A History of Virginia Hills

A house on Hillview

This page reflects a work in progress to research and write a history of the Virginia Hills community. Work has proceeded in fits and starts over the last few years, alternately concentrating on the 18th and 19th centuries and the period since the construction of the current neighborhood in 1951. While what follows is a fairly comprehensive history, we have a number of additional projects in mind. If you have any information you'd like to contribute to the project or you're interested in helping with the research, please contact Doug Boulter.

Virginia Hills was part of a grant of 2466 acres, or just under 6 square miles, from Thomas, 5th Lord Fairfax, Proprietor of the Northern Neck, to John Matthews on October 13th, 1694. This was the second grant to Matthews, the first, for 1567 acres, having been given on July 7, 1669. The first grant is roughly bounded by Hunting Creek/Cameron Run in the North and the Potomac in the East. It is bounded in the west by the second grant which generally includes the neighborhoods of Huntington (the western third), Jefferson Manor, Penn Daw, Wilton Woods, Virginia Hills, Rose Hill, Stoneybrook, and parts of Groveton.

Matthews sold most of the land from the first grant, but retained the second. He died without a will, and the land passed to his two daughters, Mary and Ann. The land was ultimately sold by his granddaughters:  on April 12, 1709, Bryant Folio and his wife Mary Folio sold 833 acres to George Mason II for 5000 lbs. of tobacco and 20 Sterling; on January 4, 1723, Mott Doniphan and his wife Rosanna Anderson Doniphan, sold 903 acres to Daniel French Sr. for 10,000 lbs. of tobacco.

The westernmost portion of the land stayed in the French family and eventually became the Frenches' Rose Hill family seat. The easternmost portion was eventually purchased by John Colville and combined with a portion of the first grant to form his estate called Cleesh. However, the piece that became Virginia Hills apparently passed from George Mason II to Sarah, a daughter by his second wife. Sarah was born in 1715 and married three times, ultimately marrying Thomas Brooke of St. Mary's and Charles County, Maryland on December 3, 1734.

On March 13, 1750, after the death of Thomas in 1749, Sarah sold 575 acres of the former Folio property on a branch of Great Hunting Creek (presumably Pike Branch) beginning at the corner of Colville's property. She sold it to John Pagan for 75. Pagan was a Scottish merchant and land speculator (he bought four other parcels in Northern Virginia) who soon returned to Glasgow. Pagan's attorneys, John Kirkpatrick and Robert Adam, sold the property on March 8, 1753 to Alexandria shipbuilder Thomas Fleming.

Fleming and his wife Betty sold the land for 500 to Daniel of St. Thomas Jenifer and Robert Townshen Hooe on 26 July, 1774. Jenifer and Hooe sold the land for 530 to the merchant John Harper on January 30, 1776. Harper sold most of this land to James Irvin of Alexandria in 1796, and his son sold more to Irvin in 1798.

Irvin was a merchant born in Ireland in 1757, a member of Masonic Lodge #22 (the same Lodge as George Washington), and an elder in the Alexandria Presbyterian Church. On this newly purchased land, he build a "ropewalk," a factory for making rope that in this case was 14' wide and 660' long. It was called a ropewalk because the workers walked backward to twist the rope strands. The insurance policy of 1803 that covered Mount Airy (Erin) valued the ropewalk at $2200. A two-story wooden house with separate kitchen and dairy was valued at $1100. On the 1805 appraisal, the building was described as being 27' x 22' underpinned with brick and having a 27' x 8' back portico and a 6' x 7' front portico. There was also a 15' x 30' addition. The appraised value for the house was increased to $3000.

In 1811, Irvin sold the property (now 362 acres) to Thomas Tracy for $13,000. Tracey was a native of Dublin, Ireland who had come to the colonies before the Revolution. He had been hired in 1783 to tutor the Custis children, the grandchildren of Martha Washington, and Tracy was a frequent guest at Mount Vernon.

Tracy died on August 5, 1821, having willed the estate to his nephew, James, a sign painter of Dublin, Ireland, under the condition that James become a U.S. citizen. James, then 56 years old, migrated to this country in 1822 to claim his inheritance and lived on the property for eight years until his death on June 8, 1830. The state Acts of Assembly of 1830-31 record the award of title and release of 362 acres of Mount Erin to Frances Maria Tracy, widow of James Francis Tracy.

Despite renting out much of the estate, Mrs. Tracy was in considerable debt and plagued by a bad second marriage which ended in an acrimonious divorce in 1842. She sold 166 acres to pay debts and heavily mortgaged the remainder. Of the 166 acres, 50 were sold to William Mershon in 1842 for $637.50 for the Old Mount Vernon Race Course. Included in the sale were the use of the well and the road.

The Old Mount Vernon Race Course changed hands a number of times over the next 13 years. Mershon defaulted on his mortgage and the property was sold at auction for $675 to Daniel Collins of New York. Collins then sold it in 1849 for $1075 to Napoleon David. In 1851, David defaulted and the property went to the highest bidder, James Grigg, who bid $720. Grigg sold the property to Samuel Pulman for $1284 in 1855.

Apparently some time in 1848, Maria Tracy sold the remaining 196 acres to Absalom Remington for $2025 and moved to Petersburg, Virginia. Remington died under suspicious circumstances in December 1849 - what looked like a poisoning by his wife, Catherine, but was never proved – and the property passed to his six children with dower interest being held by Catherine. In 1852, Catherine married Alfred Riker who had apparently been close to her for several years before Absalom Remington's death. A neighbor wrote the following of Riker:

This horrid creature is one of the yankee settlers in this neighborhood from one of the New England States. He has been settled here a number of years and a perfect nuicence and abhorrence to all his neighbors, has been accused of many crimes, but has always managed to elude the law, the climax was reached when he was accused of complicity with a woman in poisoning her old husband, and then marying the widow and taking possession of all his effects. . . Such is the history of this despicable creature as I got it from one of his neighbours nearest.

When Catherine died in 1863, Riker continued to live at Mount Erin despite the fact that his deceased wife only held the property during her lifetime (a dower interest). The Remington children (and Tobias and James Stoutenburgh who had purchased son William's 1/6th interest) initiated a lawsuit to eject Riker. Facing a lengthy suit, all of the parties sold their interest to neighbor Samuel Pulman between 1864 and 1868 for $400, $500, or $600 each. Though it is not clear when it happened, Alfred Riker left Mount Erin sometime during this period.

Samuel Pulman had emigrated from Yorkshire, England with his father, Thomas, in the late 1840s. The rest of Thomas Pulman's family, 14 children in all, ultimately joined them, settling in the Cameron Valley near what is now the intersection of Telegraph Road and Huntington Avenue. Samuel Pulman and his wife Frances began building their estate with the first purchase of the Old Mount Vernon Race Course in 1855. In 1859, the Pulmans acquired 22.75 acres adjoining their property to the southwest, the Remington property by 1868, and an additional 35 acres in that same year, giving them a total of 293.25 acres.

The Pulmans were living in the Mount Erin house on August 6, 1861 when a shell from Fort Lyon exploded in the yard and killed Thomas and Samuel, their two young sons. Fort Lyon was one of the defensive fortifications Union forces built around the District of Columbia and was located near today's Jefferson Manor shopping center near the Huntington Metro.

Pulman operated the property, at least in part, as a dairy and truck farm. By the 1880s, the Pulmans had apparently moved to Alexandria, renting out the farm to a Mr. J. Gaines. The house suffered a fire in 1895, and some of the house was rebuilt at that time, probably adding the Victorian features. The end of the house was blown in during and the barn damaged by a cyclone in 1896. Samuel Pulman died later that year, on December 24th. Pulman, his wife, and the two sons mentioned above are buried in the northeast corner of the cemetary of the Episcopal Church on Franconia Road.

Mount Erin Farm passed from Pulman to his wife and then to his two remaining children, Peter and Sarah (Miller). Peter's wife Lillie and Sarah Miller sold the property in 1903 to Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Richardson who named it Richburn ("Rich" from Richardson, and "burn" from Mrs. Richardson's maiden name). In 1920, the farm passed to from Isabella Richardson to W. Parker Richardson. The next owners, the Butlers, changed the name to Finella Farms. They sold it to Mr. and Mrs. William Orr in 1945, and the Orrs adopted the original name of Mount Erin. Their plans were to make a country club out of the property, and they added a hotel kitchen and enclosed the porch with jalousies for this purpose, but the plans came to naught.

The Orrs ultimately sold the property to Mr. and Mrs. Rudi Trefny in 1971.

The community of Virginia Hills was developed by builders Banks and Lee and realtor Art Post in 1951. Construction of the first houses began in the late spring, and the first residents moved in in August. The first mail delivery did not take place until October.

On September 16, 1952, seventy-one residents of Virginia Hills met at the Penn Daw Fire House and voted the adoption of the by-laws forming the Virginia Hills Citizens Association (VHCA). The first Echo was published as a single sheet circular on June 16, 1953 with neither name nor advertising. It reported the admission of the VHCA into the Federation of Citizens Associations of Fairfax County and announced the next meeting of the Association:

Location:  Under the two trees on the hill, to the right of #238, The Parkway. (In case of rain Tuesday evening, the meeting will be held at the same location on Wednesday at 8:00 P.M.

The work of the citizens association over the years involved getting street lights, sidewalks, and new street signs for the community. The Association fought commercial development on Telegraph road and prevented townhouses from being built in what is now Stoneybrook, Vantage, Kings Landing, and the intersection of Franconia and Telegraph Roads. VHCA helped bring about the conversion of the old gravel pit behind the school into Lee District Park. Until 1975, VHCA, not Fairfax County, put on the annual 4th of July fireworks display. After a protracted and frustrating struggle, VHCA finally got bus service for the community. In 1973, VHCA pressure led to the installation of a traffic signal at the corner of Memorial Street and South Kings Highway, and later at the intersection of The Parkway and South Kings Highway.

The design for the community sign at Pike (Branch) Road was chosen by the Association from members' submissions in 1960 and was up in 1963. The first lighting of the sign was accomplished in 1965, and the lighting we have today was installed in 1967. The sign went dark in the 1980s, and was re-lighted in 1993. The playground was dedicated in 1994.

The month-to-month activities of the Association have included Candidates Nights in election years, social events, a teen organization, and, from 1964 to the mid-1980s, award of a college scholarship to a Virginia Hills senior.

Attaining participation in Association meetings was always a struggle, as was finding volunteers to undertake the work of the Association. In 1985, VHCA became dormant due to lack of interest on the part of the community. See Why Did VHCA Go Inactive in 1985?. It was reorganized and restarted in September 1991. See How the Association was Reactivated in 1991.

Past VHCA Presidents