Virginia officials hope to open Government Island to the public
STAFFORD, Va. – Slaves and free men toiled long days on a small island on Aquia Creek, quarrying the sandstone that was used to build the White House and the Capitol.
More than 200 years later, Stafford County officials hope to open Government Island to the public, showcasing the place from which, quite literally, the foundations of government were hewn.
“I’m just delighted it’s come into its own and is being saved,” said Jane Henderson Conner, a retired Stafford teacher who has led the effort to preserve the island.
In 1790, George Washington signed a congressional measure designating a site along the Potomac River as the spot for the young nation’s new capital.
A year later, Pierre L’Enfant, the first president’s chosen planner of the District of Columbia, bought the island about 40 miles downriver for $3,192, for the government’s use.
The island had been a quarry for about 100 years, its sandstone used for tombstones, foundations, mantelpieces and architectural trim.
The stone also was used at historic Aquia Church in Stafford and notable homes in Virginia.
L’Enfant envisioned a European-style city of stone buildings and monuments. “He wanted it to be a majestic city,” said Conner, who has researched the island and its history for more than 20 years.
She also testified before a congressional subcommittee this year in support of a resolution, sponsored by Rep. Jo Ann Davis, a Virginia Republican, recognizing the island. The House of Representatives unanimously approved the measure in April.
Historians differ over whether Washington himself, who spent much of his childhood in Stafford and owned property in the county, chose the stone or directed L’Enfant to the 17-acre island. Washington had stone steps for his home at Mount Vernon quarried from the island about 1786.
Crews used handpicks to chisel the stone, commonly called “freestone” because it was easily worked. “It could be carved in any direction without breaking,” Conner said.
Workers carved pathways, still visible, through the rock so they could strike it from all sides, Conner said. They probably used levers and Colonial-period cranes, along with gravity, to move the grayish or tan stone, which weighs about 120 pounds per cubic foot.
Geological surveys fix the age of the formations at about 100 million to 130 million years old. Rock faces at the island appear as tall as 30 or 40 feet above ground.
Oxen-pulled carts or sleds moved the stone to a shipping site on the island, which today is more a marshy and wooded peninsula, its shores subject to tidal flooding and bordered by Aquia Creek, a channel and a stream.
Deep-water ships ferried the stone up the Potomac River to Washington, where it again was pulled by oxen to construction sites at the presidential mansion and the Capitol.
Conner said brick also was used during construction of the White House because quarrying was such a time-consuming process. “They worked from sunup to sundown. They just weren’t getting enough stone.”
Aquia sandstone continued to be quarried until the completion of the original Capitol in 1825, according to the National Park Service. Granite was used to build many of the government buildings that followed because the sandstone was found to be ill-suited for construction, according to the park service.
Harry S. Truman went out of his way to preserve the Aquia stone during the extensive renovations of the White House during his presidency, Conner said.
`Only original thing’
“The only original thing standing in the White House today is stone from Stafford County,” she said.
The government abandoned the island in the mid-1800s and then reclaimed it about 1960. The property was sold to an individual for $6,345 in 1963. Stafford bought it for $200,000 in 1998. County officials have no firm timetable for opening the island, but they recently appropriated $100,000 to start work. A county committee has recommended building a parking lot, as well as a walkway through the marsh. The panel, which includes Conner and former White House Curator Rex Scouten, also has recommended further study of the area.
“It has a lot of archaeological potential,” said Aaron Shriber, Stafford’s historic-preservation planner, who also is compiling the island’s nomination for the National Register of Historic Places.
Conner, who taught for 20 years, looks forward to the day when schoolchildren can, at once, explore the rocks and history. “It’s a labor of love,” she said.