Finding Forgotten Roads
Jim Lewis and other local historians publish booklet about old Hunter Mill Road Corridor
People have come from near and far to see Jim Lewis give Civil War tours of the Hunter Mill Road Corridor; the areas of Vienna, Oakton and Hunter Mill Road that were important in work and in battle in the 1860s is a vast history Lewis knows well.
But Lewis, a member of The Hunter Mill Defense League, recently realized that the location of the old roads running through the area—many of which are long buried in woods and backyards—were less well known.
Along with fellow local historian Charlie Balch and cartographer Kenneth Jones, Lewis began to locate those roads, a project culminating in the release of the book "The Forgotten Roads of the Hunter Mill Road Corridor," a 36-page publication of photographs, maps and stories. Reporter Max Steinmetz spoke with Lewis about his research, and what local residents should look for when they're exploring the woods on their own.
What prompted you to write this book?
Going through the process [of researching historic markers for civil war events in Fairfax County] I began taking a look at this map, the 1862 McDowell Map. It's very well known to anybody involved with research of the Civil War.
So I was looking at this thing and I was going, you know, I wonder if these roads are still around. So I started going out myself and looking for these roads, and I began locating them right away. And what was amazing was the more I located, the more research [I had to do].
How did you go about finding the roads?
When I started looking for the roads I didn't know if I would find them. I just went out and started looking for them and what amazed me was I started finding them right away. The more I found the more confident I became looking for other roads.
Unbelievably to me, the McDowell Map is very accurate. What's interesting is they mapped the water and the rivers and the creeks very accurately, and that was my landmark for every road I went after; about where would the road have crossed. The water in this area still holds true fairly well. So that's a trick I used.
What do those sections of road look like when you're out in the woods—what are you looking for?
Some of the roads are rutted, like old stagecoach roads. A lot of the roads are elevated or abut a ridge so they are elevated up above the lowlands, which flood quite a bit in this area. What's amazing is that these roads are pretty much preserved because they were above the water line, in many cases.In the winter when there is the first dusting of snow, it's utopia. Because you can actually see these roads.
Was there something you were most surprised to find, or that you weren't expecting to find, in the process?
This whole evolution of Lawyer's Road has been truly fascinating for all of us. We totally got infatuated. Because it was a puzzle that had not been solved for decades. I've got old articles that attribute the road being named for lawyers coming in from the western part of the county. But when you start to put it together and really identify what was around it, that theory kind of fell apart a little bit. As we went along I did some interviews with older folks that were born and raised in the area and their memories and recollections confirmed our findings that certain routes used to be called Old Courthouse Road, but they no longer are because they're abandoned. And that was pretty exciting.
The other thing that was great was that a number of these roads are on private property, so the first minute of meeting those [property owners] was contentious, and I would expect that ... I never knew if I was gonna get shot. And a few dogs chased me. But I would take this out and say you're here, this is what I'm looking for, and within 60 or 90 seconds they would be my best friend, and they were helping me walk through their yard. It was really amazing to see the transformation of people once you started discussing the history of their property.
What kind of response have you gotten to the book?
When we tell people certain roads exist, and they're abandoned today—for example, that Parks Crossing Road actually connected Lawyers all the way over to Beulah Road—people freak. And these are lifelong Vienna people. It blows their mind. And that the route that the 3rd Pennsylvania took on November 26, 1861 to escape J.E.B. Stuart and his cavalry, which was his first cavalry engagement in the entire Civil War, was right over here on what we would call Lawyers Road today.
And that's when people ask, "Well where did he turn right?" "Oh my God, you're kidding. That road really used to connect all the way over?" The answer is yes, and here are the pictures of it. People really like that. They go, "Oh my God I didn't know," which is something I think everybody loves to do.