“Come on over to the shades of Arlington, where peace and pleasurable breezes, good air, good water, and a tolerably good fellow will make you welcome.” – George Washington Parke Custis regarding Arlington Spring
Arlington Spring is largely forgotten today, but in the 1800s, it was one of the most popular escapes from Washington, DC, much like Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts is today. At the time, the spring was described as “gushing from a rocky bank beneath the trunk of a huge oak tree – a genuine Anak of the primeval forest – near the bank of the Potomac…a copious spring, and around it stands a beautiful grove…” Sitting on a section of the Arlington Estate, approximately eight acres in size, it first became a social center when George Washington Parke Custis hosted sheep shearing events there, using George Washington’s tents from the American Revolution. The spring was located approximately in the middle of the modern ramp between the southbound Parkway and Memorial Avenue, and the interchange with Washington Boulevard and Boundary Channel Drive. Accessed via a spur road off the main entrance road connecting Arlington estate to the Long Bridge to Washington, the site of Arlington Spring was ultimately divided from the main estate by the construction of the Alexandria-Georgetown Canal (the modern Blue Line corridor of the Washington Metro). Residents accessed the spring via a “wet, dripping tunnel” carrying the main road beneath the Canal and onto the body of the Arlington Estate, following roughly the current route of McClellan Drive across to Arlington Heights and climbing to Arlington House.
In 1811, George Washington Parke Custis improved the site into what it became known as, an escape from Washington, Alexandria, Georgetown, and other surrounding cities. He modeled it after mineral spring escapes in western Virginia, such as those in Hot Springs. In addition to catering to the wealthy, Custis focused on providing the expanding middle-class with social opportunities and a venue to share his views on the direction of the country and stories of George Washington. Access to the site was initially limited, with only one recently completed fixed connection between modern Arlington (then-Alexandria County, DC) and Washington City, the Long Bridge to the south, and one ferry between Mason’s Island (modern Theodore Roosevelt Island) and Georgetown. In order to improve access, Custis built a set of docks for large ferries with shallow drafts, specially designed for operation on the tidal Potomac river, that efficiently brought people across from Washington, Alexandria, and Georgetown to the spring. Enslaved people arranged chairs under majestic old trees. He added dance pavilions, dining areas, and a kitchen to cater to white guests. While alcohol and hunting were prohibited, fishing was allowed. Military drills took place in a nod to the family’s history of service through the War of 1812. Custis’ Fourth of July parties, with the addresses that he made to attendees, were particularly legendary.
Unfortunately, while Arlington Spring provided increased social opportunities to many who were not upper class, not all had access to this splendor. Freed black people were not welcome at Arlington Spring, and enslaved people labored so that white attendees could enjoy the springs. In addition, the road that continued from Arlington Spring up to Arlington House, after leaving the spring and passing under the canal, passed through one of the clusters of enslaved cabins on the estate en route to Arlington House. Consequently, guests to the spring who also made their way to the House passed directly by the enslaved people and their quarters. This was deliberate and explicitly designed to demonstrate the prestige of the Custis family and estate property to all who came to visit. However, Robert E. Lee expressed concern regarding George Washington Parke Custis’ decision to allow his enslaved people to assist with the construction of the canal saying that “the whole place will be exposed to the depredations of the public, his [Custis’] own people [enslaved individuals] will have more opportunity for group and idleness and greater temptation and inducement to appropriate the small proceeds of their labor to themselves.” However, the fact that Custis invested himself personally so much in Arlington, including the events at Arlington Spring, likely meant that the autonomy of the enslaved population was diminished rather than enhanced.
Robert E Lee maintained public access to the site after Custis’ death and contracted concessionaires to provide services. Its future was short lived, however. Arlington Spring ultimately suffered a great deal of damage during the Civil War, when the Arlington Oak, the “genuine Anak of the primeval forest,” and many other magnificent trees around it, were cut. The site never regained its prewar status. In the early 20th century, the spring itself was destroyed in the construction of the George Washington Memorial Parkway. While it may be gone, the spirit of the spring as a gathering point lives on as Americans of all backgrounds enjoy nearby recreational opportunities around GWMP, including at nearby Columbia Island and Gravelly Point.