One of the pleasures of conducting research is getting to know some of the people whose oral histories enhance the story. With my book, however, I went in with low expectations. Most of the homes went down between the 1860s and the 1960s.
With City View, I struck gold. Harry and Anna Marie Lehman, good neighbors and friends of local history, sat down with me on three separate occasions for invaluable insights into life at City View II. Harry grew up there, whose site is just steps from the Panera in the Beacon Center.
Harry’s grandfather, William Franklin Pierce Reid Sr., built City View II in 1920. The landmark home was so named for the views it held of not only Alexandria, but also Washington. Up top on the viewing platform, one could take in panoramic views of the Potomac River, the two cities and other sights below what is the highest point around this part of the Washington region.
The story of City View is juxtaposed with Beacon Field Airport, which spread out behind the home. Beacon Field was more than a service-oriented airport. Throughout its time, entertainment events were held there, including horse shows, carnivals, and air shows. Oftentimes, the proceeds benefitted the nearby Penn Daw Fire Department, a building that stands today.
Several weeks ago, Harry and Anna Marie, founders of Friend of the Beacon Field Airport, told some of City View’s story to an audience at the city of Fairfax Library. (See the Beacon Field Airport website).
The news gets even better. The Lehman’s are writing a history of Beacon Hill and environs. As they point out, their book will be the first hardcover to present an extensive history of the US Route 1 area from the Capital Beltway south to Hybla Valley.
As someone who lives in Groveton, I can’t wait. What I put in the book is really just an overture to a great story.
The City has issued this e-blast.
Please note my event at the Lloyd House has a $10 charge. The others are free.
Hope to see you there -- please note the requirement to register. This is because of limited seating.
I would also recommend the tour of the Murray-Dick-Fawcett House. That is one historically cool house and it's had a private owner for years.
City of Alexandria Celebrates Preservation Month
For Immediate Release: April 25, 2017
The City of Alexandria has been a leader in the field of historic preservation, from the creation of the country’s third oldest historic district in 1946 to the start of Alexandria Archaeology in 1961.
May is Preservation Month, a time when communities across the country celebrate historic preservation locally. The City is hosting a series of events to highlight Alexandria’s historic preservation initiatives whether you want to listen to a talk, go for a walking tour or have a drink with other preservationists.
Lost Alexandria by author Jay Roberts
Thursday, May 11, 7 p.m.,
Lloyd House, 220 N. Washington St.
Doors open at 6:30 p.m.
Fee: $10, includes lecture, book signing and reception
Enjoy a special evening “Salon” with Alexandria historian Jay Roberts as he shares research from his newest publication, Lost Alexandria. “Hot off the press” – this book is well-researched and beautifully illustrated. The book will be on sale for a special “Salon” price and Mr. Roberts will personalize copies.
Advance reservations required, limited seating.
Architectural Walking Tour of Rosemont followed by a garden reception at a private home
Saturday, May 20, 2-4:30p.m.,
Walking tour will begin at 2 p.m. and reception will begin at 3:30 p.m.
Join neighborhood historians and City preservation planners for a 90-minute walking tour of the streets of Rosemont, an early 20th-century trolley suburb with an intact collection of Craftsman, Colonial Revival and foursquare houses. We will also consider examples of appropriate alterations and additions. After the tour, we will convene in the garden of one of the tour guides for a reception.
Advance reservations required and complete details about start location and reception address will be provided to all registrants. Wear comfortable walking attire.
Special Access Tour of Historic Alexandria’s newest property at 517 Prince St.
Thursday, May 25, 5:30-7:30 p.m.,
517 Prince St.
Fee: $10 donation requested, cash bar
Tour the Murray-Dick-Fawcett House as the final event of Alexandria’s Preservation Month activities. Enjoy an advance look at this 18th-century house, recently purchased and now owned and operated by the City of Alexandria. After the tour, stop by a happy hour in the garden to catch up with other preservationists. (Rain location for the happy hour at The Lyceum: Alexandria’s History Museum).
Advance registration recommended at Shop.Alexandriava.gov.
The other day I was talking with someone about my new book. They asked me if I had come across any information about one of the homes since its publication.
Although it was something very small, the answer was a bittersweet yes.
But I was also pleased to add there is sort of a flip side to this occurrence.
Towards the end of the seventeenth-century, Colonel John Addison purchased a large swath of land we know today as Oxon Hill, Maryland. Around 1710, his son John Addison built a two story brick manor on top of the hill that overlooked the future site of Alexandria. Four generations of Addisons lived there before Zachariah Berry acquired the home. After the Civil War was over, the manor fell quiet. Then, on a cold winter’s day in 1895, a fire destroyed it. The sole survivors are artifacts from several rounds of archaeology and the cemetery.
About three weeks ago, The Washington Post published an article titled, “Hiding real black history: Lawsuit fights plan to move historic cemetery at MGM casino’s doorstep.”
Justin Wm. Moyer writes:
Two of the family’s black descendants filed a $20 million lawsuit against the casino’s developer, claiming ownership of the cemetery last month on the day before the developer sought approval to move the graves to a nearby church.
After reading the article, I recalled my decision to put the Addison Plantation in my book. I knew some folks might wonder why I would include a home that stood in Maryland.
As I say in my book, there are historical connections between Alexandria and Oxon Hill and its environs.
Even before Alexandria was founded in 1749, Hugh West provided ferry service from Alexandria’s future site to the Maryland shore a mile away. Businessmen in places like Port Tobacco and Broad Creek, Maryland, placed ads and notices in the Alexandria Gazette. Now and then the Maryland Gazette covered an Alexandria story. Farmers on the Maryland side sold their pigs and poultry at the markets in Alexandria. Much to the dismay of Oxon Hill’s Thomas Berry, hunters from the Virginia side found his lands ripe with game.
A historical marker at Oxon Cove Park tells a piece of the story of the surrender of Alexan- dria during the War of 1812. Mary deButts, who lived at Mount Welby, witnessed the arrival of the British Fleet and their anchoring in the seaport.
Today the ties between the two places continues. A ferry runs to and fro National Harbor and Metro recently added new bus service. An Alexandria weekly magazine prints ads and stories about National Harbor.
I’m going to stay away from the particulars of the lawsuit. What I can say is I was fortunate to have learned late last year about the proposal made by The Peterson Companies (August 20) to move the burials from the Addison Family Cemetery to another nearby cemetery.
Wanting to include a photograph of the cemetery in my book, I drove to its location in February. As the Post article says, it lies only steps from the resort’s hotel.
At first I was frustrated and worried I would not get the photo I desired. The cemetery sits atop a mound.
Then the thought occurred to me. A photo taken from the hotel would solve the problem.
As time goes on, there’s no doubt in my mind I will continue to find out more things about these sixteen lost homes.
But that’s ok. The end of a book is not the end of the learning process…
Fans of her son will devour the Foreword he wrote for the book. Grohl fondly recalls the moment he felt, “the spark of inspiration ignite.”
The teenage kid and his mother were driving from their suburban Northern Virginia home in Springfield to Pohick Bay, a regional park about fifteen miles south of Washington. Carly Simon’s smash hit, “You’re So Vain,” came on the radio. Mother and son sang the song in harmony.
Grohl’s fans will also enjoy reading his mother’s “Vignettes.” Sandwiched in between the dozen and a half stories in the 224-page book, these reminisces are chock full of her memories as the mother of a rock star.
Number Seven, “Nirvana,” is not only full of insight, but also very touching. Like all mothers, Virginia worried that her son would indulge in the white lines on the mirrors or the needles in the arm.
Warren, Ohio, claims Grohl as a native son, but the family soon moved to Springfield. Grohl attended high schools in Alexandria and Annandale. His footprints are all over the DMV, including scores of trips he took to DC’s 9:30 club.
Virginia also recalls when her son joined up with Scream, a DC punk band. These were Grohl’s salad days, playing anywhere and everywhere.
She also tells us her fond memories of rubbing shoulders with stars at the Kennedy Center Honors and a White House reception in June, 2010. Grohl performed “Band on the Run.” As proud as a mother can be she writes her son was, “just two feet from Sir Paul McCartney and the President of the United States of America!”
Virginia was also was proud when her son was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, as one of the members of Nirvana.
I love the music of Nirvana, who gave rock music the breath of fresh air it needed in the 90s. I also like the music of the Foo Fighters. And Grohl is flat out cool. He and bandmate Taylor Hawkins were the perfect pair to help induct Rush in to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013 and perform parts of 2112. I also knew Rush was a big influence on Grohl.
Still, my initial thought was not to purchase this book. Then through a posting at the blog Rushisaband, I found out Mary Weinrib, Geddy Lee’s mother, is one of the mothers who tell their stories in the book.
As a lifelong and passionate Rush fan, I first turned to this chapter. We knew Geddy’s mother (Manya Rubenstein) and his late father (Morris Weinrib) survived the Holocaust. Back in the day, the bassist, singer, keyboardist and front man for the now retired hard rock trio made vague mentions about it. Enough that we knew their story inspired drummer and lyricist Neil Peart to pen the song, “Red Sector A.” But nothing else.
I’m sure all the other mothers in this book have compelling stories, but I cannot imagine any of them being any more compelling than Geddy’s mom. To say she beat the odds is the understatement of the century.
Born in Poland in 1935, Mary survived bombing and looting by the Germans, malnutrition and disease which killed many, and a harrowing brush with death at the Treblinka death camp.
To quote the author:
A brutish SS guard designated “right, left, right,” as he assessed the long line of prisoners. Those on the right were deemed strong enough to work; those on the left would go to the gas chambers. Many, naturally small and fair and completely terrified, was sent to the left, her mother and sister to the right. Her horrified mother sneaked behind the line and pulled her daughter to the right, saving her life. Those on the left vanished.
Grohl also points out Mary, her mother and her sister survived Bergen-Belsen, a disease-riddled concentration-camp located in southern Germany. Many, including Anne Frank, did not survive.
Mary married Morris Weinrib, who also made it out alive. They emigrated to Toronto where she found work as a seamstress. He opened up a discount store in Newmarket. Three children followed — Susie in 1951, Gary in 1953 (Geddy officially changed his name. Friends had picked up on the way the mother pronounced Gary) and Allan in 1960.
The dark clouds seemed to have lifted for Mary. In 1965, however, the Grim Reaper shadowed her again and took away Morris.
Bedridden and depressed for weeks, Mary got back on her feet and took charge of running the store. Her children pitched in. Geddy’s hard work was rewarded when his mother bought him an acoustic guitar. Inspired by the British Invasion in the sixties, Geddy learned to play their songs. Alex Lifeson, a friend and neighbor joined in the basement rehearsals. A band named Rush was born.
In 1984, Rush recorded their tenth studio album, which included the song Red Sector A. The name of the album was “Grace Under Pressure.”
Mary Weinrib sure knows something about that, and we have Virginia Grohl to thank for shedding some light on her remarkable story.
Note: Virginia and Dave will be in conversation on April 28 at the Black Cat in DC. The event is sold out.
The Foo Fighters will headline Glastonbury, one of the premier music festivals in the world, in June.
Well, folks, I thought I would never get to this point. But here we are. I am pleased and excited to announce the publication of my second book.
In addition to the learning process, the thing that pleases me the most about this book are the illustrations. Chris Youngbluth, a fabulous local artist who sells her artwork at the Old Town Farmer’s Market, brings backs these lost treasures in a warm way no other medium can.
It is said that authors should always try and break new ground. Let me say I stand in appreciation of those who broke some ground for me. As far as I can tell, however, no one has written a book such as this one. We cover nine homes in Alexandria, five in Fairfax County, one in Arlington, and even reach across the Potomac River into Prince George’s County.
In their time, each of these homes stood out in some combination of grandeur, size, elegance, prominent location, and the fame of the owner or occupants. Some of these homes lasted almost two centuries, while others went down sooner. Although they were all silenced, each one was a landmark and has a story to tell.
Like my first book, this one is self-published. From his office in the heart of Old Town, at a corner building once known as Wise’s Tavern, Craig Keith worked his magic once again. Self-publishing is a lot of do-it-yourself work, but collaborating with someone you know and trust can be very rewarding.
Below is the schedule of events and places to buy.
Chris will also sell the book at the Farmer’s Market in Old Town on Saturday mornings. She is a few steps east of the speaker’s stage and is usually there from 8 am to 11 am.
As I say in the Introduction, it is our great hope the publication of this book raises awareness and inspires citizens, organizations and governments to work together to embrace adaptive re-use. The National Trust for Historic Preservation has all the information needed to understand the benefits of adaptive re-use and how to get started with saving a historical asset. While some parts of the Washington region are shining in this regard, others are not.
We would also like to see communities come together and erect historical markers for some of these sites (only five of the sixteen have one). After all, if we don’t tell the stories of these homes and their inhabitants in this public way, they will remain forever lost.
In closing, thanks a million to those of you who helped me write this book. It’s been almost two years in the making — time to launch!
Places to Buy
Historic Alexandria Museum Store, Two Locations
Alexandria Lyceum and The Alexandria Hilton, 1767 King Street
The Old Town Shop 105 S. Union Street
Farmer’s Market, Saturday 8-11, from Chris Youngbluth
Lecture Schedule (All events free)
Note: The City has sent out an email blast for the Java Jolt. The others to follow.
Thursday, May 4, at 5-7 pm.
Book launch at The Old Town Shop at 105 S. Union Street.
No lecture. I will introduce Chris and Craig. Informal Q&A, book sales and signing.
Saturday, May 6, at 10 am
“Java Jolt” at Alexandria Archaeology Museum
Torpedo Factory at King and N. Union Street.
Lecture, Q&A, sell and sign.
Thursday, May 11, 7:00 pm
Historic Lloyd House
220 N. Washington Street
Lecture, Q&A, sell and sign.
Saturday, May 13, at 11 am
Special Collections-Local History
Alexandria Library, Queen Street
Lecture, Q&A, sell and sign.
Thursday, June 1, 7 pm
Martha Washington Library, 6614 Fort Hunt Rd
Tailored lecture on the history of the New Alexandria neighborhood. Jim Bish will talk about West Grove. I will talk about New Alexandria.
Lecture, Q&A, sell and sign.
Not everyone in Old Town approves of the new Indigo Hotel at 220 S. Union Street. We think, however, most will at least give a nod to its embellishments.
On the heels of installing “Potomac Harvest,” a sculpture by Chris Erney, the hotel has now put up a stunning panel in the lobby.
Inquiring about the details of its design, we were informed the letter F and numbering could relate to the wooden ribs of the ship. We even learned a new word - "futtocks."
Of course, not everyone is happy down by the waterfront. As part of our wanderings, we are hearing grumblings about the desire to get the archaeology work done faster so the construction at Robinson Landing, the hotel's soon-to-be, next door neighbor can begin.
Let me tell you. We are very lucky here in Alexandria to have an archaeology program that became the first in the nation with an archaeology division and a full-time archaeologist, a program that has been called a model for the nation.
The investigations do take time, but by doing them the right way, they yield discoveries such as the hull of the 18th-century ship depicted on the panel in the lobby of the hotel. In turn, companies like Indigo can parlay these news-making events into marketing gold.
Most, if not all, real estate companies work well with Alexandria to produce this win-win situation. But it was not always so.
In 1989, the City Council approved an ordinance that required developers to pay for archaeological studies. Pam Cressey, the city’s head archaeologist pointed out the purpose of the proposal was “not to be adversarial with developers, but instead to create a partnership with them to preserve what is historically important and to bring it to life for the community to enjoy.”
In The Washington Post article (“Alexandria Encounters Resistance,” Matt Lait, September 16, 1989), industry spokespersons were quoted as being against the ordinance. One said, “We don’t like it because it will cause delays and makes us miss deadlines.”
Another one took the higher road and said, “It’s nice to recognize and preserve these sites. It’s part of doing business in Alexandria.”
This is an update to a post I made a couple of months ago. Archaeologists are investigating the block of Union, Duke and Wolfe, where the Robinson Terminal south was located from the 1940s to last summer.
Alexandria has certainly seen some big digs, including the crater-like one at 300, 400 and 500 blocks of King during the Market Square and Tavern Square Urban Renewal redevelopment projects in the 1960s.
On the waterfront, forgotten are discoveries in the 1990s — a fifteen foot long flat bottom boat, sections of the Alexandria Marine Railway and the bulkhead of Keith’s Wharf — during investigations at Ford’s Landing.
Nevertheless, former City Archaeologist Pam Cressey once observed this parcel is the most promising for yielding discoveries.
Already found (Indigo Hotel at 22 S. Union) are the hull of an eighteen century ship hull and the foundation of a 1755 warehouse that sat right on the water’s edge.
I have also included the location of a new piece of public art and a 1749 shoreline marking installed recently on the backside of the Indigo hotel.
So far, the archaeologists have uncovered several foundations. Using maps from the History Matters Report, and a map prepared by EYA for the archaeology work, we are zeroing in on their identity. We won’t know for sure until Thunderbird publishes their final report, but the maps and finds are matching up so far.
The foundations just south of the corner of Duke and S. Union matches up the maps which show three nineteenth century brick town homes.
Curious eyeballs have also been trained on the west side of 2 Duke, the two-story brick building that is the sole remaining piece of the warehouse that took up the entire square block. A foundation recently uncovered there is likely from a warehouse built by Robert T. Hooe and his business partner Richard Harrison in the 1780s.
In my September post I noted that finding this one would be an exciting find. Drawings show it to be 72 x 44. The foundation and first floor were stone, second wood.
This find connects us with Robert Townshend Hooe (ca. 1743-1809) and Richard Harrison.
Harrison served as a consul in France during the American Revolution. He came home and married the daughter of James Craig, George Washington’s physician.
Not as famous as the early founder fathers, Robert T. Hooe nevertheless made a name for himself. He served as Mayor of the city and owned a stone making company.
Worthy of his status and income, Hooe built a large Georgian home with a gambrel roof at the corner of Prince and S. Lee. Robert Madison points out this house was the largest structure in Alexandria at that time. Washington dined there on several occasions. For much of the 19th century, the dwelling was home to a bank.
Research by Ted Pulliam tells us about the items Hooe and Harrison sold from his warehouse (The Hooe Mart?). They include, sail twine, tar turpentine, anchors, tea, black pepper, sugar, china, glass ware, hatchets, blankets, hats, shirts, and yarn.
Donald Shomette (“Maritime Alexandria”) notes that Hooe owned nine vessels. During the Revolutionary War, they “made ten successful voyages in defiance of the British blockade of the Chesapeake.”
It was my distinct pleasure to lead a tour of the waterfront this morning. A dozen and a half members of the Cal Alumni’s Culture Club met at the foot of King Street.
We looked at the unfolding of the final pieces of the redevelopment of the waterfront, the new Indigo Hotel and public art there, the archaeological site at the foot of Duke, the oval plaque program (Early Building Survey), flounder houses, and the history of the Carlyle House.
Topped off with waterfront dining at Blackwall Hitch.
Thanks Carolyn and alum.
A while back, Fairfax, California came across my radar. I remember thinking - Um, wonder if the name of the town, located north of San Francisco in Marin County, came from one of the Lord Fairfax's who lived in northern Virginia before, during and after the American Revolution?
We know gold rush fever struck the nation in 1849, drawing westward many a hopeful prospector and panhandler to the mother lode veins east of Sacramento in northern California. It was also the lure of gold that had sent the early English colonists on their voyages to the New World.
But would a lord baron leave his family and a comfortable life in Virginia for an uncertain one a continent away?
The answer is yes. The town is named after Charles Snowden Fairfax, Tenth Lord Fairfax.
Wanting to know more about him, I turned to “The Fairfax Family in Fairfax County, A Brief History” by Kenton Kilmer and Donald Sweig. It’s an oldie, but goodie. Unfortunately, but rightfully so, they spent most of their time on the other Lords who came before Charles.
Let’s see what we can cobble together on this lost figure.
Thomas Snowden Fairfax was born on March 8, 1829. Some sources say he was born in Prince George’s County Maryland. Others have Vaucluse written down.
While it is uncertain where he was born, there’s no question about his forebears. The Fairfax clan were of Saxon blood who established themselves in Leeds, England. The early Lords of the seventeenth century held positions equivalent to today’s generals, senators and judges. They were knights and held the noble rank of Baron of Cameron, a Scottish peerage that entitled them to all the rights and privileges held therein.
Arriving to stay in 1747, Thomas, Sixth Lord Fairfax, was the first Lord Fairfax to come to the New World. He owned proprietary rights to the staggering sum of over five million acres of land we know today as Northern Virginia. His actions created a new county that bore his name. His cousin and land agent, Colonel William Fairfax, built Belvoir in 1741. Before Alexandria was founded in 1749, the brick Georgian Manor was arguably the center of the universe in the northern part of the colony. For George Washington, Belvoir was like a second home.
When Thomas, Sixth Lord Fairfax passed away in 1781, the peerage passed to his younger brother Robert. He became Seventh Lord Fairfax, but by then, the Virginia Assembly had passed acts which prohibited British subjects from holding land. The title might have meant a little something to Robert, but for all intents and purposes it had become an empty one.
When Robert, Seventh Lord Fairfax died in 1793, the title devolved to Bryan Fairfax (Charles Snowden Fairfax’s great grandfather). At age 62, six years before his death, Bryan made the trip to England to claim the title.
Bryan’s father was Colonel Fairfax who raised him at Belvoir. Bryan added to the Fairfax dynasty by building Mount Eagle, a country home that overlooked Alexandria from 1790 to 1968.
When Bryan passed away in 1802, his son, Thomas, became Ninth Lord Fairfax. Thomas (Charles Snowden Fairfax’s grandfather) might have been born at Belvoir. He was more of a country gentleman than a Lord of Cameron.
Around 1790, Thomas built a country home he called Ash Grove. Fire destroyed some of it but the rebuild stands today near the intersection of Route 7 and the Dulles Toll Road. In 1827, Thomas purchased Vaucluse, a country home perched on a high point two miles west of Alexandria and not too far from Mount Eagle. He also owned a summer town home at 607 Cameron Street in the seaport, a Georgian beauty the Alexandria Times said, “is one of the city’s most treasured.”
Thomas sired seven children with his third wife Margaret. One of them was Albert Fairfax, Charles Snowden Fairfax’s father. In 1828, Albert married Caroline E. Snowden. She was the daughter of Richard Snowden (1775-1823) and his second wife, Louisa V. Warfield (1790-1820). A year later, Caroline brought Charles Snowden Fairfax into the world, possibly at Vaucluse. John Contee Fairfax followed in 1830. Sadly, Albert passed away in 1835.
In 1846, Thomas Ninth Lord Fairfax died. Upon his death, Charles Snowden Fairfax inherited the title, Tenth Lord Fairfax, Baron of Cameron.
Not a lot is known about Charles Snowden Fairfax’s childhood. One source said he grew up in Washington. It’s possible he lived at or visited Northampton, whose site is near Largo, Maryland. In his book, “Black Men Built the Capitol,” Jesse Holland described it as a “classic Gone with the Wind-style Southern plantation.” Fairfax’s brother, John Contee Fairfax, bought Northampton in 1865.
It’s also possible Charles Snowden Fairfax grew up in Vaucluse. In her memoir, Constance Cary Harrison gives us a glimpse into life at the country seat of the Fairfax family. Harrison, who would become a novelist of some fame in New York, describes Vaucluse as “the rallying place of the Fairfax clan, a center of cheerful hospitality.”
“Time glided by peacefully,” she wrote.
For Charles Snowden Fairfax, he might have had a different point of view. On visits to Alexandria, he would have watched ships slip in and out of Alexandria’s port. From the heights on which Vaucluse was built, he could look down to the Cameron Valley and see stage coaches and horses kicking up dust along the Little River turnpike. Perhaps these sights planted the seeds of wanderlust.
What is certain is that Charles Snowden Fairfax, like so many others in the country, heard the siren songs in 1849.
It took a while for the news of the discovery of gold (January 24, 1848) at a sawmill John Sutter had built west of Sacramento.
“To California!” the headlines in the Alexandria Gazette screamed later that year.
It was too much for Fairfax, whose empty title probably meant little to him. Even though the journey involved a six-month voyage on the high seas, the young man of twenty years could not resist. Perhaps he desired distancing himself from his royal blood connections, or like others, wanted to re-invent himself.
On April 6, 1849, Fairfax and a group of young men who had formed the Madison Mining and Trading Company, loaded up their luggage and big dreams on the steamship Glenmore. Colonel John D. Munford of Richmond was their leader. Joining the hopefuls were men from Lynchburg, Louisa, Gloucester, Hampton and Washington, D.C. Also climbing on board was Dr. Alfred Taliaferro (1825-1885), who would become a friend of Fairfax. A doctor by trade, Taliaferro hailed from Culpepper, where he owned a flour mill and farm. He also dabbled in politics, representing Culpepper on the Democratic Committee of Vigilance.
From the port on the James River in Richmond, these Virginia argonauts waved goodbye. For Charles Snowden Fairfax, he was turning his back on a potentially easy life in Virginia.
The Maritime Heritage Project tells us the Glenmore sailed around Cape Horn in South America. No doubt worn and weary, Fairfax and company finally arrived in San Francisco in October.
In their book, David Hackett Fischer and James C. Kelly tell us (“Bound Away: Virginia and the Westward Movement”) Fairfax “became a famous character in the West — not quite a Lord but very much a Virginian gentleman with lordly ways.”
Of course, it took some time for his story to unfold.
Although there is no biography on Charles Snowden Fairfax, some of his story is told by Rich Samuels (Richard Snowden Samuels). He recently ended a 35-year run in the Windy City, as a broadcast journalist on “Chicago Tonight.”
Samuels traced the lives of three of his Snowden forebears —Richard N. Snowden, Sr., Richard N. Snowden, Jr., Gustavus Warfield Snowden — and Charles Snowden Fairfax.
The author writes that Snowden was raised in the District of Columbia. His widowed mother Caroline married a Captain William Sanders, a career officer in the U.S. Army.
By his footnoted account, Samuels tells us Fairfax first went to a point some fifty miles east of Marysville. Marysville stands about 40 miles north of Sacramento.
This area was where the flat lands east of Sacramento give way to the western foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Small towns like Colfax, and Placerville were put on the maps during a time when California’s population exploded from 92,000 in 1850 to 379,000 in 1860.
On their mule-assisted trek to the foothills, Fairfax was accompanied by his uncle Richard Snowden, and Philip Keyser, a Baltimore lawyer who would win election to the California State Senate and serve as a Superior Court Judge.
The three built a make shift log cabin. After things did not pan out (sorry I couldn’t resist), Fairfax retreated to Marysville. In 1851, he was selected to be Chairman of the Marysville Vigilance delegation to a Yuba County Democratic Convention. A year later he moved up to Marysville Justice of the Peace and then a county Judge with an array of duties. In 1853, the ballot box majority elected him to Democratic State Assemblyman from the Marysville District of Yuba County. The pulpit of the Speaker of the House of California followed. Fairfax (Californians called him “Lord Charlie”) had no formal training, but Samuels points out he had what we would call great people skills.
A growing issue at the time was slavery. The Democrats in that part of the state were divided over the issue. Some of the gold seekers who came from the South brought their slaves with them. Those who wanted slavery in California were called the “Chivalry” wing.
Charles Snowden Fairfax grew up in a world where slavery was the norm. Harrison called them “servants,” but they were indeed enslaved.
In 1854, African Americans filed a petition, asking the assembly to overturn a law that excluded blacks from testifying in court. The judicial body of white men rejected the petition.
Fairfax said — “This is all wrong, the petition should have been received.”
Oral histories usually come with the knowledge that memory can be a flickering light and a one pound fish can turn into a whopping ten-pounder. But the memoir of Stephen J. Field, who also left the East Coast for California during the Gold Rush, has credibility.
Field served as Chief Justice of California, followed by donning the robes of Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. He co-wrote a memoir titled, “Personal Reminiscences of Early Days in California, with Other Sketches.”
I found him possessed of a noble and chivalric spirit. With great gentleness of manner, he had the most intrepid courage.
Fairfax displayed some of that courage in 1859.
The Daily Independent Journal (San Rafael) reported the story.
On March 25, 1859, a political rival, Harvey Lee, put a sword into Fairfax’s chest on Fourth Street in San Rafael. Seriously wounded, Fairfax pulled out a derringer and told Lee — “Recollect, I have your life in my hands. I spare you not on your worthless account, for you are an assassin and a coward, but because of your wife and children.”
Fairfax was not the first person from Alexandria to pick up a tin pan in California. James H. Carson (1821-1853), who spent at least a year in Alexandria, led a regiment of men who sailed to Monterey in 1846. They had been given orders after the United States declared war on Mexico.
Carson Hill, about a dozen miles east of Stockton, is named after him. A bronze historical marker notes a 195-pound nugget was found there in 1854. Another one says:
James H. Carson (1821-1853). Soldier, gold prospector and miner, writer and sportsman. Discovered gold at Carson’s Creek. Inspired a mutual confidence between man and man.
While Fairfax had headed for the veins in the lower Sierra Nevada Mountains, Taliaferro set up a practice on 4th Street in San Rafael. The small community lies on the western banks of San Francisco Bay, about ten miles north of San Francisco. In addition to his practices, Taliaferro became a State Assemblyman in 1851-1852. Enchanted by a narrow valley in Marin County, he obtained 32 acres from Domingo Sais. Sais (1806-1853) served in the San Francisco militia in 1837 and was given Rancho Canada de Herrera, a land grant encompassing over 6,000 acres.
In their surf song, Jan & Dean sang there were “two girls for every boy.” During the early years of the Gold Rush, the ratio was much more depressing for the men there.
In 1855, Fairfax struck gold and married Ada Benham, described as an attractive belle from Cincinnati. The couple then moved to Marin County. Taliaferro gave them a wedding gift — an estate they named Bird’s Nest Glen.
The couple built a house and lived there from 1855 to 1868. In their book, “Images of America: Fairfax,” William and Brian Sagar tell us it was a social center among their many friends. Charles and Ada heaped Southern hospitality on all who visited.
It could be apocryphal, but they also give us the origin of the town name. “Let’s go over to the Fairfax's," became "Let’s go to Fairfax.”
Sadly, a fire destroyed their home. Pastori Restaurant rose up on the spot and had a long run. According to DirectMarin, their home became a hotel and Pastori’s restaurant in the 1890s.
Sadly, a fire in 1911 destroyed the restaurant and “the last vestige of the Fairfax home.” Madame Pastori rebuilt and reopened the restaurant.
According to a historical marker, the Bird Nest’s Glen hosted a Country Club, a School, and a private colony of cottages.
Charles Snowden Fairfax survived the Wild West, only to die at the age of 40 in Baltimore. The Baltimore Sun published his obit, noting he passed away at Barnum’s City Hotel. Snowden had traveled to New York for the Democratic Convention.
Fields notes he spent some time visiting friends and relatives at “the old family residence in Maryland.” This is probably Northampton, acquired by his brother John Contee Fairfax in 1865.
We certainly know Charles Snowden Fairfax did not visit Vaucluse. As part of constructing forts around Washington in the first part of the Civil Way, the Union army leveled the home in 1861. The Fairfax and Cary clans had left that spring, an exodus that led Harrison to Richmond and others to points southward. With Belvoir sitting nearby in ruins, an era of the Fairfax family had passed.
Charles’s widow Ada moved to Washington, D.C. where she worked for the Treasury Department. Ada passed away in 1888. Her obituary in The Washington Post reported she had lived at 2108 G Street Northwest. Like her husband, Ada was laid to rest at Rock Creek Church Cemetery. More than a dozen other souls rest there with the Fairfax name etched on their grave stones.
In 1931, the community where Charles Snowden Fairfax and his wife had made their home, sat down to choose a name for they newly incorporated town of 2,250 people.
They did so not so much because they wished to honor its first resident. Rather, that was what they had always called the place.
In 1959, the California State Park Commission in cooperation with Marin County Native Sons and Daughters of the Golden West erected a historical landmark plaque.
The home of 'Lord' Charles Snowden Fairfax, pioneer and political leader of the 1850s, who served California as an Assemblyman (1853), Speaker of Assembly (1854), and Clerk of the State Supreme Court (1856). A descendant of Scottish barons of the Cameron Fairfax family of Virginia, Fairfax was involved in the last of California's historic political duels as host to the principals and friend of the two antagonists.
Through place and street names, historical markers and a few homes in Alexandria, the history of the Fairfax Lords has been kept alive. But specific memories have been mostly for Thomas, Sixth and Thomas, Ninth. Remembered more on the West Coast, the memory of Charles Snowden Fairfax has faded and disappeared here in Fairfax County.
In the summer of 1985, Jack Eisen, a Washington Post staff writer, jogged some memories. He wrote a column titled “A World Away, in Fairfax.”
Eisen gave a brief summary of the life of Charles Snowden Fairfax, and pointed out that although Fairfax County, Virginia and Marin County, California are 3,000 miles apart, “there are few counties more closely linked.” In addition to the Charles Snowden Fairfax connection, Risen drew the parallels of both being commuter bedroom communities and having similar per capita incomes. Today, both places are diverse and progressive.
Eisen also penned another piece titled, “Lord Fairfax Lives.” Patricia Arrigoni, of Fairfax, California, had written an article in the Marin Independent Journal. She recounted her search for Nicholas John Albert Fairfax, 14th Lord Fairfax who was living in Holyport, a town north of London. Unable to hook up with him, she then mailed him a local guidebook that had some info on Charles Snowden Fairfax. The two exchanged letters. The 14th knew about Fairfax County, Virginia, but not its west coast counterpart.
Fairfax County is celebrating its 275th anniversary this year. Among the events is an evening lecture to celebrate the county’s rich history. The featured speaker will be Nicolas Fairfax, the 14th Lord Fairfax, who will make the trip across the pond from London. (Nicolas, the 14th, Thomas, the 13th and Albert the 12th each took the title from their father. Charles Snowden Fairfax had no children. The title went to his brother John Contee Fairfax, 11th).
Of course, traveling to a far away land is nothing new for these barons and their descendants. Whether it’s seeking a new way of life or helping to recall a past one, the Fairfax lords have always been up for the journey.