The Potomac River at Virginia's Leesylvania State Park has drawn humans for centuries. Most of them, regardless of the time period, have come for similar reasons: to escape the summer heat, fish or ride the river. While the latter two activities once focused on providing food and income, today's visitors come mostly for fun.
More than 300,000 people visit the park each year, especially during the summer. Hammocks lace the gaps between trees. Boats buzz on the water. The fishing pier is lined with rods and smiles, and the view alone has won national recognition.
Park manager Ken Benson understands the attraction. But he would like the waterfront to loosen its hold on visitors-just a bit.
"During the summer, the waterfront can be a sea of people," he said. "Back on the trails, you won't see them."
That's good news for anyone in search of quiet scenery, and Benson thinks more visitors should take advantage of it.
"The solitude would surprise people," he said. "It's an opportunity to bring your kids into the woods and just run around and discover things."
Leesylvania State Park, a member of the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network, lies just south of Washington, D.C., where green spaces provide a valuable break from city living.
The 550-acre property on the Virginia side of the Potomac is nestled between Neabsco Creek to the north and Powell Creek to the south. Most of the park is wooded, with one trail highlighting the features of a watershed and another tracing human presence on the land. Two other trails meander on paths and boardwalks near the water's edge. They range from a half-mile to two miles over flat and hilly terrain.
"You can feel like you're lost, without actually getting lost," Benson said. "It's one of the best treasures this place can offer."
Leesylvania means "Lee's Woods," and is named for the colonial plantation that operated here. It's a historic tract of land that touches on eras of U.S. history ranging from the Doeg Native Americans and the Revolutionary War to the Underground Railroad, Civil War and a 1950s-era gambling resort.
Today, curious visitors can look among the pawpaw trees and beyond a forested ravine for clues to events that occurred here long ago.
What they won't find, however, are recreated Native American hamlets or formidable manor houses. Aside from traces in the landscape and artifacts at the visitors center, the full picture is left to the imagination.
According to Benson, that's half the fun. Leesylvania, he said, offers a more personal experience than historic sites that come fully packaged for tourists.
"You can go to Mount Vernon and wow, there it is. It's all done for you," he said. "Here, you participate in the discovery process."
The visitors center is a good place to start. Exhibits and a series of large maps lay out the history of Leesylvania and its people. One wing is devoted to the ecology of the area. Together, they ensure that sights along the trails speak more clearly.
The daffodils and daylilies near a sharp ravine, for example, are no accident of nature. The flowers are remnants of a garden that once graced the Lee family home.
Henry Lee II inherited thousands of acres at Leesylvania at age 18 and moved here with his bride, Lucy Grymes. Lee took on a series of prominent political and legal positions, while building Leesylvania into a prosperous farm and leasing part of the shoreline for a shad fishery. The foundations of fishery buildings can still be seen during low tides.
The Lees often hosted guests in their home, which enjoyed a magnificent view of the Potomac. Their neighbor, George Washington, was a repeat visitor.
Lee's son, Henry "Light Horse Harry" Lee III, was born and raised here. A hero of the Revolutionary War, Lee was known for his swift strikes on the British. He later became one of Virginia's first governors and the father of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
The Lee home burned in 1790 and woods have reclaimed the site. A contemporary trail winds past the family cemetery.
More clues to Leesylvania's past lie among the pawpaw trees at Freestone Point, on Leesylvania's high ground. Beside the trail, U-shaped earthworks outline a small Civil War gun battery. Fruit from pawpaw trees sustained Confederate soldiers here when supplies ran low.
The battery enjoyed a commanding position, but faced logistical problems: The river at this location is so wide that most of its guns couldn't hit Union ships along the far shore.
The battery played an important role, though, by distracting Union forces from the construction of more effective batteries downstream. "It was a nuisance to the Potomac flotilla," Benson said.
Escaped slaves tipped off Union soldiers about activity at Freestone Point and the two sides exchanged fire in September 1861.
After the war, Leesylvania languished among tenants, timber interests and the railroad. The Fairfax family, who purchased Leesylvania in 1825, continued to hold the property into the 20th century. Hikers on the Lee's Woods Trail pass the chimney and crumbling foundation that mark the site of their home on a slope above the river.
Nearby, the fireplace of a hunting lodge has been incorporated into the park's outdoor amphitheater. The two-story lodge served wealthy men who arrived from distant cities on private railcars to hunt the enormous population of waterfowl along the Potomac River.
The hunt club ushered in an era of recreation at Leesylvania at a time when its commercial fishery was fading. Aggressive harvests throughout the Chesapeake helped to close such fisheries, and unrestrained hunting soon took a toll as well. In 1928, two years after the Leesylvania hunt club was founded, members recorded a collective kill of 1,544 ducks and geese. In 1941, they reported 272.
The hunting stopped in 1957 when a more lucrative plan arose.
Developers eyed Leesylvania for the site of a new, grand resort. The Freestone Holding Corp. promised a 600-room hotel, four restaurants, swimming pools and summer homes along "the only large natural sand beach" south of Washington, "a truly fine recreation resort for discriminating people."
Their plans, however, completely depended on a floating casino-and a property law written more than 300 years ago.
A 1632 document gave Maryland jurisdiction over the Potomac River up to the high water line on the Virginia side of the river. Across the river in Charles County, MD, liquor and gambling were legal. In Virginia, they were not.
A cruise ship, anchored at the right distance off a Leesylvania pier, literally gave tourists a boatload of options.
For a few short years, the public flocked to Leesylvania to gamble, drink alcohol, swim and enjoy amusement rides. But other Virginians rose in protest before the hotel could break ground. When Charles County agreed to revoke the gambling license, the enterprise immediately went bankrupt.
Twentieth-century billionaire Daniel Ludwig then bought the land for development, but offered it to Virginia for a state park in 1978.
Still, the resort left its mark for those who know where to look. Small white ceramic tiles from the resort frequently wash onto shore with the tide. Benson has also found ashtrays and bottles from local dairies that no longer exist.
Among his favorite features are the old swimming pools, now filled in and unnoticed. One pool bed was converted into a wetlands area and is clogged with a robust turtle population that draws crowds of giggling children to linger on its footbridge.
Another pool bed is blended into the picnic grounds. Its red border shows through the earth in a few places and stairs that once led into the pool carry visitors to a lower picnic area.
There has been some talk about removing the stairs. Benson, of course, would like to see them stay.
Leesylvania State Park
Leesylvania State Park is open year-round. The park includes trails, picnic grounds, a large fishing pier and launch ramps for motor boats, sailboats, canoes and kayaks. A Virginia freshwater fishing license is required.
- Directions: Leesylvania State Park is approximately 25 miles from both Washington, D.C. and Fredericksburg. From Interstate 95, take Rippon Landing Exit 156; then take Route 784 East to U.S. Route 1 and turn left onto Neabsco Road.
- The admission fee is $3 per car on all weekdays and winter weekends. The admission fee is $4 per car on weekends from April through October. There are additional fees for boats.
For information, call 703-583-6904; e-mail Leesylvania@dcr.virginia.gov or visit www.dcr.virginia.gov/state_parks/lee.shtml. For information about other sites in the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network, visit www.baygateways.net.
- The Lees of Leesylvania: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Jan. 24. Learn about "Light Horse Harry" Lee, hero of the American Revolution and father of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. Tour the land of his birth, visit the park museum and speak with staff about his accomplishments. Performers will showcase life during colonial times with historic dress, displays and traditions. Free with park admission.
- The Underground Railroad Network to Freedom: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Feb. 14. The Leesylvania property is associated with the flight of two runaway slaves as well as a slave who escaped in 1848. A band of escaped slaves also informed Union soldiers of Confederate activity at the property's Freestone Point in 1861. Historians will lead children on a historic hike that puts them into the role of slaves. Free with park admission.
- The Women of Leesylvania: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. March 7. Discover the many faces of the women at Leesylvania. Journey through time, from Doeg Native Americans to the women of the Lee and Fairfax families. Visitors can talk to costumed interpreters, learn about their daily lives, try their hand at crafts and see what they would have worn a century ago. Fee: $3/person; or $6/groups of 3-4.