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Falls Church History

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The Story of Falls Church

1. Native Inhabitants and Early European Contact

Until the late 1600s, the wooded Falls Church region near the Potomack and its streams was inhabited solely by native people. Capt. John Smith in 1608 noted 11 different native groups as he navigated up to the Potomack Little Falls. Waterways were the first routes for European explorers and traders, and early connecting trails and roads are key to our history. A Great Ridge Trail connected the (now) Leesburg area to Alexandria and to trails from here to the Little and Great Falls. In 1630, English trader Henry Fleet noted natives catching large numbers of river sturgeon and other fish. He wrote “deer, buffaloes, bears and turkey, the woods do swarm with them and the soil is extremely fertile.”


2. European Settlers ca. 1699

(Lord Thomas Fairfax VI came to possess the Northern Neck of Virginia in 1719 as a result of his father’s marriage to Lord Culpeper’s daughter. In 1724, Lord Fairfax transferred a portion of this land, including most of the current day City of Falls Church, to Simon Pearson. While settlements near waterways occurred earlier, Big Chimneys (ca. 1699) is the first known house in this area and stood until the early 20th century near today’s Big Chimneys Park. The family that originally settled here has continued on in the area with its13th generation by the year 2000.

3. Tobacco Act, Ports and Rolling Roads

Tobacco from Central America, transported throughout the Americas by native people, became popular in Europe, fueling the slave trade. In 1730, the Virginia Tobacco Inspection Act increased the quality of Virginia export tobacco and, thus, the European demand. Parts of the Great Ridge Trail became a “rolling road” of wood slabs that allowed the tobacco hogsheads (casks) to be pulled by oxen to the warehouses, inspectors and ports. Rolling roads (ox roads) were built throughout the area, often by enslaved people. Vestiges of these roads remain, with one nearby marked along Annandale Road.

4. The Falls Church and Independence

The Anglican Church was the established religion of the Colony of Virginia with the closest church at Occoquan (now Pohick). As people settled this area and west, a second location here “near the falls” of the Potomac was chosen for the “Upper Church” (1734), built of wood, likely by enslaved workers. In 1748 George Mason was made a vestryman of this church. George Washington and George William Fairfax were appointed wardens in 1763 to construct a new building. The brick Falls Church (1769) standing today was designed by James Wren, and also likely built by enslaved people. The church provided our place name, was the center of local life, and was key to the area’s growth and many historical events. The Declaration of Independence was read on the church steps in 1776 and served as a Fairfax Militia recruiting station at the beginning of the Revolutionary War.

5. A New Nation and Proximity

The new nation’s capital boundary survey (1791), drawn up by Major Andrew Ellicott and Benjamin Banneker, a free African-American and astronomer, placed the West Boundary stone for the future District of Columbia in Falls Church. The stone remains on Meridian Street with the SW9 stone on Van Buren Street). Since then, our location has bound our history with the nation’s capital. In the War of 1812, as British troops approached the capital, the gunpowder and arms from DC were moved here, to Dulany Farm for safe keeping. Roads were congested by wagons of those fleeing Washington and Alexandria seeking a place of safety. Dolley Madison, assisted by 15-year old Paul Jennings, an enslaved servant, escaped the capital with the White House silver and portraits, traveling dark roads of this area to stay with a friend. President Madison, fleeing the Presidential Mansion, set afire by British troops on August 24, 1814, arrived at Wren’s Tavern here, and later joined his wife at Wiley’s Tavern near Great Falls.

6. First Age of Turnpikes and Tolls

The Leesburg Turnpike Company was established by the Virginia General Assembly in 1809 to construct a road from Leesburg to “a point on the Little River Turnpike” to provide the direct access merchants in Alexandria desired for western communities. In December 1818 Georgetown petitioners won flexibility on routes to also include a pike to Georgetown via present-day Chain Bridge. The Middle Turnpike Company was later formed to pave the last portion, which while following the path of the Main Road made numerous changes in the route to improve travel. It finally opened in 1838 and one of six toll gates was placed here near Wren’s tavern.

7. Better Roads Support Growth

As roads improved, Falls Church was well positioned to provide services to travelers. There were blacksmiths in the area, and by 1828 Falls Church hosted five inns including Wren’s Tavern (circa 1785). These were places for food, drink, and social gatherings, as well as for basic lodging. The village soon became a center for commerce with farms and orchards providing food for the local market and Washington. The Birch House (1840), Cherry Hill Farm House (1845), and the Lawton House (1854), built on the new turnpike, still stand today. Better roads also improved communication, and a post office was located in the famous Star Tavern

8. Center of Religious Freedom

Several churches were added to the village as better roads provided greater access and convenience to the practice of religion. Falls Church was the home of a vigorous Methodism movement that began in the 1770s, and famous “Black Harry” Hoosier, the first African-American Methodist minister, preached “The Barren Fig Tree” here in 1782. The Methodists built the Fairfax Chapel here in 1798 and soon replaced the Anglicans as the area’s largest congregation. Beginning in 1812, Presbyterians also began meeting in homes here as well as The Falls Church Temperance Society in 1831. Dr. Samuel J. Groot built Groot Hall in 1856 and it was used for church services, community hall, a private school and later as a town hall. The original Columbia Baptist Church (1857) was built near The Falls Church. The Civil War left The Falls Church damaged, the Fairfax Chapel destroyed, and marked the construction of the African-American Galloway Methodist Church and the Second Baptist churches in 1867. The war also split the original Methodist congregation, with Southern sympathizers establishing Dulin Methodist Church (1868), and the Northern sympathizers establishing Crossman Methodist Church. The Catholic St. James Church came later in 1871 and located was constructed on South West Street. The Presbyterians acquired Groot Hall and built their sanctuary in 1884 followed by the Congregationalist Church in 1885.


9. Trains for Speed and Comfort

The invention of steam engines and railroads provided a faster means of bringing goods to market as well as more comfort and speed for travelers. In 1847, the Virginia General Assembly chartered the Alexandria and Harper’s Ferry Railroad, renamed 7 years later the Alexandria, Loudoun & Hampshire Railroad. By May 1860, trains ran from Alexandria to Leesburg with a station at West Falls Church followed by one at East Falls Church in 1870. The trip to Alexandria now took only 35 minutes– previously a half-day by horse—and cost 50 cents to ride. It was renamed again in 1870 as the Washington and Old Dominion Railroad (W&OD). Trains became the preferred mode of transportation, and within 20 years, toll roads fell to the ownership of counties. The W&OD is now a bike trail stretching 45 miles from the Potomac River to Purcellville, VA.


10. Civil War – Village in the Divide

Falls Church was greatly impacted by the Civil War. Some residents collaborated with the Underground Railroad. Harriet Foote Turner, a local free woman of color here, in 1858 led 12 enslaved people to freedom in Canada, passing as their owner. On May 23, 1861, Virginia voted to secede from the Union; here 44 voted for secession and 26 voted to stay. Days later, Union troops maneuvered up to Taylor’s Tavern overlooking the village in the divide. Prof. Thaddeus Lowe avoided Confederates to join Union troops there on June 22, 1861. From his tethered hot air balloon, he reported Confederate movements, via telegraph wire, down to “Fort Taylor,” the first known use of aerial military surveillance in U.S. Later, he directed fire onto Confederate troops in Falls Church.


11. The Inundation of Troops

Prior to the First Battle of Manassas at Bull Run, over 15,000 Union troops marched through the village providing comfort for loyalists. However, after that Union loss, the sight of many injured, frightened and disheveled Union soldiers retreating through the village unnerved some of the residents, who quickly packed and fled. Confederates pursued close behind with roughly 20,000 troops, occupying the village through the summer of 1861 with CSA Gen. Longstreet using the Lawton House as his headquarters. Skirmishes occurred through late September when Union troops regained control for the remainder of the war. After Second Manassas, over 1,600 soldiers were brought to the village churches that served as hospitals. Some were later moved to hospitals in Washington. The Falls Church graveyard is the final resting place of many soldiers of both sides.


12. Home Guard and Mosby’s Raiders

An interracial Home Guard of local citizens (including freedmen) kept watch over the village throughout the war years. During Union occupation, Confederate Col. John Mosby’s Raiders were capturing Union troops and supplies here. On October 2, 1864, John B. Read (right photo), a local abolitionist lay minister who taught Negro people to read (then a crime), sounded the alarm when Mosby and 75 Raiders were approaching. The Raiders killed two Home Guards including Frank Brooks (freedman) and captured 16th New York Infantrymen. Mr. Read and Jacob Jackson, a freedman, were captured, were taken to Hunter’s Mill and both shot in the head. Jackson survived, woke up and walked the 10 miles back to tell the tale. Read’s and daughter and her aunt were granted safe passage by Mosby to retrieve Read’s body. The Southern Claims Commission records show a number of free black families living here during the war who, like others, suffered losses of buildings, seized livestock and crops.


13. Having Seen Glory

Julia Ward Howe traveled with her husband, Samuel, Army Sanitary Commission Director, to review Union troop conditions, including Upton Hill in Falls Church. Howe, a well-known poet, author and abolitionist, recalled troops around campfires singing “John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave; His soul is marching on.” Howe’s companion, Rev. James Freeman Clarke, suggested: “Mrs. Howe, why do you not write some good words for that stirring tune?” The next night, in November 1861, at the Willard Hotel in Washington, Howe awoke with the lyrics in her mind and in near darkness wrote the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” The song was sung by troops of both the North and South.


14. Post War Reconstruction and Growth

After the Civil War, people moved here for fertile farmland, mild climate, and low land prices, many coming from northern and western states having been here during the war and liking the local . In 1869, Virginia’s new constitution re-established the mechanisms of local governments and mandated public education. With the leadership of Joseph Riley, owner of Cherry Hill Farm, the legislature incorporated the Town in 1875, including parts of Fairfax and Alexandria Counties (larger than the City). This new legal status allowed for local control of some taxes, roads, schools and other public facilities. The Town Council appointed a school committee, led by Joseph Riley, which oversaw the building of the Jefferson Institute (pictured) (grades 1-7) in 1882. It also formed a fire-response operation to purchase ladders and buckets as well as to focus on road conditions, including buying gravel from the quarry here. Frederick Foote, Jr., a prosperous African-American merchant, was elected to the Town Council and served four terms (1880-1889). In a period of receding voting rights, the African-American (James Lee) community was retroceded to Fairfax County in 1887.


15. From Victorian Age to Modern Life

During the Victorian era, Village Improvement Societies (VIS) were formed in many places, including Falls Church, in 1885. The local VIS sponsored the renowned Birdsey Northrop to speak here on the City Beautiful Movement and the benefit of parks and trees. In 1892, after a storm had destroyed the trees in the area, the town celebrated the first Arbor Day in Virginia at the Jefferson Institute (now Frady Park). Residents planted canopy trees along the roads that were admired for years. At the same time, the town was modernizing. The Falls Church Telephone Company began operations in 1888, and the electric trolley car service reached East Falls Church in 1897. Both changes spurred residential development, with the first subdivisions appearing in the area and electricity arriving in 1898. Educator Mattie Gundry started the Virginia Training School for girls (1899) the same year the Falls Church Library Association was created.


16. The Spanish American War

The sinking of the Maine in the Havana harbor ignited the Spanish American War in 1898 and dramatically changed life for residents here. The Army created Camp Alger, a two-square mile area southwest, (now National Memorial Park Cemetery) for the training of 30,000 troops The camp was disruptive to local life, including drum noises, wagons, carousing soldiers and challenges by security patrols. African-American Buffalo Soldiers assigned to train here included Charles Young, a West Point graduate who later commanded a squadron of the 10th Cavalry Buffalo Soldiers in Cuba. The camp had many visitors, including President McKinley on May 22, 1898, who arrived with an entourage of cabinet officers and foreign dignitaries, to review 15,000 troops on parade. The delegation, with over 200 horses on dirt roads, created a cloud of dust that made it almost impossible to see across the road. Other visitors included Clara Barton and Dr. Walter Reed. In July, with overcrowded conditions, typhoid broke out and by September the camp was closed, much to the relief of the locals.


17. White House Connections

In June of 1912, President Taft came to Falls Church by motor-car on his way to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the First Battle of Manassas. Attempting to cross the ford at Four Mile Run, his car got stuck. The President walked out in the mud and made a speech (pictured) from the front porch of the home of Dr. T.C. Quick, about one block away. Many Presidents have visited Falls Church including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Ulysses Grant, Grover Cleveland, William McKinley, Franklin Roosevelt, Bill Clinton and Dwight Eisenhower, who lived here (Tallwood) prior to his presidency. President Obama spoke at the James Lee Community Center nearby.

18. Segregation, Voting Rights and WW-I

When the town proposed an ordinance in 1915 to segregate housing, local African-American citizens, Mr. E. B. Henderson and Joseph Tinner, formed a group to object. They called themselves the Colored Citizens Protective League (CCPL), which ultimately became the first rural branch of the NAACP in the nation. The group drafted a legal brief establishing the unconstitutionality of the ordinance, and the Town Council abandoned its efforts. However, a new separate Colored school (pictured) was built along Annandale Road (now the James Lee Community) for those not allowed to attend the Jefferson Institute. In 1917, the United States entered WW-I, drafting 314 men from Falls Church. War-time conditions in France became a breeding ground for the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, infecting 500 million worldwide and killing 531 people in Fairfax County. With men at war, women took on new roles, giving more momentum to the Women’s Suffrage movement and winning voting rights in 1920. The following year, Falls Church School Mistress, Mattie Gundry, was elected to the Town Council, where she served three terms.


19. From Horses to Lee Hwy

Roads created for horses and wagons were often curvy as they followed the grade and contour of the land. More powerful automobiles required a straighter paved road, allowing for increased speed and visibility. In 1919, engineer Dr. David Carlisle Humphreys of Washington and Lee University, started an association for planning national highways. Lee Highway would be a transcontinental highway from Washington, DC to San Diego, CA. In 1928 it was constructed providing a modern
paved road for cars from Southwest Virginia to Washington, DC. Falls Church kept its preexisting road name of Washington St. A local businessman, Melton E. Church, was significantly responsible for having the road routed through the town, and it was his company that paved the road with concrete from Falls Church to the Fairfax Court House, replacing the Old Fairfax Road. Construction did, however, dislocate some longtime residents, including requiring E.B Henderson’s home to be moved several hundred feet west, where it now sits facing South Maple Avenue. The financial benefit to the town was substantial.


20. Schools Over Trash Collections

Between WW-I and WW-II Falls Church prospered, growing quickly in population as a modern community of subdivisions. In 1924 the state established a separate school district for the town. Two years later Madison Elementary School (grades 1-7) opened, and the Jefferson Institute became a 4-year high school. With housing growth occurring, in 1930, the town started a very successful municipal water system, serving the town and surrounding areas. When “talky” movies began, the State Theater opened in 1936. One of the first theaters to be centrally air-conditioned, it made the town a popular destination. East Falls Church residents grew dissatisfied with the town, including the reduction of trash collection to once per week (Pete Gillam, refuse collector, pictured). They voted to retrocede to Arlington County, which still offered twice weekly home pickups. The growth in ownership of cars reduced the need for the trolley car service which ceased operation in 1939.


21. WWII and City Status

World War-II saw a significant build-up of the federal government with many Falls Church residents finding careers there. In 1945, the state abolished the independence of the schools, placing the Jefferson and Madison schools under Fairfax County. A consequent drive to become an independent city began and was approved by the legislature in 1948. The City quickly became its own school district again in 1949 with 927 students. Post-war housing subdivisions flourished, and in 1962 the City received the All-America City award from the National Civic League and later was named state leader in Tree City USA recognition.


22. Major Choices for the City


During the 1950s and 60s, Falls Church evolved maintaining a distinctive small town character even with being located inside the Capital Beltway. Interstate Highway I-66 was first planned in 1956 as part of the Eisenhower Administration’s effort to build the next generation of interstate roads, system improving transportation for industry and commerce, a need noticed during WW-II. I-66 plans encountered opposition from local citizen groups worried about its potential impact on communities. During the process, the City of Falls Church objected to the highway coming through the City at the location of the current W&OD Trail, bisecting the City and creating a significant interchange that would have destroyed much of West Falls Church. In 1982, I-66 opened, skirting just north of the City. Metrorail opened in 1986 with both Falls Church Metro stations located just outside of City limits. In 1999, Falls Church ended the 20th century, celebrating the 300th anniversary of the community with a year of Tricentennial Celebration events. In 20XX, in strongly fought Virginia Supreme Court cases, Fairfax County took over the City’s water system, former crown jewel of its utilities. (There may be something more interesting for the WWII to present.)

1862 a map shows 40 structures in Falls Church and immediate vicinity.
1878 the Hopkins Atlas about 120 structures in the area
1904 Map shows 198 structures in town
1910 Town census showed a population at 1,128, with 234 students.
(Pick up other deleted growth statistics)
1930 Map shows 530 structures; pop. 2,019
1940 Town census; population at 2,576
1948 Special census; population at 5,338;
1950 City Census; population at 7,535
1960 City census; population at 10,192, with 2,894 dwelling units
1965 School enrollment peaked at 2,276
1980 City census; population at 9,815, with 4,503 dwelling units
1990 City census; population at 9,578, with 4,668 dwelling units
2000 City census; population at 10,377, with 4,471 dwelling units
2010 City census; population at 12,332