Along Ox Road in Fairfax County, near the border with Fairfax City, a bit of local history is buried.
It’s not visible to passersby. But it has been preserved, thanks to the quick work of county and state agencies, and an archaeologist hopes it can lead to a virtual reconstruction of what Fairfax’s landscape looked like during the Civil War.
This rare find is a road to the past, a cedar-log highway believed to date to when Union and Confederate forces trod the ground now occupied by George Mason University students and suburban families. But it wasn’t found in a planned archaeological dig; it was discovered by county employees completing a public works project.
On Oct. 14, Christopher Sperling, senior archaeologist with the Fairfax County Park Authority, noted it in a post on the agency’s official blog. A county construction crew was excavating for a road shoulder and sidewalk project and found a line of cedar logs laid close together below present ground level.
Realizing the discovery wasn’t routine, Ken Atkins, an inspector with the Fairfax County Department of Public Works and Environmental Services, got in touch with engineer Mohamed Kadasi, who called the park authority.
Atkins didn’t want the logs disturbed, so the excavation stopped until park authority archaeologists could get to the scene.
“When they arrived, it was clear to the archaeologists that a historic roadway had been found,” Sperling wrote in the blog. “In the past, it was common to use logs as a road surface, in particular during the Civil War when high traffic in the area mucked up what had been dirt roads.”
The archaeologists took photos and drafted a plan to record the discovery. Atkins and Kadasi agreed that employees would move to another part of the project while the park authority got permission to examine the site more closely.
The initial public works project was a county endeavor, but it was being done on state-controlled property. That meant the park authority had to get a permit from the Virginia Department of Historic Resources to do an official investigation.
It was a process that could have taken a lot of time. But everyone moved quickly, and the park authority got permission within 48 hours.
Next, Sperling climbed into the excavated hole and mapped the road by hand.
The old path, called a “corduroy” road because of its resemblance to the fabric, hadn’t changed elevation over the years, Sperling said in an interview, so archaeologists could digitally reconstruct what the thoroughfare would have looked like in the 1860s.
In addition, because the logs were buried, they hadn’t deteriorated.
“They’re in amazing shape considering how old they are,” Sperling said.
As exciting as the find was, the excavation site couldn’t be left open. The archaeologists fastened two numbered, plastic tags to each log. Then the wood was cut so that a water pipe could be installed below the old road, a task that was part of the initial project.
When that was finished, the logs were put back in precise order, according to the tagging, and the trench was filled up.
But the road wasn’t left to be forgotten. Park authority archaeologists also used surveyors’ technology to record the historic surface in three dimensions to within a millimeter of accuracy. Sperling hopes this data can be combined with topographical information and other resources to create a virtual depiction of the area during the Civil War. That would allow the public to “see” the same views a soldier would have.
“That’s a perspective that you usually just don’t have,” he said.
It’s also a perspective that would have been available to many historic figures.
Jim Lewis, a member of the executive committee of the Bull Run Civil War Round Table, said a corduroy road from the Occoquan River to the Fairfax courthouse was a major pathway in the war.
The logs that the county workers found are almost certainly part of the first section of that road, from the courthouse to Fairfax Station, which was built in 1862, Lewis said. “Almost certainly” because Lewis pointed out that a specific dating process hasn’t been used to verify that the wood is from the Civil War and not from a later incarnation of Ox Road.
If the corduroy road does date to the Civil War, the historian said, it would have been traveled by Union Gen. Joseph Hooker, Confederate Gen. J.E.B. Stuart and other famous generals.
The road would have been a link to get supplies from the railroad at Fairfax Station to the Fairfax courthouse, a significant Union supply depot, he said.
Most other corduroy roads have long rotted away, Lewis said, which makes the Fairfax discovery substantial.
“To find a corduroy road intact is spectacular,” he said.
Hunley is a freelance writer.