The Lost Town of Dranesville

Dranesville Elementary School, and the Dranesville Magisterial District, take their names from one of the five lost towns of Fairfax County. All but erased by the passage of time, the lost towns include Colchester, Dranesville, Matildaville, Union Mills, and Wiehle. These once vibrant communities of homes and businesses played an important role in the history of Fairfax County.

The Founding of the Town

In 1810, Washington Drane moved to what is today the intersection of Georgetown Pike and Leesburg Pike.  He opened an ordinary–a combination hotel, store, and saloon–and named it Drane’s Tavern. Ordinaries provided lodging, food, and drink for travelers, halls for local entertainment, stabling for animals, and meeting places for community members. It was a two-day trip by wagon from Leesburg to Alexandria and Georgetown. Recognizing this, Washington Drane located his ordinary at the halfway point in the journey. Soon the area around Drane’s tavern flourished. A church, a post office, a store, doctor’s offices, residences, and four more taverns opened.

19th century photograph of the Dranesville Hotel. Adults and children stand in front of the building.
The Dranesville Hotel. From the J. Berkley Green Collection of the Herndon Historical Society.
From the early 1800s to the early 1900s countless people, wagons, horses, cattle, sheep, hogs, and turkeys traveled through the hamlet of Dranesville from Loudoun and the Shenandoah Valley to the eastern destinations of Georgetown and Alexandria. Many of the drovers and their livestock spent the night at Dranesville. For example, from 1815 to 1830 it was commonplace for 40 to 50 wagons pulled by four and six horse teams to daily traverse the small town.
~ Dunbarton, Dranesville, Virginia by Charles Preston Poland.
19th century photograph of the Dranesville Tavern.
The Dranesville Tavern, which still stands today, was also known as Drover’s Rest. A drover is a person who drives a team of livestock. From the J. Berkley Green Collection of the Herndon Historical Society.
While the drovers stayed at the tavern, their animals were kept in a series of small fenced fields on the 12 acres surrounding the tavern. Herds were mixed together and separated prior to departure according to color codes painted on the animals. The facilities, plus a plentiful supply of spring water, made it possible to keep around 300 head of cattle and sheep overnight. Boys from the neighborhood could frequently earn 25 cents a day helping to drive the herds from Dranesville to Langley. They would walk and lead a horse, and would ride back home at nightfall.
~ Dunbarton, Dranesville, Virginia by Charles Preston Poland.  

In 1840, the thriving village of Dranesville took on legal status when Virginia recognized it as a town.

Detail of a map of Fairfax County showing the town of Dranesville.
Detail of a map showing the town of Dranesville. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The Battle of Dranesville

During the American Civil War, the town of Dranesville became a battleground when opposing forces of the Union and Confederate armies encountered one another along Leesburg Pike. On December 20, 1861, Confederate Brigadier General J.E.B. Stuart led a force of 4,000 infantry and cavalry north from their winter quarters at Centreville to obtain provisions and to try and learn the whereabouts of the Union Army. That same morning, Union General Edward O.C. Ord led 10,000 soldiers west from the village of Langley, intent on clearing out any Rebel forces that were stationed along Leesburg Pike. At the village of Colvin Run, General Ord divided his forces in half, sending 5,000 troops further up the pike and leaving the rest to protect his army from being cut off from their base at Langley. The opposing armies met at the town of Dranesville.

An artist’s sketch of the Battle of Dranesville that was published in Harper’s Weekly in 1862.
Harper’s Weekly, January 11, 1862. The Battle of Dranesville was a small engagement in the grand scheme of the war, resulting in 230 casualties for the Confederate Army and 71 casualties for the Union Army.

After a two-hour-long firefight, General Ord’s soldiers forced General Stuart and his army to retreat. The Battle of Dranesville became the first victory of the Union Army in the eastern theater of the war.

A map of the village of Dranesville showing the positions of the Union and Confederate armies during the Battle of Dranesville. The Union Army was positioned in the heart of town and on the hillsides to the north, and the Confederate forces are arrayed along Leesburg Pike east of the town’s center.
This map, drawn by Robert Knox Sneden, shows the positions of the Union and Confederate forces during the Battle of Dranesville. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Dranesville in the 20th Century

The town of Dranesville reached its peak in the 19th century and gradually declined throughout the 20th century.

Detail of a map of Fairfax County showing the town of Dranesville.
This map of the town of Dranesville was printed in Griffith Morgan Hopkins Atlas of Fairfax County in 1879. The locations of two blacksmith shops, a wheelwright shop, ordinaries, the homes of residents, and the Liberty Meeting House are depicted. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The creation of the railroad from Alexandria to Leesburg in the 1850s, followed by the invention of the automobile several decades later, slowly faded Dranesville’s importance. The widening of Leesburg Pike in the late 1960s led to the demolition of many of the older buildings in the town.

Photograph of the Dranesville Tavern as it appears today.
The Dranesville Tavern, built around 1823 by Sanford Cockerille, a contemporary to Washington Drane, still stands today. The building was moved 130 feet from its original location, to preserve it after the widening of Route 7 began in the 1960s.