A name Virginia history salts should at least be familiar with is the late Eleanor Lee Templeman (1906-1990). The author of more than a dozen books, her expertise was Northern Virginia, Arlington and the Lee family (she was the great-great-granddaughter of Richard Bland Lee). In describing her knowledge of Arlington, one writer said Templeman had “a better knowledge of that county than any other person.”
My library was incomplete without her so now I am pleased to have added a used copy of "Arlington Heritage, Vignettes of a Virginia County" Flipping through it the other day, I was warmed by familiar spots she covers and intrigued by others I knew much less about.
Then I came to “Jackson City.” Jackson City?
Another name history buffs in these parts should be familiar with is Michael Lee Pope. In addition to his duties as a reporter for the Alexandria Gazette Packet, Pope’s reports on activity in Northern Virginia can be heard on WAMU/88.5. He’s also the author of three books, including his most recent, “Shotgun Justice: One Prosecutor’s Crusade Against Crime and Corruption in Alexandria and Arlington.”
Pope brings back the Jackson City story, a long forgotten one that began in 1835. A group of speculators from the Big Apple came down to Washington and proposed a new industrial city, a seaport counterpart if you will to Alexandria and Georgetown.
The New York plan was ambitious and they certainly knew how to make a big splash. On January 11 (except maybe for choosing a cold month), 1836, President Jackson and a crowd of onlookers estimated at as many as ten thousand gathered on the Virginia side of the old Long Street Bridge (a few yards below the current CSX bridge). George Washington Parke Custis walked over from his mansion overlooking the city, and said a few inspiring words. With much accompanying fanfare, the seventh U.S. President helped set the ceremonial cornerstone in place.
From there it was all down hill. Jackson City, at least in its first phase, is in the books as a “never-was-been.”
During the Civil War, this low-lying land now crisscrossed by the GW Parkway and I-395 held Fort Jackson, apparently named for Jackson City. Fort Runyon was located about a third of a mile to the south and east where I-395 crosses over Jefferson Davis Highway and between the Pentagon and Long Bridge Park.
After the war was over, another group of investors, this time from New Jersey, made a go of the place as a gambling resort. Well, calling it a resort is giving it too much credit. Lawlessness prevailed, leading to the nickname, “Hell’s Bottom” and raising the ire of area citizens.
Pope brings back to life not only the seedy story of gambling at the site of Jackson City, but also the work of Crandal Mackey. In a nutshell, Macky led a series of busts and raids and cleaned up the whole mess, including saloons and houses of ill repute in Rosslyn. The swath of illegal activity stretched all the way over to the ironically named “St. Asaph Race Track,” which closed down in 1905. Residents today know this triangle-shaped piece of land as part of the Del Ray community.
In her book, Templeman notes “Arlingtonians owe a great debt of gratitude to Crandal Mackey and his group of civic crusaders.” They were called the “Good Citizens’ League,” and had formed in Rosslyn in 1890. Frank Lyon was a member. He bought the Alexandria County Monitor and published expose stories to bring attention to the “Monte Carlo of America.” Lyon also developed Lyon Park and Lyon Village.
In the 1920s, the area just west of where Fort Jackson and the gambling dens once lay was used for Hoover Airport. It too had problems, and did not last long.
These days this part of Arlington is still a mixed-bag. Noise from trains and planes are not pleasant, the graffiti on the railroad bridge is an ugly site, and many a commuter gets slowed down or comes to a screeching halt on their way to the District and 14th Street.
Cyclists and joggers do enjoy that stretch of the Mount Vernon trail, especially the improvements just south of the Navy Marine Memorial. And Long Bridge Park, which sits just below the Jackson City site, is popular and attractive. An interpretive marker there makes mention of Jackson City, a credit to the county for not whitewashing the history.
The funny thing about all this is the disappearance of the historical marker for Fort Runyon that stood at the intersection of Boundary Channel Drive and Long Bridge Drive.
So we’re left with two questions. The first is – Where’s the Fort Runyon marker?
Templeman asked the second – “Where is the Jackson City cornerstone of 1836?”
Note: Special thanks to Wally Owen and his book, "Mr. Lincoln’s Forts." On page 94 he provides an overlay map showing Fort Runyon, Fort Jackson, the Long Street Bridge, and the oval race track. I used it and added some other spots. I was not able to determine exactly where Jackson City was located. One of the interpretive markers at Long Bridge Park shows how the land itself has been changed.