Janneys Lane in Alexandria named for railroad innovator

John Kelly
Columnist November 11, 2011

I loved your story about the wall alcove on Janneys Lane in Alexandria (Nov. 6). I live off Janneys and often wondered about the origin of the alcove. Let me give you another mystery that even the City of Alexandria can’t solve. How do you properly spell the name of Janneys Lane? Is it with or without an apostrophe? Is it “Jannys”? I’ve seen it each of these ways. And, who was Janney?

— Ross B. Simons, Alexandria

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

Early maps show the lane labeled Stump Hill Road. It then was called Seminary Road (and Old Seminary Road), after the Episcopal seminary up the hill. It starts showing up as Janney’s Lane in city directories around 1930.

However, apostrophes are frowned upon in the world of street nomenclature. A Postal Service spokesperson e-mailed Answer Man: “We prefer that addresses be apostrophe-free, but our automation equipment can read and sort the mail regardless.”

The U.S. Geological Survey’s Board on Geographic Names has a similar policy. Its Web site states: “Since its inception in 1890, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names has discouraged the use of the possessive form — the genitive apostrophe and the ‘s.’ The possessive form using an ‘s’ is allowed, but the apostrophe is almost always removed. The Board’s archives contain no indication of the reason for this policy.”


Assorted signs have spelled Janneys Lane in Alexandria, named for railroad innovator Eli Hamilton Janney, as “Jannys” and “Janney’s.” (Photo by Ross B. Simons)

Answer Man can think of one reason: Americans seem unable to use the apostrophe properly. Perhaps it’s just safer to call it Janneys Lane. As for the sign that reads “Jannys Lane,” that is surely a mistake.

The road’s namesake was Eli Hamilton Janney, who in 1883 bought the house at what is today 406 Janneys Lane. Janney had been a major in the Civil War, serving on the staff of Gen. Robert E. Lee. After the war he worked in an Alexandria dry goods store. This job afforded him time to ponder and to whittle, those two activities going together rather well. Among the things Eli Janney pondered was the god-awful way railroad cars were joined to one another.

The old way of attaching railroad cars involved what was known as a link and pin system: A brakeman stood between the cars and manually dropped a pin through a hole. It was easy to spot a brakeman: He was the one missing fingers. According to some estimates, nearly 40 percent of rail-yard injuries and deaths between 1877 and 1887 involved the act of joining railroad cars together.

Janney thought there had to be a better way. He patented a coupler in 1868, but it wasn’t much better than what was in use. He kept at it, and in lulls at his job he whittled a prototype out of wood. In 1873 Janney was awarded patent No. 138,405 for his “Improvement in Car-Couplings.”

It worked like two hands clasping their fingers. As author Dee Brown put it in “Hear That Lonesome Whistle Blow,” his history of the transcontinental railroad, “Eli Janney’s coupler was automatic, fitting together like the fingers of two hands, and because it operated with a lever running outside the car, brakemen no longer had to risk their lives between cars when coupling or uncoupling them.”

Railroads were slow to adopt Janney’s design, but in 1893 the federal government mandated the use of automatic couplers. The technical name is a vertical plane coupler, and it’s pretty much what is in use today.

Janney died in 1912 and was buried in Alexandria’s Ivy Hill Cemetery. His gravestone reads: “His work was a benefaction which in itself will constitute his worthiest memorial.”

Speaking of stones, readers offered their opinions about the alcove on Janneys Lane that got all this started. Alexandria’s Gordon Thomas noted that “Praise God from whom all blessings flow,” carved on the alcove’s top stone, is the first line of the classic Christian prayer known as the Doxology. Wrote Gordon: “Given that the alcove is relatively near Virginia Theological Seminary, I wonder if it is somehow tied to the seminary and the Episcopal churches in the area.”

That same stone also has a Maltese cross engraved on it, a firefighting symbol. Olney’s Mike Love thought that maybe the fire department had placed a cistern there.

Neighborhood historian and my former Post colleague Patsy Rogers pointed out, “Maltese crosses are undoubtedly associated with firefighters, but they were also the symbol for the Southern Cross of Honor, awarded to Confederate vets by the United Daughters of the Confederacy.” Still, she noted, it doesn’t answer the mystery of the enigmatic E.A. and J.F.A. initials.

Calling the Answer Man Army

Can you help with this mystery? Reader Rick Meyer of Piney Point, Md., is curious about George’s Pet Shop, which used to be on Annapolis Road in Bladensburg. Rick remembers that in the 1960s, the store had a baby elephant for sale. Does anyone out there know what happened to the elephant? Or remember owners George M. Flemming or Larry Cauffman?

Write answerman@washpost.com.

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