Army invaded Virginia and seized Alexandria. The Zouaves of the 11th New York infantry regiment under Col. Elmer Ellsworth landed at the Cameron Street wharf before 9am, while the 1st Michigan marched across the Long Bridge and headed into town down Washington Street. If you are one of the Virginians who consider Northern Virginia to be a distinct region, with a culture unlike that in the rest of the state, you can cite this morning nearly 150 years ago as the beginning of "occupied Virginia."

After all, the Yankees never left. In 1863, after West Virginia was accepted into the Union, the Restored Government of Virginia moved its capital to Alexandria (housing for Governor Pierpont being somewhat unavailable in Richmond at the time...). After the war, Union officers settled the region - and sold land to freed slaves, resulting in black communities like Hall's Hill in Arlington. The key civic leader in early Manassas was a Union officer, and the streets were named alternately after Union and Confederate generals.

The Civil War led to population growth and major construction within the District of Columbia, but the economic stimulus was muted in Northern Virginia. The rail junction at Manassas was destroyed twice in 1862, in each case by the Confederates. After the war, it developed as a transportation center for farmers to ship agricultural goods to Alexandria and the District. Manasses finally succeeded in getting the county seat moved from Brentsville. Manassas and other communities along the railroad developed a dairy-based economy, with early-morning trains supplying fresh milk to the urban center. By the start of World War I, commuters were traveling on the trains from Northern Virginia to work in the District - long before Metro subway and the Virginia Railway Express began operations.

World War I triggered the first major population boom in Northern Virginia, as the Federal government workforce swelled to prosecute the war. The demand for housing new Federal employees outstripped the supply within the boundaries of the District. They ended up renting rooms in houses south of the Potomac, and Alexandria developed into a bedroom community for Washington, DC.

When Franklin D. Roosevelt mobilized the Federal government 15 years later to deal with the Depression, the region was swamped again by the new workers. In this boom, the population of Arlington County - outside the city limits of Alexandria - grew rapidly.

The next boom was when the United States entered World War II. The Federal government built one structure at the start of World War II that has dramatically affected the development of Northern Virginia over the last 50 years. More than anything else, the location of the Pentagon south of the Potomac has shaped the growth of the region.

[The Pentagon itself was shaped by the region, too. It was constructed with twice the number of bathrooms needed for the number of employees - segregated Virginia required separate facilities for "white" and "colored" persons.]

The final economic stimulus was the Cold War with the Soviet Union. The United States replaced Great Britain as the primary world power after World War II, and the President became known as the "leader of the Free World." Woodlots and farm fields in Fairfax were converted into subdivisions and apartment complexes and strip malls. After construction of the Shirley Highway, federal employees could buy a low-cost home in Marumsco Woods in Prince William County and commute in a reasonable time to the Pentagon, and Dale City swelled into a population center.

As more and more people moved to the area, Seven Corners became a shopping center. After the Capital Beltway (Interstate 495) provided a new transportation pattern connecting the suburbs directly, Tyson's Corner grew into an edge city with more square footage for offices and shopping than Miami and other classic American cities, and the prototypical defense contractor, MelPar (later E-Systems and then Raytheon), built its offices at the intersection of Route 50 and the Beltway.

People moved to Washington to work for "beltway bandits," contractors supporting the Cold War and then the war in Vietnam. The Federal government built Dulles International Airport, even though it was a "white elephant" with virtually no traffic for a dozen years. Travelers on the Dulles Access Road would see only two structures, other than farms and forests, on the 12 miles between the Beltway and Dulles.

On that route Robert E. Simon developed an eponymous planned city, Reston. Initially, residents commuted to work in the District, at the Pentagon, or in Tyson's Corner. It took until the end of the 20th Century for Simon's vision of Reston as an employment center to come close to reality. He knew in the 1960's that it was preferable for residents to work as well as live in the community, eliminating the commute. Reston (like Dulles airport) was constructed a decade or two before the population density and economic patterns of the planners actually occurred. "Build it now and they will come" did come true, in large part because of these two visionary investments as well as the Pentagon and the Beltway - but you have to ignore the cost of borrowed money if you want to declare the investments to have been wise...

Fairfax and Prince William struggled with the rapid growth. Expensive sewage and water treatment plants were constructed jointly by Fairfax and adjacent jurisdictions with the help of revenue bonds, but roads and schools were swamped before they could be expanded. Trailers appeared as interim school classrooms, first in the eastern end of the counties and then in the west. At one point Prince William changed to a year-round school calendar to handle the number of students. It disrupted family vacation plans, but squeezed more students into the limited number of available classrooms, cafeterias, and playgrounds.

Construction of roads, schools, fire stations, hospitals, shopping centers, and other community "infrastructure" failed to keep pace with population growth for 40 years in Northern Virginia. Politicians with the authority to approve or reject development proposals succumbed to temptation, and scandals rocked the Board of Supervisors in both Fairfax and Prince William. For the last quarter of the century, politics in Northern Virginia has been based on growth management issues, with control switching between pro-growth and slow-growth advocates.

Remember the engine of this growth - the Pentagon, and all the contractors supplying goods and services to the Defense Department. Northern Virginia boomed largely for the same reason that Norfolk/Tidewater boomed. Tax dollars collected in all 50 states were spent in Virginia, and in the process the state may have gotten more than its "fair share." (The Maryland suburbs of Rockville and Bethesda were shaped similarly by the National Institutes of Health on Northwest DC.)

In the last decade, for the first time, the economy of Northern Virginia has begun to shift away from its dependence upon Federal expenditures.

As the Cold War ended, defense contractors recognized that the impact of the expected "peace dividend" would be reduced military spending. The contractors shifted their focus to include the civilian side of the Federal government and non-government markets, just as the telecommunications revolution created an Internet economy. High-tech specialists working for contractors who had been supporting the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Central Intelligence Agency, Federal Aviation Administration, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, etc. discovered that the decline in defense spending did not reduce the strong demand for their skills. Private sector companies - innovative start-ups and large companies like MCI, America Online, UUNET, Sprint - have become the key employers in the region.

Because of this shift, the decline in Defense Department spending did not result in a decline in Northern Virginia employment or growth. If the trend continues, Northern Virginia may finally establish an economic foundation independent from the Federal government. And George Washington's vision might actually come true. Transportation of information via electrons - rather than commodities via canal boats - could enable Northern Virginia to prosper through its communications with other regions.

So after World War II, Fairfax County finally received the expected economic stimulus from being near the seat of the national government. Had the national capital been moved to St. Louis or Chicago or Kansas City, perhaps for the same reason Virginia moved its capital from Williamsburg to Richmond in 1780, then the Pentagon would have been constructed elsewhere... the contractors like MelPar would have built their facilities elsewhere... AOL and MCI might have been headquartered elsewhere... Had that occurred, Fairfax could be like Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, now - with an economy based on tourism and agriculture.

Counties that rely upon agriculture and tourism can be very attractive places to live. Rappahannock, Highland, and Bath counties offer a lifestyle that urbanites may envy. With all the political debate and complaints about Northern Virginia sprawl, however, do you think the supervisors of Lee County, Brunswick County, Carroll County, and other growth-challenged regions of Virginia might occasionally covet the economic power of Northern Virginia?



1. Jurisdiction Over Federal Areas Within the States - Report of the Interdepartmental Committee for the Study of Jurisdiction Over Federal Areas Within the States, US Attorney General, April 1956, (last checked December 2, 2005)
Evolution of Northern Virginia
Virginia Places