John Kelly
John Kelly
Columnist

How did Little River Turnpike get its name? Answer Man goes on a road trip.

John Kelly/TWP - A bridge in Loudoun County, Va., that goes over the Little River. As the name implies, the waterway — a creek, actually — is very small.

I have driven and biked along Fairfax County’s Route 236, Little River Turnpike, many times, and studied detailed maps of it and the areas it traverses. Since I cannot find any evidence of natural flowing water near or alongside it, can you please discover why it refers to a small river? Man-made, VDOT-imposed drainage that accompanies all roads doesn’t count as a little river.

— Kate Schwarz, Fairfax

Remember that usually a road is not named after the thing alongside which it runs, but after the place to which it leads. The Little River Turnpike runs — or ran — to Little River.

As the name implies, Little River is an exceptionally modest stretch of water. In fact, it isn’t a river at all. The U.S. Geological Survey classifies it as a stream. To reach it, drive out Route 236, a.k.a. Little River Turnpike, through Fairfax and onto Route 50. Little River is in Loudoun County, in the (little) town of Aldie, Va., about 35 miles from Washington.

The Little River Turnpike Co. was founded in 1802 to build a toll-road from Duke Street in Alexandria to the “ford of Little River.” A paved road, 20 feet wide, was completed in 1811.

To Americans of that era, “paved” meant covered in broken stone, ideally following the recommendations of Scotland’s John McAdam, whose “macadamized” roads were constructed of layers of stone of specific diameters. Such roads might seem crude to us, but they were an improvement over the rutted mud tracks they replaced.

You may be wondering: Why would anyone want to go to a moist bit of the landscape that was a river in name only? They didn’t. They wanted to come from it. Having a halfway decent road allowed farmers in that part of Virginia to get their products to markets in the city and to the port of Alexandria.

Hidden Oaks Nature Center abuts Little River Turnpike in Annandale. The center’s manager, Michael McDonnell, has studied the history of the road.

“Them who built it got to name it,” he told Answer Man “I suspect on the terminus at Little River, that’s where somebody had money that contributed to the construction of the turnpike.”

As for what a turnpike was, its name was quite literal. “Poles — pikes — were brought down across the road to stop the cart,” Michael said. “You’d pay your toll, somebody would lift the pole off the hinge and away you’d go.”

Their carts would be laden with corn, wheat and other agricultural products. A grist mill at Aldie may have been the reason farmers flocked to the village. There was also a canal at Goose Creek, into which Little River flows. There were plans for it to reach Aldie, but competition from the railroads killed the canal before that could happen.

“It’s really important to understand the way commerce flowed and the way money moved in this area,” Michael said, “because then you understand the origins of Alexandria and the origin of all the things in between.”

Towns like Chantilly sprouted because of their location on Little River Turnpike, their merchants serving the traffic that shuttled east and west.

As for the Little River, it’s only about five miles long. It’s been said that it’s one of the rare instances of a river flowing into a creek — Little River into Goose Creek — rather than the other way around.

Ron Circe, who manages the Banshee Reeks Nature Preserve which abuts the confluence, said of Little River: “It’s not very wide, maybe two or three meters at the most. You would have to have a really small boat to get down there. I don’t think any kind of river barge could have made it.”

Still, he said, Little River is lovely and bucolic — and certainly a far cry from the sludging traffic most of us associate with the road that bears its name.

Children’s National

Thanksgiving is behind us but it’s still important to give thanks, especially if you’re a parent or grandparent who has never had to visit a loved one at Children’s National Medical Center. Many of our fellow Washingtonians are not as fortunate.

But we are fortunate that the acclaimed pediatric hospital is right here, and that no one is turned away because they can’t pay. That’s where you come in. We’re in the midst of our annual fundraising campaign for Children’s Hospital. And we’re aided this year by Bill and Joanne Conway, who have generously offered to match all gifts to The Washington Post Campaign for Children’s National. All donations, up to a total of $150,000, made by Dec. 31, will be matched dollar for dollar.

To make your donation, visit www.childrensnational.org/
washingtonpost
or send a check (payable to “Children’s National”) to Washington Post Giving Campaign, c/o Children’s Hospital Foundation, 801 Roeder Rd., Suite 650, Silver Spring, MD 20910. Our deadline is Jan. 10.

Your gift today can make a difference in the life of a child.

Ain’t too proud to beg: Please send in your questions about the Washington area. Write answerman@washpost.com.

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

 
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