Remembering Arlington's John Lyon

In honor of Veterans Day, the Arlington Historical Society is having a talk about Arlington's fallen sons of World War I tomorrow night at Marymount University. To get you ready, we sat down with the speaker, Annette Benbow, and she told us about one of the men, Lt. John Lyon. Watch the video above and then click through for more information.

The Torpedo Factory Art Center: Alexandria's World War II Landmark

U.S. Naval Torpedo Station in Alexandria, Virginia circa 1922

Silently sitting on the waterfront of the Potomac River, the 85,000 square foot Torpedo Factory Art Center at 105 North Union Street in Old Town Alexandria is a landmark of Northern Virginia history. Today, the Torpedo Factory houses artist studios, galleries, art workshops, and even an archeology museum. Yet during the tumultuous years of America’s involvement in the Second World War, workers produced a different form of art within the Torpedo Factory’s walls – the Mark 14 submarine torpedo used by U.S. Navy personnel in the Pacific theater of the war. Over 70 years after its decommissioning as a munitions depot, the history of the Torpedo Factory is a fascinating tale of politics, faulty weapon engineering, and local spirit.

Construction on the Alexandria Naval Torpedo Station began on November 12th, 1918, one day after Armistice Day ended hostilities in the First World War. Early on, Alexandria shared its responsibilities for manufacturing and maintaining torpedoes and weapon ordnance with the primary Naval Torpedo Station located on Goat Island in Newport, Rhode Island. Goat Island housed the Bureau of Ordnance, the organization responsible for the Navy’s primary weapons development and research. In an attempt to keep money and resources flowing to the Torpedo Station on Goat Island, Congressional delegations from several New England states convinced Congress to cease production at Alexandria and focus all resources toward Goat Island and the Bureau of Ordnance. In 1923, Alexandria ceased production, becoming a munitions storage facility for close to twenty years.

Artist's rendering of CIA headquarters built in Langley, VA. (Source:

Designing America's Spy Headquarters

Can you imagine the world’s most powerful clandestine intelligence agency spread out across a series of ramshackle offices in and around Washington, DC? Well, that’s what constituted the Central Intelligence Agency in 1953, the year that Director of Central Intelligence Allen Dulles announced a plan to build one large, secure campus that would be home to the rapidly growing spy agency.

Pope John Paul II during his 1993 visit to the United States. (Source: Wikipedia)

The Pope's Condo in Alexandria

Every house has a history but few can say that they were blessed by the Pope – especially here in America. There is, however, one Alexandria, Virginia condominium unit that can make the claim. In 1976, while still a cardinal, the future Pope John Paul II visited the Parkfairfax apartment of Polish-American journalist John Szostak and offered his blessing... after a near accident with a Batmobile toy belonging to one of Szostak's children.

The Wright Brothers Prove Their Worth in Arlington and College Park

Wright Military Flyer flying at Ft Myer in 1909. Photo courtesy of the College Park Aviation Museum.

Ohio and North Carolina often get into a dispute about who can “claim” the Wright Brothers. The former was where the two lived and conducted most of their research, but the latter was where they actually took to the air for the first time. The debate rages on, with shots fired in forms from commemorative coins to license plates. But the place where the Wright Brothers really fathered the American aviation age was right here in the DC area, where they taught the first military pilots to fly, proved to the American public that their machine was real, and took to the air at what is now the oldest airport in the world.

The Pentagon Goes Up in Flames, 1959

Smoke rises from the Pentagon on July 2, 1959. (Photo source: Arlington Fire Journal blog)

The call came in to the Arlington County Fire Department at 11:16am on July 2, 1959… The Pentagon was on fire.

ACFD units raced to the scene, soon to be joined by deployments from 34 other jurisdictions including Falls Church, Alexandria, Fort Myer, the District, Prince Georges County, Bethesda and the Inter-Agency Government Pool — over 300 firefighters in all.

When trucks reached the scene, black smoke hung over the building, so thick that they had to form a human chain in order to navigate. Firemen groped, clawed and cut their way to the blaze, which had erupted in the Air Force statistical services offices between rings C and D and corridors 1 and 10.

Arlington Police Department: 75 Years Serving the Community

1940 was a big year for municiple services in northern Virginia. Sparked by the growing population in the region, Arlington created professional police and fire departments and Fairfax created a police department of its own. In celebration of the ACPD's 75th Anniversary, the department has put together a book featuring photos and stories about the history of law enforcement in the county.

Capt. Michelle Nuneville will be sharing some of the stories she and colleagues uncovered tonight in a free public program for the Arlington Historical Society (7pm in the Central Library Auditorium). Don't miss it! Last week, Capt. Nuneville was kind enough to give us a preview of her talk. Check out the video above and read more after the jump.

Contraband Camps of Northern Virginia

It's easy to remember the battles — First Manassas, Second Manassas, Antietam and more — but the Washington, D.C. area was also home to many other significant Civil War events, too. After all, it was here that Col. Robert E. Lee resigned his commission in the U.S. Army and followed his home state of Virginia to the Confederacy; it was here that President Lincoln directed the Union's war effort; it was here that the President was assassinated in 1865.

And, it was also here that thousands of African Americans first experienced freedom after generations in bondage through the "contraband" camps, which the federal government created on the abandoned lands of secessionists during the war. 

Local Civil War blogger Ron Baumgarten has been exploring these largely-forgotten camps recently on his Civil War blog, All Not So Quiet Along the Potomac and will be sharing some of his research in a talk for the Arlington Historical Society this Thursday night at 7pm. The program is free and takes place in the Reinsch Library auditorium at Marymount University.

I recently sat down with Ron and he gave me a preview of his talk. Check out the video above and read more after the jump!

Origins of the George Washington Memorial Parkway

Thousands of people drive on it everyday, but sometimes we forget that the George Washington Memorial Parkway is not just a commuter highway. It's a national park. And like our other national parks, the Parkway tells a story about our nation's past.

Tomorrow night, Park Ranger David Lassman will be discussing the history of the Parkway at the Arlington Historical Society's monthly public program -- 7pm at Marymount University. In advance of his talk, David was kind enough to give us a preview. Take a look at the video above and then click through for more!

Elizabeth Keckley rose from slave to the Lincoln White House thanks to her supreme skill as a dressmaker. Her autobiography provides one of the most powerful accounts of the First Family's personal lives. (Photo from Documenting the American South collection at UNC-Chapel Hill via Wikipedia)

Elizabeth Keckley: D.C.'s Dressmaker to the Stars

In 1867, Mary Todd Lincoln became embroiled in the “old clothes” scandal. But this story isn’t about Mrs. Lincoln; it’s about one of her associates, dressmaker to the stars, Elizabeth Keckley.

Keckley was born a slave in Virginia around 1820. Her earliest duty was to watch after the baby of the white family; she was beaten severely for making mistakes. Following the sexual abuse of her mother, which led to Keckley’s birth, Keckley herself was sexually assaulted.

In addition, she was loaned out to a family in St. Louis who used the income she brought in from dressmaking to support themselves.  From her autobiography:

With my needle, I kept bread in the mouths of seventeen persons for two years and five months.

In 1860, Keckley was able to buy her freedom with the sum of $12,000. Her clients, the well-to-do women of St. Louis had heard of her struggles to raise the money and passed the hat between themselves to provide the amount.

Keckley moved to D.C. to set up shop and teach young colored women in her trade. Here she confronted the laws obstructing the movement of freed people in the capital. Unless she could obtain a license to stay in the capital (which required money) and have someone vouch that she was free, Keckley would have to leave. Here again the lady clients of Keckley came to her aid.

Shortly after her arrival in Washington, Keckley entered the employ of Mrs. Jefferson Davis, though she still made dresses for other women of the city, like Mrs. Robert E. Lee.

Keckley’s time with Mary Todd Lincoln, however, is particularly noted by historians, who use Keckley's book to draw conclusions about the First family’s private life.