Monthly Archives: July 2019

Archaeology at the Mount Air Historic Site

Mount Air Ruins.Something’s in the air at Mount Air.

Over the years, there have been several archaeological investigations at Mount Air Historic Site, but the park has never been subject to a systematic investigation of the property. Now, thanks to fate and Mother Nature, it is undergoing such an investigation.

In the past, archaeologists from a private company conducted limited testing on a small portion of Mount Air prior to development of a nearby subdivision. In the 1990s and 2000s, the Fairfax County Park Authority (FCPA) partnered with American University to conduct field schools on the property, and Park Authority archaeologists later returned and recovered artifacts that dated throughout Mount Air’s history.

Recently, a tree at the park fell onto a barn structure, rendering it a safety hazard. Likewise, a tenant house on the property was deemed unlivable. Removing those two structures means the ground would be disturbed, and because of the incredible history of the site, if the land is going to be disturbed, then county and park policies mandate that an archaeological investigation must first take place. That means the Archaeology and Collections Branch is returning to the Mount Air Historic Site. This is an opportunity for archaeologists to look at the property comprehensively and to better understand the changing patterns of its use over time.

FCPA archaeologists establish grid for 2019 archaeological investigation.

FCPA archaeologists establish grid for 2019 archaeological investigation.

Currently, the FCPA’s Archaeology and Collections Branch is conducting a shovel test pit survey. That’s a site test that doesn’t disturb much ground. Archaeologists dig small holes straight down, sift the dirt, and collect and record any artifacts. From that they can learn whether further tests of the area are needed and, armed with those results, the archaeologists can better focus future, more detailed excavations.

Mount Air is in southern Fairfax County adjacent to Fort Belvoir. Previous investigations revealed that Native Americans likely occupied the area dating back thousands of years, however, the site is best known for its 18th-century inhabitants, the McCarty family. Dennis McCarty patented the land that would become Mount Air in 1727. It is unclear when the McCartys moved to the land, but records suggest it could have been as early as the 1730s. Dennis McCarty was a prominent planter and served as a member, and eventually speaker, of the House of Burgesses.

Upon his death, his land in Fairfax County passed to his eldest son, also Dennis McCarty. This Dennis married Sarah Ball, a relative of Mary Ball Washington, the mother of George Washington. A planter like his father, Dennis also served as the sheriff and justice of Prince William County and on the vestry of Truro Parish. He died in 1742, and his probate inventory speaks to his wealth. It included 51 enslaved individuals as well as several parcels of real estate. The Mount Air parcel passed to Dennis’s oldest son, Daniel McCarty. Again, like his father and grandfather and because it was expected of prominent individuals of the time, Daniel held several offices including that of a trustee of the town of Colchester, a tobacco inspector, vestryman, and county justice. It is likely that Daniel commissioned the construction of the three-story Mount Air manor house. The Mount Air property remained in the McCarty family until the eve of the Civil War .

In 1860, Aristides C. Landstreet purchased Mount Air, and with the outbreak of the war, he and several of his sons joined the Confederate Army. The Union Army occupied that part of Fairfax County, and the Landstreet’s Confederate sympathies were noticed. Aristides was twice arrested and jailed. The Union Army also arrested his wife, Mary, on suspicion of provisioning rebel troops. During the war, Union troops, including the 5th Michigan Volunteer Infantry Regiment, camped at Mount Air and forbade the family to open their curtains for fear that they were signaling nearby Confederates.

Troops from the 304th Engineer Regiment at Mount Air in 1918.

Troops from the 304th Engineer Regiment at Mount Air in 1918.

After Aristides’ death in 1910, the property passed to his daughters, who sold it in 1914 to Shirley Kernan. Federal troops again encamped at Mount Air in 1918. This time it was the 2nd Battalion of the 304th Engineer Regiment, which built railroads and prepared for deployment to France during World War I. Ownership later passed from Mrs. Kernan to her daughter, Elisabeth Enochs. Elisabeth died in 1992, and fire completely consumed the historic Mount Air manor house just weeks after her death.

Mount Air Mansion in 1970.

The Mount Air Mansion in 1970.

The Fairfax County Park Authority acquired the property, including the house ruins and numerous outbuildings, in 1997.

To keep up with the current archaeological findings at Mount Air, follow the blog at https://cartarchaeology.wordpress.com/.

Author Christopher Sperling is the Senior Archaeologist with the Fairfax County Park Authority.

Daylong Hikes in the Fairfax County Area

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Gerry Connolly Cross County Trail (CCT)

When a Boy Scout mom wrote to the Park Authority for some ideas on where her son could take the long hikes needed to earn a Merit Badge, the agency’s Trails and Infrastructure Coordinator, Beth Iannetta, came up with plenty of suggestions.

If you’re looking for a hike of 15 to 20 miles or more, consider taking some of her advice.

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CCT Trail Marker

• The Gerry Connolly Cross County Trail, also known as the Fairfax CCT, is an amazing achievement for a well-populated area like Fairfax County. Over 40 miles long, it crosses the entire county, from the Potomac River in the north to the Occoquan River in the south, passing through many of Fairfax County’s best parks along the way. We particularly like the northernmost segment from Leigh Mill Road to the Potomac River.

• The Bull Run – Occoquan Trail follows the Bull Run Stream Valley and Occoquan Reservoir along the western edge of Fairfax County. The trail is 18 miles long, beginning at Bull Run Regional Park in the north and ending at Fountainhead Regional Park in the south. The trail, which is a gem in the NOVA Parks collection, offers a chance to enjoy nature and history as it meanders through woodlands, fields, and along the water’s edge. For an easy hike next to Bull Run, join the trail in charming Clifton. The hike from Fountainhead Regional Park to Bull Run Marina is a nice hilly, wooded segment of the trail.

The Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail (PHT) is a network of trails extending over 800 miles through Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and Washington DC. Fairfax County contributes much of its Potomac riverfront to the PHT including Seneca Tract to Great Falls in the north, and Alexandria to Mount Vernon in the east. Favorite hikes on the PHT include:

o Seneca Tract from the eastern edge of Loudoun County to Riverbend Park is a nice stretch accessed from woodland trails in the park.

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Bluebell time at Riverbend Park.

o The mostly flat trail north from the Riverbend Park Visitor Center is especially gorgeous when bluebells and other spring wildflowers are in bloom. Head south from the center for a rockier, but easy hike to Great Falls Park.
o The PHT follows the River Trail through Great Falls Park on a sometimes steep segment with incredible views of the falls and Mather Gorge.
o Scott’s Run Nature Preserve is popular for a short hike to a nice waterfall, but it also offers a pretty, moderately challenging section of the PHT.
o Turkey Run and Potomac Overlook Parks both include trails that connect to the PHT and beautiful river views close to DC.

• On the Virginia side of the Potomac, the popular Mount Vernon Trail offer 18 miles of paved trail from Theodore Roosevelt Island south to George Washington’s Mount Vernon. Most of the trail is independent, but there is a street segment through downtown Alexandria. The trail is narrow and extremely popular with bikers, so pedestrians and runners need to be careful. Most of the trail is level, with great views of the river and DC, but the southernmost mile is a steady climb. There’s a beautiful boardwalk section heading south along Dyke Marsh, so Belle Haven is a good starting point for walkers.