A True Redoubt: Clifton

Formerly a railroad depot and, 100 years ago, the largest and most progressive town in Fairfax County, Clifton is now a “back-in-time” community thanks to its strategic location and its commitment to preservation.

It’s hard to pinpoint what makes the town of Clifton seem a lot like Mayberry, the quaint TV town of yesteryear. One reason may be that the mayor is also the owner of the local ice cream shop. Or perhaps the Mayberry analogy pops to mind because Clifton has a real Main Street that goes back more than a hundred years, when Clifton was a main stop on the Orange and Alexandria railroad line. Or maybe it’s because, if you need to talk with neighbors, you can bypass cell phones and Blackberries and just shout their names from the sidewalk. After all, the town is only one square mile in size, with a resident population that that swings between 325 to 350 people, depending on the day of the week.

Clifton is located in the southwestern corner of Fairfax County, a fact that is somewhat hard to believe after you negotiate a heavily wooded, serpentine road (Route 645, which becomes Clifton Road once you pass U.S. 29) to reach the place. Here is a true redoubt from the hurly-burly, from the frantic shopping centers, office parks and exurban bedroom communities throbbing with intensity only few miles away. Here is a real community of shops, restaurants and homes not pre-designed and predestined by Toll Brothers or Van Metre, but built up organically more than a century ago. No apartment buildings, no high-rises.

For example, the William E. Beckwith House, also known as the Homestead, was built in 1771 and is the oldest remaining structure in Clifton, according to town historical markers and the Historic Town of Clifton Walking Tour pamphlet prepared by the Clifton Betterment Association. The Mayhugh Tavern, now a private home, was built in 1870 as a one-room structure and operated in the early 1900s by F.G. Gustie “Grandpap” Mayhugh as an “orderly and genteel bar.” The Clifton Baptist Church, built in 1877 and later replaced by the current 1910 building, has a gabled roof, tall spire and gothic-arched windows. The Hetzel House was owned and named for Susan Riviere Hetzel (1846-1908), who was one of the organizers the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Hetzel lived in the house with her mother for 25 years.

“This [town] is different than anywhere else,” says Tom Peterson, current mayor and owner of Peterson’s Ice Cream Depot. “It’s like going back in time. I think if you talk to any resident, they would brag. People here are very passionate about living here.” While much of Fairfax County is tuned to all the latest political and policy developments in Washington, the biggest news in Clifton, typically, is that the homemade brittle brownies have just arrived at the All That Glitters gift shop on Main Street, the announcement heralded in handwritten lettering on a blackboard propped up outside the business.

Jim Chesley, Clifton’s mayor from 1992 to 2004, knows Clifton as well as anyone. “There are 80 houses in town,” he says, “and about 40 businesses, maybe 30. And we still have the four churches.” As aerial pictures from the 1930s attest, the town has changed little in 70 years—a true anomaly given that the population of the county has skyrocketed over the last 40 years and now exceeds 1 million people, according to U.S. Census figures. Fairfax development has leveled off in recent years simply because there’s not much more to develop—except in Clifton, that is.

That Clifton has been spared from bulldozers and commercial blueprints owes mostly to its strategic location near the Occoquan River. The Occoquan, along with the Potomac, is the major water source for all of northern Virginia, and the 43,000 acres of land in and surrounding Clifton serves as the region’s aquifer—permeable rock cleansing ground water before it gets piped to county homes. But legislation has also played a role in Clifton’s preservation; in the 1980s, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors passed the Occoquan Watershed Act, which, explains the mayor, mandated no developments smaller than five acres. “The land needs to be porous to absorb the water,” says Chesley, a Maryland native who moved to Clifton in 1976 and then “slowly started the restoration of both his house on Main Street and his vintage Thunderbird convertible,” according to a 1980 history of the town by Nan Netherton titled Clifton: Brigadoon in Virginia. In addition to his mayoral duties, Chesley founded the Occoquan Watershed Coalition in 1994—a watchdog organization for preserving the area.

Developers came knocking in the 1980s, challenging the watershed ruling, but Chesley says they were rebuffed. “There have been over 50 lawsuits from developers,” he adds with a sly chuckle, “but they have always lost.” Only two small residential developments have managed to gain a foothold on the outskirts of town, and Route 645, that winding road many use to reach Clifton, won’t be changing into a four-lane highway anytime soon; it’s been declared a Virginia Byway, one of only two such roads in northern Virginia, a designation that limits development. “In 1996, we defeated a four-lane highway,” says Chesley. “Transportation was our one big issue for years.”

It’s still a big issue, the one complaint you’ll hear from the locals. Quaint as it is, Clifton’s Main Street is a link between busy Tysons Corner and the city of Manassas—a fact not lost on county drivers. It’s estimated that 15,000 cars run through the Main Street every day—a lot of traffic for a town with no traffic light. During rush hours, traffic backs up through the middle of town. “Traffic is much more of a threat than development,” says Chesley.

Margo Buckley, chair of Clifton’s Historic Preservation Committee, says that the only way to eliminate the cut-through traffic is to build a bypass, “and none of us wants that.” Clifton residents don’t even want a traffic light, because, they worry, it would threaten Clifton’s appeal as a walking town. Buckley says that when the nearby town of Burke put in a bypass, “the little old community just shriveled up.” Its population jumped from 33,835 in 1980 to 57,734 in 1990. “Traffic was an issue even when I moved here 34 years ago,” adds Buckley. “But now, during rush hour, you can barely cross the street.”

According to Netherton’s history of the town, Clifton got its start in 1710 when four Englishmen were awarded land grants in the vicinity of Pope’s Head Creek, a tributary of Bull Run stream whose name may have been taken from a street in London. The area’s development was boosted by the completion of the Orange and Alexandria Railroad in 1852, connecting Alexandria to Tudor Hall (Manassas Junction) and running straight through what is today the heart of Clifton. During the Civil War, there was extensive military action along the railroad and near the Devereux Station supply depot (which in 1868 became known as Clifton Station). It effectively sat on or near the military dividing line; it was the southernmost point for the Union Army. Fortifications from the Battle of Bull Run can still be found in the nearby woods.

The most plausible explanation for Clifton’s name, writes Netherton, came from the Virginia Midland Railway Excursion Guide, published in 1882, which claims the town was named “by a northern settler after Clifton Springs, New York, a very popular resort in that part of the country.”

In 1868, an “industrious citizen” named Harrison G. Otis bought the land around the railroad station. The next year, Clifton Station became a U.S. Post Office, with Otis serving as the first postmaster. The following year, Otis built the Clifton Hotel, which boasted a second-floor wrap-around porch and in its heyday was a stately, pastoral resort that hosted three U.S. presidents—U.S. Grant, James Garfield and Rutherford B. Hayes. Clifton Station was incorporated as a town in 1902, and by 1906 it was the largest and most progressive town in Fairfax County. According to the Clifton website, the town was the first in Fairfax to get electricity and the first to have a high school.

As with so many other train station towns, the development of America’s highway system after World War II nearly destroyed Clifton. The depot was torn down, and in the 1960s Clifton fell apart. “The kids moved to other places,” explains Chesley. “The older people died off.” His wife, Jennifer, who grew up in nearby Fairfax City, used to play a daring variation of chicken in Clifton with friends when she was a teenager—lying down in the middle of the road until a car came along. Apparently, it was a rare occurrence. “It was a ghost town,” she recalls.

Things changed in the 1970s, however, when there was in influx of homebuyers from outside the area, many of them workers from D.C. looking for a quiet and inexpensive place to live. They began renovating abandoned Victorian houses that had long stood boarded up along Main Street. Chesley was one of them, and he fondly remembers that period. “We were all helping one another to rebuild …. People liked the idea of not locking doors, no cars. It was a nice, calm place.”

That was, and remains, the appeal of Clifton. Tom and Judy McNamara, who own the town’s old-fashioned general store and the adjacent Main Street Pub, moved to Clifton in 1986. “It’s where I always wanted to live,” says Tom McNamara, who bears a striking resemblance to Uncle Moneybags from Monopoly and dresses up as that character every Halloween. He and his wife bought the former Weaver’s Meat Market in 1989 and converted the mostly original structure into a general store. Tom runs the store up front; Judy runs the flower shop in the back. While penny candy prices have inflated to 10 cents, the store faithfully evokes early-20th-century America. The McNamaras claim to recognize nearly everyone who enters. “In Clifton, there is the only B&B in Fairfax County, the only winery, and then you have us, and pshhh, you’re done,” says Judy McNamara, throwing her hands up in the air as she explains the one-stop appeal of her town.

Victoria Trummer, a Clifton native, recently returned to the town with her Austrian husband, Stefan, to open a new restaurant in the old Clifton Hotel (which most recently, in the 1990s, was the Heritage Inn). Called Trummer’s On Main, the restaurant is a casual-chic eatery that has a pastry chef, a sommelier and three floors of cozy dining spaces, including the glass-enclosed Winter Garden room. Eat a burger at the first-floor bar in your jeans, or dress up for a romantic evening by an upstairs fireplace. The Trummers spent seven years in the restaurant business in New York before moving to Virginia. “As much as I miss New York and all my friends, Clifton is home,” says Victoria Trummer. “My father lives up the road, and I can drive 15 minutes to see my mom. That’s the answer to ‘Why Clifton?’”

Many of those attracted to Clifton these days are younger couples with children, eager to preserve Clifton’s heritage and grateful for its sense of place. Chesley’s next-door neighbor and owner of the Clifton Café, Erin Tengesdahl, is one of those people. She tells a story that’s quite familiar to town residents. Tengesdahl grew up in Clifton and came back with her husband, Steffen, and children in 2008, attracted by the close-knit community and the highly rated Clifton Elementary School. “We tried to duplicate the sense of community elsewhere, and it just doesn’t work,” she says. Chesley says that he likes what he sees in the new residents. “These new young people remind me of 30 years ago—they came here for a reason.”

Even this idyllic place and its dedicated residents are not immune to the rapid-fire changes in northern Virginia. For example, there has been talk that the local elementary school might be closed and integrated with another school nearby, and developers will surely persist in their efforts to build. Nothing lasts forever, but don’t say that in Clifton, where , as writer Lee Ruck put it in the second edition of Netherton’s book, “Early morning mists still drape the flood plain; where deer can be seen grazing; where muskrats and an infrequent river otter still play in Popes Head Creek and its tiny tributaries …”; and where “spring Saturdays are still spent painting picket fences and joining neighbors in planting flower barrels.”

To be sure, that’s a very sentimental view of Clifton—and yet, perhaps, not far off the mark.

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