Residential museums are like vehicles. They have the power to transport us back in time. At their best, they showcase distinct architecture, provide generous examples of period pieces and artifacts, hold commanding views, and give us windows into the life of their prior occupants.
I’ve sometimes been the most pleased with the latter characteristic, especially when it brings back someone who did something noteworthy, but has slipped through the cracks of history.
One such person is Richard Blackburn Black. Before I started looking into the history behind Rippon Lodge in Prince William County, I knew nothing about him. He’s not an A-lister among history buffs, but if someone wanted to write his biography, they would have ample and interesting material.
A decorated Civil Engineer who rose to the rank of Rear Admiral, Black (1912-1992) assisted Rear Admiral Byrd in his explorations of Antarctica, as well as four other expeditions. During World War II he fought in two battles, earning the Bronze Star. The ultimate tribute was paid to Black with a final resting place in Arlington Cemetery.
Rippon Lodge, which lies a half-mile east of Route 1 between Woodbridge and Dumfries, is one of the oldest homes in the area. Richard Blackburn (1705-1757), a forebearer of Black, built his plantation home (named after the town of Ripon in England) in 1747.
During Dumfries all too brief heyday as an international port, the farm yielded tobacco and wheat. Blackburn’s son, Colonel Thomas Blackburn (1742-1807) was an aide to George Washington, and was wounded in the Battle of Germantown (PA).
Subsequent owners include Wade Ellis, a D.C. lawyer, who renovated and enlarged the home (Colonial Revival) in the 1920s. Black then purchased the property in 1952. In 2000, his daughter sold it to the county, who opened the home and yards to the public in 2007.
We took the guided tour. The house interprets each of the occupants time periods. The original house is marked by the chimney to the left to the chimney in the central right portion. An elm towers over the property and marks where the Potomac Path once went by. Visitors included Washington, who might have been there for Masonic meetings.
Two interpretive markers touch on Benjamin Latrobe’s connection to Black. Latrobe emigrated from England and first lived Virginia. He sketched a view of the Potomac. Its waters flowed further inland back then, before silt sank the planter's dreams for a seaport on par with Alexandria.
Old Potomac Path
Four different markers nearby discuss the Old Potomac Path, which ran past the house. Native Americans carved out the trail, which was later used by coaches and called King’s Highway. It was the first north-south route through Virginia and connected the colonies. Certain parts of the road were paved in the 1920s. Route 1 either touches on or near the path or parallels in most parts.