Abingdon Plantation Ruins

On August 23, 2009 · 16 Comments

Here stand the ruins of the old Abingdon Plantation, an antebellum estate dating back to the colonial times before the United States even existed, when Virginia was subservient to England. The Alexander family, perhaps best remembered today as the namesake of the nearby independent City of Alexandria, held title to these lands. Ownership passed to John Park Custis in 1778.

View Abingdon Plantation Ruins in a larger map

John’s father passed away while John was still a child, leaving him with a large inheritance. His mother remarried and life went on. John subsequently married Eleanor Calvert, a child of the Maryland clan of Calverts and a direct descendant of Lord Baltimore. He wished to move his growing family closer to his mother and step-father, and he was able to purchase the Abingdon estate with his financial means befitting his aristocratic standing. The couple had several children, one of whom, Eleanor ("Nellie") may have been born at Abingdon.

Plantation Summer Kitchen Ruins
The Summer Kitchen

John’s mother was Martha Dandridge Custis and she’d remarried someone who became remarkably well-known as the years passed by, a gentleman by the name of George Washington. THE George Washington; commanding general of the American forces during the Revolutionary War, first President of the United States, the guy who would later become the namesake for its capital city and have his image printed on the fundamental unit of its national currency, you know, minor stuff like that.

John served during the war but passed away in Yorktown soon after the decisive 1781 battle. Ironically he survived the conflict but died of disease while in camp. He did not live long enough to return to Abingdon or see his step-father become President.

Abingdon Ruins by Metro Subway
Abingdon’s Western Flank

George and Martha Washington informally adopted two of John’s youngest children, Nellie and her brother George Washington Parke Custis, and both left Abingdon to live at Mount Vernon. The brother George would eventually have a daughter, Mary Anna Randolph Custis who would inherit nearby Arlington House and marry Robert E. Lee. Catching a pattern here? These were some seriously well-connected people.

Abingdon Mansion Ruins
Abingdon’s Southern Flank

Meanwhile back at Abingdon, John’s widow sold the estate which subsequently became the home for several wealthy and influential individuals over the next several decades. At least three U.S. Presidents visited Abingdon during the early nineteenth century, Polk, Tyler and Jackson, while under the ownership of the Hunter family. Abingdon maintained a prominent placement on the social scene of the new national capital.

Abingdon Before it Burned
Abingdon as it Appeared in the 1920’s
SOURCE: I photographed this from one of the interpretive signs on the grounds of the Abingdon ruins

Virginia seceded from the United States as the Civil War drew near, and the Hunters supported the Southern cause. Abingdon became Confederate territory. Union forces seized the enemy land directly across the Potomac River from Washington at the onset of the conflict, building a ring of forts to protect its national capital. Abingdon became an armed Union encampment like other nearby Virginia estates lining the edge of the river. A New Jersey regiment dubbed it Camp Princeton.

After the war it took a Supreme Court decision to return the property to the Hunter family. However a plantation economy no longer existed and the adjacent river bottom became the home of industrial operations and brickyards. Abingdon fell into a slow spiral of decline and neglect. The once-majestic mansion burned to the ground in 1930, having stood for nearly 190 years.

The Secret

Abingdon Plantation does not get the respect it deserves. It lacks the name recognition and distinction of Mount Vernon or even of Arlington House just up the ridge, but it remains a significant property in its own right. As interesting as I find the context and the history of this site, I realize there is something else that is very unusual at the plantation today. I’m going to reveal the secret to those of you who actually read all the way through the narrative.

People can visit Abingdon Plantation and it’s open to the public throughout the day, but the site has one of the strangest admission policies imaginable. Actually, admission is free. Nonetheless most visitors pay an indirect fee, selecting payment schemes that range from the very cheap to the unimaginably expensive:

  1. by the hour or by the day
  2. by distance traveled as influenced by time of day, or
  3. by a whole host of complicated fees I can’t even begin to decipher

View Abingdon Plantation Ruins in a larger map

You see, the remnants of historic Abingdon Plantation are completely surrounded by Parking Lots A and B/C at National Airport. You may have figured that out already from some of the photographs (one shows part of the airport control tower and another has a Metro train in the background). Visitors have no way to walk to the ruins without coming to the airport. They must either:

  1. park in the airport garage
  2. take the Metro subway or a taxi (or have someone drop them off)
  3. fly in from another city

I chose to park at the garage on this particular visit. I arrived on a Saturday morning when it was practically empty and I parked within feet of the aluminum access gate at the base of the Abingdon Ruins. This would be less of an option during the week when the lot often sells-out, in which case the National Airport stop on the Metro would be a better option. Oftentimes when I arrive at the airport earlier than I expect, I will take a stroll through the old Abingdon ruins to kill a little time and soak up some of the historical ambiance. It’s a quiet spot, a little oasis away from the airport crowds. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen another soul wandering the ruins during any of my visits.

National Airport Garage
Abingdon Viewed from Parking Garage B/C

There’s also a bit of revisionist history going on with the site today. The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority makes a big deal about Abingdon and its history.

Nowhere do they mention that they fought tooth-and-nail to prevent Abingdon’s preservation, rebuffing historians and civic groups, being halted only by the direct intervention of the Virginia General Assembly. Otherwise the airport authority would have been completely destroyed Abingdon and replaced it with yet another parking garage.(1)

Nonetheless they maintain the grounds respectfully and provide all sorts of interpretive signs around the remaining ruins, so while it may not have been their preference, they’ve upheld their end of the bargain.

This has to be one of the most strangely-situated historic sites anywhere, the collision of two worlds unimaginable to each other. That’s what makes it worthy as a genuine geo-oddity.

This is blog posting #250 on the Twelve Mile Circle. Wow, it’s hard for me to believe I actually stuck it out this long.

(1)Don’t simply take my word for it. Feel free to look it up, e.g., Airport Officials Urged to Preserve Abingdon Ruins; The Washington Post; Jan 30, 1992; b.03; or At National Airport, A Historic Destination; On Acre Nestled Between Parking Garages Are Restored Ruins of Colonial Plantation; The Washington Post; Nov 11, 1998; B.01., among many other options.

On August 23, 2009 · 16 Comments

16 Responses to “Abingdon Plantation Ruins”

  1. Craig says:

    Thank you, Tom! I have wondered every time I’ve ridden by there what exactly those buildings were and why they had been left standing in the middle of the garages.

    I think I’ll go check them out this afternoon, perhaps along with the Pentagon Memorial which I also keep forgetting to visit.

  2. Bill Cary says:


    A few years ago at the back of Delta’s employee parking lot CVG off Donaldson Road near the airport ( 39.066642, -84.649134 ) paving crews were busily working to plow and flatten a small hill and improve their parking via an internal expansion without actually acquiring more land. They bulldozed up Native American remains in the process and work was quickly and respectfully halted. It seems our little hill was actually a burial mound and it contains not only bones but well preserved artifacts. I’m sorry but I am not certain about the tribe from which these remains belonged and I don’t know more details.

    Our CVG employee buses now travel around the small hill and it has been fenced off within the parking lot to prevent trespassing. You won’t be able to visit the site without working at CVG but you can see the hill at these coordinates on the Google map 39.066642, -84.649134 .

    Sometimes airport boards do listen and don’t protest. Delta did the right thing and stopped progress to preserve antiquities for the ages.

    • In reference to Bill Cary’s wonderful comment:

      Wow, here it is clear as day, a large green patch right in the middle of the parking lot.

      View Larger Map

      I fly into CVG periodically for business in Cincinnati. I’ll keep an eye open for it the next time I exit the airport (can’t tell if the view is obscured from the nearby Interstate Highway or not (might be a line of trees in the way).

      I wish the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority had been as progressive as Delta from the onset, but I do have to give them credit for handling the site respectfully once they were pushed into it.

  3. Matthew says:

    Congrats on post #250. Yours is one of my favorite blogs on the planet. I’m looking forward to the next 250.

  4. Clint says:

    A wonderful blog entry!
    Had read some of the markers at the site while going to and from Washington National, but had no idea of the depth of the history here.

    Thank you for going to the trouble of pulling it all together.

  5. Bill Cary says:


    As you’re landing at CVG look out the plane’s window and you’ll find that you are flying almost directly over the mound when you land on the main north / south runway. You’ll be at 250 to 300 feet above the mound when your plane passes overhead. Sit on the pane’s right side to view it on landing.

    From I-275 you probably won’t see anything due to the trees but there may be a place along the road that you could walk up to the fence, peer in and see the mound from a distance. It’s about twenty feet above the pavement at the crest and except that it is surrounded by concrete you wouldn’t pay any attention to it on first glance.

    • Excellent. I suppose a digital camera would count as an electronic device for purposes of takeoffs and landings so I’ll see if I can dig up an old-style film camera with a manual shutter. Hmm… wonder if there are still places out there that will develop film? I tried to explain the concept of film to my young children recently and they looked at me like I had three horns growing out of my head (you had to wait for the pictures?) Anyway, it sounds like I’ve got something to keep me busy the next time I’m in the area!

  6. Greg says:

    Great writeup, Mr. 12MC. You had me the whole time; I’m happy I didn’t skip ahead and ruin the surprise.

  7. Dale says:

    Very well done! I’ve been researching much of this history (which is how I found this blog) and you are one of the few to get the facts straight. The history for this historical site goes even deeper however. Abingdon was the epicenter of society and the plantation families of Virginia and Maryland. Eleanor Calvert, wife of Martha Washington’s son and the owner of Abingdon after his death, was a daughter of Benedict Swingate Calvert, “natural son” of the 5th Lord Baltimore, proprietor of Maryland, a descendant of Charles II of England, distant cousin and close friend to Prince Frederick (son of George I and father of George III). Benedict’s mother is not recognized, but has been speculated to be Petronilla Melusine von der Schulenburg, 1st Countess of Walsingham, the illegitimate daughter of George I of England, so half sister to Prince Frederick. Benedict was packed off to Annapolis, MD when he was about 13 (he must have been just a bit inconvenient to have around the palace). So Eleanor’s grandparents and extended family included the Lords Baltimore and the very king her father in law (George Washington) was fighting for independence. Eleanor’s family, at Mt. Airy in MD, not far from Abingdon, remained Royalist throughout the Revolutionary War, even while maintaining good relations with her and the Washingtons (Washington caused a lot of controversy by staying with Eleanor’s Royalist parents at Mt. Airy after resigning his commission in Annapolis). It’s ironic that while they were at Abingdon, Eleanor Calvert and John Parke Custis provided George and Martha Washington with their (her) only direct descendants who were also related to King George III (at least through Charles II and possibly also through his own great grandfather, George I). And to top it off, Eleanor and John Parke Custis’ went on to build Arlington House (now Arlington National Cemetery) and marry his daughter to Robert E. Lee. Abingdon is packed with historical implications and is one of the least known, most interesting historical sites you’ll ever find.

    • Thank you for the additional detail, Dale. I’m sure this will be of great interest to the readers of the Twelve Mile Circle.

    • Bernie says:

      George Washington had no children. Therefore, contrary to Dale’s statement, Washington had no direct descendants. John Parke Custis was the son of Martha Washington, who George Washington married after Martha’s first husband (the father of John Parke Custis) had died.

    • Bernie says:

      Dale said: ‘And to top it off, Eleanor and John Parke Custis’ went on to build Arlington House (now Arlington National Cemetery) and marry his daughter to Robert E. Lee.” This is not correct.

      George Washington Parke Custis, the only son of Eleanor and John Parke Custis, built Arlington House on a parcel of land north of Abingdon that his father had purchased and that he inherited. That land became the Arlington plantation. George Washington Parke Custis’ daughter, Mary Anna Randolph Custis, married Robert E. Lee. A part of the Arlington Plantation that contained Arlington House, is now Arlington National Cemetery. The remainder of the Arlington plantation contains Fort Myer and part or all of the grounds of the Pentagon.

  8. Dale says:

    Eleanor and John Parke Custis’ SON, George Washington Parke Cusits, went on to build Arlington House (now Arlington National Cemetery) and marry his daughter to Robert E. Lee. Abingdon is packed with historical implications and is one of the least known, most interesting historical sites you’ll ever find.

  9. Matt says:

    Apparently, it is possible to walk to DCA on the Mt. Vernon Trail if you really want to avoid paying to visit this attraction.

  10. Bernie says:

    Despite the title of this article, there are actually no “ruins” visible at the Abingdon historical site. As explained in a sign at the site, during the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority renovated the site during the 1990’s to help preserve the features that it considered historically important.

    The Airports Authority buried the foundation of the main house to preserve it, while removing parts of the ruins, including the base of a chimney that might deteriorate over time. The Authority constructed a new display on top of the old foundation that conformed with historical descriptions and illustrations. The portions of the main house in the photographs are those of the new display. Underground cinder blocks support the display that the Authority constructed above the original foundation. I observed this reconstruction while it was taking place.

    The Authority renovated the ruins of the “kitchen” by placing new bricks on top of the old ones. If you look closely, you can still see the difference between the new bricks and the old ones. The kitchen remnant is no longer a ruin; it is a renovation.

    Further, the ruins that the Airports Authority preserved and renovated were probably those of a house constructed after the Civil War, rather than during the Colonial period. Alexander Hunter, heir to the Abingdon estate, wrote a book, “Billy Yank and Johnny Reb” in which he stated that after he returned from service in the Confederate Army during the Civil War, nothing remained at Abingdon other than the land. As recorded in an Airports Authority document, the Virginia State Historical Preservation Officer (SHPO) wrote during the 1990’s that no evidence could be found that demonstrated that the ruins were associated with those of the house that was associated with the prominent people who reportedly had earlier resided at the site.

  11. Sharon Holdren says:

    I discovered this Abingdon site yesterday. It was sunny and nobody there! I have recently been fascinated with the DC history and this was a little gift to add to my research. One of the families who leased Abingdon property from 1808 to 1835 was the Wise family. They reportedly watched the burning of the Capitol by British troops during the war of 1812. I would like to know more about this family as I have Wise blood and am a 7th generation DCian! Thanks for the pictures and extra information!

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