How did Gallows Road get its name? Well, thereby hangs a tale.
Last week in this space, Answer Man pondered the derivation of the name of the Fairfax County byway. He decided that though it could have been named after a gallows, there is no definitive proof that it was. The county courthouse that once stood at Gallows Road’s Tysons Corner terminus did not have a gallows.
Many readers shared their thoughts and recollections. Robert Groundwater of Winchester, Va., wrote: “There never was a gallows on Gallows Road. It was a ‘hanging tree.’ Or so the story goes from my family, which has been in the area since 1914. I also lived on Gallows Road in the ’60s, which is about the time the tree was taken down due to road work. It was in Falls Church. The story goes that the tree was used to hang the opposition during the War of Northern Aggression. The crew that took it down gave away pieces of the tree as mementos of the old hanging tree, one of which I have.”
Brant Baber of Clifton, Va., was raised in Annandale, the terminus of Gallows Road at Columbia Pike. Wrote Brent: “During my childhood, I was a patrol at that intersection, which was attended by a female crossing guard who told me that the huge oak tree then standing on the northeast corner of the intersection was the ‘gallows’ tree after which the road was named. The tree was more than eighty feet tall with a circumference of more than ten feet. The tree died sometime in the 1980s after a turn lane was installed from Columbia Pike to Gallows Road.”
So, that’s one hanging tree in Falls Church that was taken down in the 1960s and one hanging tree in Annandale that was taken down in the 1980s.
Tom Hirsch of Aspen Hill, Md., said that when he was a history major at George Mason University in the early 1970s , he heard a story about a large oak tree that was hit by lightning. “It was at Gallows Road and Route 7 and was believed to be the tree used to hang several of Mosby’s raiders during the Civil War,” he wrote.
Eleanor Clawson of Springfield, Va., casts a vote for Falls Church, where she grew up in the 1960s. “Gallows Road in Annandale intermingles with Annandale Road near Annandale,” she wrote. “Look at a map and you will see what I mean. Follow Annandale Road all the way to where it ends in Falls Church at Broad Street. At that point there is a small shopping center with a grassy strip in front where there used to be a large tree and this tree, it was rumored, was the hanging tree.”
Chuck Riddle of Vienna, Va., remembers seeing a historic marker at Dunn Loring Park. It stated that Gallows Road got its name “by taking people from the courthouse located near Old Courthouse Road to the tree where they were hanged by the southern end of Gallows Road.”
The marker is no longer there (Answer Man checked), but that would be another vote for Annandale.
That happens to be where Jonathan Morstein has lived for 25 years — in Annandale, not in Dunn Loring Park — and he said: “The story I once heard — many years ago — was that Gallows Road was used as the road that prisoners were marched down from the prison to reach the gallows in Alexandria. The idea was that after an eight- or nine-mile march, especially in summer heat, the prisoner wouldn’t have much fight left in him by the time of hanging.”
Annandale’s Chris Ketcham was among readers who wondered whether the name could be a bastardization of a family name — or of a different word entirely.
“Gallows,” he wrote, has additional meanings, including an upright frame structure on which rested part of a hand-printing press. The word “gallow” is a variation of “gally,” an adjective that means an area marked by bare spots or lacking vegetation.
“Alas,” wrote Chris, “it seems impossible to validate any one of these as the undisputed origin of the name.”
That is the crux of the matter. It could be any of them. It of course is possible that Gallows Road takes its name from a place where prisoners were hanged. Answer Man just has yet to see any definitive proof.
And here’s another possibility: While consulting the dictionary, Answer Man saw that a “gallows frame” was a timber structure used for butchering cattle. Route 123 was once called Ox Road, possibly because of the beasts that pulled tobacco-laden carts along the road. Were oxen butchered there?
Obviously, more research is needed.
Here’s something we are certain of: Your donation to The Washington Post Helping Hand will support charities that fight homelessness in our area. Homestretch assists families in Fairfax County. Community of Hope finds housing for District residents. And Sasha Bruce Youthwork is there for homeless teens.
You can read about the people these nonprofits serve — and make a tax-deductible contribution— by visiting www.posthelpinghand.com.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.