History of the Dranesville Area

Written by Doug Donnell -- please forward comments to scoutmaster@troop1018.org. If you have further information on Dranesville and its history, I'd be glad to add it to the website.  Thanks for stopping by.

NEW - Information on the graveyard at the Dranesville United Methodist Church

Dranesville History        

Although Dranesville today is little more than a vague area occasionally referred to on street signs or in the names of old buildings, it was once a thriving, independent town. George Washington really did sleep in Dranesville, a Civil War battle was fought here, and, in the mid-1800's, Dranesville was a bustling town with doctors, blacksmiths, and at least five taverns.

Dranesville owed its prominence to a strategic position on the main east-west route connecting the established cities of northeastern Virginia with the ever growing settlements to the west. Early roads allowed goods from the port cities of Alexandria and Georgetown to move west and the agricultural products of the west were shipped eastward to consumers along the coast or continued shipment to Europe. But, just as Dranesville had grown because of its location along major transportation routes, its fall to obscurity was sealed when new, more efficient means of transporting goods -- canals and railroads -- began to appear. Following is a short history of Dranesville, Troop 1018's "home town".

The Early Days

In the early 1700's, pioneers traversing the area we now know as Dranesville named the small stream flowing through the region "Sugarland Run" because of the abundance of sugar maple trees along its banks. (Some early writings also refer to the area as "Redlands" owing to the color of the soil and red sedimentary sandstone found in the region.) The stream and its maple trees in turn led to the area being called "Sugarland" or the "Sugarland Settlement". The first recorded Sugarland settlement was a 2,993 acre tract of land west of Sugarland Run patented by Daniel McCarty in 1709. Continuing growth to the west brought more traffic through the area as the first roads through the area began to appear in the 1720's. The most significant of these was the Sugarland Path, as the main east-west route was called. This major artery was subsequently called Eastern Ridge Road, New Church Road, Vestal's Gap Road, Old Leesburg Road, the Alexandria-Leesburg Turnpike, and, of course, the name it goes by today, Leesburg Pike.

Richard Coleman

     Richard Coleman played a key role in the development of the Sugarland Area. He was born in England and immigrated to Westmoreland, Virginia around 1720 and by 1731 had leased 1000 acres of land near present day Leesburg. He subsequently purchased over 500 acres of land to the east -- about 1 mile northwest of present day Dranesville. By the 1740's he had built a mill, operated a farm, and constructed an "ordinary", as taverns were then called, and it was during that decade that settlement of the area really began to grow. With the large increase in trade to and from the Shenandoah Valley and the west, Coleman's tavern became a well know stopping place for travelers. George Washington was a regular visitor, spending the night when traveling to and from the west. Richard Coleman died in 1763 leaving his estate to his wife and four children. His son, James, continued to operate the tavern and farm, and was quite active in civic affairs. At the start of the Revolutionary War he was commissioned a captain in the Loudoun Militia, later rising to the rank of colonel.

Continued Growth

With the growth in commerce, the Sugarland Settlement began to emerge as a town in its own right. Merchants from Georgetown used Chain Bridge to move goods and pushed for the building of the Georgetown Turnpike (now Old Georgetown Road) which opened in 1818. An alternative route was advocated by the merchants in Alexandria -- after all, they didn't want to cede commerce to Georgetown -- resulting in construction of the Leesburg Turnpike, a toll road linking Alexandria with Leesburg and the west. This road was built in sections over a number of years, vastly improving the former Sugarland Path, and was completed in 1838. As it is today, Georgetown Pike and Leesburg Pike met at Dranesville, making it an important and busy crossroads. It was not uncommon for 40-50 wagons a day to go through the town.

The Village of Dranesville

Washington Drane moved to the area in about 1810 and built a combination general store, hotel, and tavern near the intersection of Georgetown and Leesburg Pikes. He was appointed as the first Postmaster of the village in 1822 and the settlement began to go by the name Dranesville. In 1840 the settlement took on legal status when the Virginia legislature recognized "Dranesville" as a town encompassing 30 acres. By that time it had become a thriving community with doctors, blacksmiths, a general store, post office, churches, and five taverns. (Only Dranesville Tavern -- see more info below -- survives).

Dranesville's importance began to wane with the construction of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal and Baltimore and Ohio Railroad which could move goods far more cheaply than the turnpikes. The decision to build the Alexandria, Loudoun and Hampshire Railroad through Herndon to the west further shifted growth away from Dranesville. From the time the railroad (now the Washington and Old Dominion Bike Trail) reached Herndon in 1858, Dranesville's growth stagnated while Herndon's began to expand.

Because of its central location, however, Dranesville was often mentioned in Civil War writings as a stopping place for armies moving through the region. In December of 1861 Southern forces under the command of Brigadier General J.E.B. Stuart met Northern forces commanded by Brigadier General E.O.C. Ord in the Battle of Dranesville (see below). On September 3, 1862 just prior to the battle of Antietam, General "Stonewall" Jackson's troops camped in the Dranesville area. Union troops were garrisoned in the area from November 30, 1862 to March 30, 1863. During June of 1863 Union troops again marched through Dranesville, this time on the way to Gettysburg.

Following the Civil War, Dranesville's importance as a town slowly faded -- its Post Office ceased operation in 1907. Today, Dranesville is no longer incorporated as a town and is administered by Fairfax County.

Dranesville United Methodist Church

The Chartered Organization of Troop 1018, the Dranesville United Methodist Church (DUMC), had its beginnings in the late 1700s. It is believed that a small log meeting house used for worship by congregations from several denominations was built on "Church Hill", the site of present day DUMC, sometime before 1768. At some point the log house became known as the Liberty Meeting House -- so named because of the importance the worshipers attached to religious liberty and the separation of church and state. At this time at least three separate congregations were using the building as a place of worship.

In 1833, James Coleman, grandson of the Revolutionary War leader, donated two acres of land on Church Hill "for the use of Liberty Church, for a burying grounds and other accommodations." This gift was formalized in a deed filed in 1852. In the early 1850's the original log house was either destroyed or torn down, as contemporary writings spoke of the construction, in 1852, of a "plain, square brick church [that] reflected the directness of the people who worshiped there".

In December 1861, soldiers wounded in the Battle of Dranesville (see below) were treated at Liberty Church, as it was then called. Subsequently, the church was used as a stable by the Union Army. This was mentioned in a lawsuit filed by the trustees of Liberty Church in 1905, requesting compensation for rent and repairs of the building. They were granted $700 by the court in 1906.

Following the War Between the States, the church was extensively renovated, and was remodeled again in 1935. In 1880 a one room school was built next to the church and in 1921, a second room was added on to the school. As many as 80 students were enrolled in the small school at a time and it continued to function until 1931 when the students were sent to Herndon. In 1950, an extensive fire virtually destroyed the interior of the church and major repairs were carried out with the church reopening in August 1951.

Interestingly enough, when the congregation celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Liberty Meeting House in 1952, they realized that they did not have clear title to the land. The 1852 deed that ceded the land to the Liberty Meeting House stipulated that any church built on the land would be "free for all denominations." After extensive legal proceedings, the property was turned over to the Trustees of the Dranesville Methodist Church on Jan 28, 1959.

The Battle of Dranesville

By the fall of 1861 it had become obvious to both the North and South that the Civil War would not be the short little war that many had anticipated. Both sides had settled into camp life, waiting for an unknown future. From time to time, however, skirmishes did occur and one such battle was fought at Dranesville, VA on December 20, 1861. Brig Gen J.E.B. Stuart led a brigade sized force to protect a Confederate foraging action. The head of Union forces, Gen George McClellan dispatched Brig Gen E.O.C. Ord to stop the Confederates and encountered Stuart’s forces in the area of Georgetown Pike.  Stuart's units came from the area around Centreville, up the Dranesville Ridge Road, now known as Reston Ave. Ord's troops were dispatched from Camp Pierpont, 12 miles from Dranesville along Georgetown Pike (now Old Georgetown Pike).

Most of the actual fighting took place on the south side of Leesburg Pike in the area east of Sugarland Road (down the hill from the church). Union forces set up four artillery pieces at the junction of Georgetown Pike and Route 7 (current location of the gas station) and, by all accounts, wreaked havoc with the Confederates. Stuart’s holding action allowed his supply wagons to escape, but Ord was the clear victor on the battlefield. By the time Stuart withdrew in the mid-afternoon the Confederates had suffered 230 casualties to the Union’s 71. Following the battle, Ord gave chase for a short distance, but fearing a counterattack by superior forces withdrew back to Camp Pierpont.

Stuart returned the following day to pick up his dead and wounded, carrying them back to Centreville (with the exception of a few too critically wounded to move, who were left in Dranesville). While the battle is generally unknown today, at the time it generated considerable notoriety. Following the dismal showing of Union forces at the Battle of Bull Run in the summer of 1861, and subsequent defeats in minor battles in Northern Virginia, the North needed some good news.

The defeat of Confederate forces at Dranesville -- the first victory by Union forces in Virginia -- provided a considerable morale boost to Union soldiers. Results of the battle were widely published in newspapers and journals of the day -- including a two page drawing in Harpers Weekly. Of course, later battles far eclipsed the importance of the action at Dranesville, but in December of 1861 even a small victory was big news in the North.

 For the Order of Battle, click here. For more information on the Battle of Dranesville check out the following links:

 http://www.civilwar.com/va36.htm http://www.americancivilwar.com/statepic/va/va007.html

Other Civil War Action

The Washington & Old Dominion Railroad -- now the W&OD bike trail (and at that time called the Alexandria, Loudoun and Hampshire Railroad) was at the center of some limited action during the Civil War. Major John S. Mosby, the most famous of the Confederate raiders, operated extensively in the local area, including raids on the railroad. Check out the story at http://www.geocities.com/Yosemite/Trails/9401/civilwar.html

Dranesville Tavern Click for information about Dranesville Tavern - http://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/parks/hprs/dranesville.htm

Modern History Dranesville Switching Center Dranesville is also the site of a major AT&T telephone switching center supporting the Department of Defense during the Cold War. See more information at: http://northshore.shore.net/~mfoster/Dranesville.htm