Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

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My goal was to escape the megalopolis and glimpse some autumn leaves without journeying outside the Beltway.

My destination: Roaches Run, the Arlington wildlife refuge that millions pass on the George Washington Memorial Parkway on their way to Reagan National Airport.

I ended up making a surprise discovery.

But first some background. Roaches Run Waterfowl Sanctuary “is a popular spot for observing wintering waterfowl,” says a description from the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. “During summer, osprey, green heron, red-winged blackbird, and mallard are common. In addition, summer vegetation along the lakeshore is alive with dragonflies and damselflies.”

Maintained in part by the National Park Service, the natural lagoon across from airplane-watcher’s Gravelly Point near the Columbia Island Marina was first “civilized” in 1934-35. That’s when the Franklin Roosevelt Administration’s Civilian Conservation Corps was working up and down the parkway on sites linked by trails.

“The CCC installed a tide gate to control flow from the Potomac River, cleared unwanted plants, graded the banks, and moved or planted 1,265 trees and shrubs,” says an account from the Living New Deal, a California-based research project. “For visitors, the enrollees built a parking area surfaced with bituminous concrete and enclosed by a concrete cub and log guard rails,” it added. “Original development of the site also included a gamekeeper’s residence and feed storage house, although their exact locations are not known.”

The 21st century brought archaeological field work at Roaches Run. Beginning in 2008, the Park Service began planning an environmental assessment (soliciting public comment in 2012) for a future project “to enhance visitor access, safety and education” at the site. Arlington County around the same time put in a request for study of the impact of a plan to construct a recreational boathouse for non-motorized craft nearby.

In September 2014, then-Interior Secretary Sally Jewell made a publicized appearance at Roaches Run with students on National Service Day to encourage cleanup of trash (a problem that persists today).

And in January 2016, Dominion Energy reported a transformer rupture at its Crystal City substation, which sent “an undetermined quantity of” mineral oil dielectric fluid to Roaches Run and the Potomac River. “Spill responders collected almost 30 oiled birds of different species, including great blue heron, lesser scaup, Canada goose and mallard,” the company’s after-action report said. All the fowl were cleaned and released.

Fans of Roaches Run maintain a Facebook page. They describe (more knowledgeably than I could) fishing for snakehead its waters and spotting American bald eagles, osprey, red tailed hawks, double crested cormorants, great blue herons, white egrets and ducks.

The day I visited, straining to tune out the sounds and sights of urban traffic, I beheld gulls and a single heron standing mid-water at low tide. With the high-rises of Crystal City and the Boeing logo in the background, I stood near a downed tree and read a sign that said, “No washing, waxing or repairing vehicles.”

Sharing the parking lot with me were a half-dozen cars, all occupied, their drivers studying mobile devices.

It seems the nature-lovers’ Roaches Run, for some local citizens, has been re-purposed. It is now an extension of the airport’s passenger pickup cellphone waiting area.

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What may be Arlington’s least noticed cemetery came to my attention thanks to reader Tim Kirk.

Hidden amidst shrubbery near the Sheraton Hotel, at the entrance to Washington Blvd. from Columbia Pike, lies a higgledy-piggledy array of dozens of graying tombstones.

The 2009 Foxcroft Heights Neighborhood Conservation Plan suggests they are likely leftovers of African-American graves dating from Freedman’s Village days in 1870. Most remains from the cemetery long maintained there by the Odd Fellows Stevens Lodge (which burned down in 1963) were dispersed to Alexandria. What’s left seems a loving tribute.