The Road to The Plains

When Robert H. Downman assembled the six farms that became his “Ravenscroft” in The Plains in 1912, he connected them all with his own internal road network. My father would tell me that these roads were MacAdamized, a system of road building pioneered by John Loudon McAdam, a Scottish engineer, in the early 1800’s.

McAdam’s method involved carefully layering graduated sizes of small angular stones and the resulting stone dust. With the advent of the automobile, a binding , or top coat, of coal tar and iron slag (known as tarmac) was added to the recipe. Apparently, the vacuum produced in the wake of these faster moving vehicles was displacing the layer of stone dust the stabilized and waterproofed the Macadam. The binder solved this problem.

When conceiving these roads, Robert Downman (who in Clarissa Fleming’s words was “a man of action”) decided that his sister, Harriot Downman Fleming, should be able to drive to town on a decent road. The  Thorougfare Gap road that connected Green Mont to The Plains at the time was probably axle deep in mud more often than not.  He ran one of his Macadamized roads all the way to the far corner of Ravenscroft, virtually to his sister’s gate. So here we are, in The Plains, Virginia, in about 1914, with a paved, state of the art, private road system connecting Green Mont to The Plains.

Along the path of this wondrous road is a triple span, fieldstone bridge. The bridge is a single 10 foot wide lane running 150 feet in length. This lovely structure is just at the foot of the Green Mont hill spanning the mighty Broad Run.

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I credit Irwin Fleming with this beautiful bridge. I don’t really have any documentation to prove that. It’s just that he was working on and around Ravenscroft at the time, and it seems to show his hand. Maybe he did nothing more than a scribble on a napkin to indicate what he thought would make a suitable bridge, but he was in it somewhere.

This road building effort must have been a major undertaking for 1912 or so; one of many major undertakings that surely came up in the assembly of such a large farm. This bridge alone could have taken years to design and build.

In 1977, Interstate 66 bisected this leg of the system, disconnecting the stone bridge and the Green Mont end of the road from The Plains forever.

Several days ago I was hunting the internet looking for any reference to a “Downman’s Mill” which shows up on an area map that was printed by The Fauquier National Bank about 45 years ago. (I happened to see one last month when I was in Warrenton at the Building Department.) I have always felt this was an erroneous reference to the dam across Broad Run that Robert H. Downman (the “man of action”) built in 1912 to provide water to one of his fields. The Flemings used the resulting pool as a swimming hole. I don’t believe there was ever a mill located on that stretch of Broad Run during a time that any Downman had anything to do with it.

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Downman’s Mill?

While “milling” around on the internet, up started popping these obscure references to Robert H. Downman, in The Plains. These were generally in heavy duty industrial timber trade papers, mentioning that the infamous R. H. Downman had been vacationing at his home in The Plains or some such activity. But one was special. It is an ad that Robert Downman placed in the “Manufacturer’s Record”, published in Baltimore, Maryland; the May 4, 1922 issue. It offered for sale a complete package of road building machinery, “new or in splendid condition”.

It is truly amazing, the things that people post on the internet.

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If you feel like going on yet another tangent, this paper is really something. It’s an ultra right industrialist newspaper, published in the wake of World War 1 and the advent of the Federal income tax. In 1922, the top bracket was 58% for those with annual incomes of $200,000 or more. Some of the sentiments expressed in this paper seem eerily contemporary. That is one unhappy looking eagle. https://books.google.com/books?id=Il8-AQAAMAAJ&pg=PA141&lpg=PA141&dq=downmans+Mill+The+Plains,+Va&source=bl&ots=NhCbFs_QFt&sig=zrBP01Ic9WCMqUw7PLWpRiO19qE&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwj55o2Y2dbSAhVJ5GMKHc-pByEQ6AEIOTAF#v=onepage&q=downmans%20Mill%20The%20Plains%2C%20Va&f=false

Oh, by the way, with the reduction in use of some of the more harmful pesticides and herbicides of the latter half of the last century, the eagles have returned to The Plains. Bald eagles are almost a daily sight.

One thought on “The Road to The Plains

  1. Fascinating…Thank you, Henry. Today, I found the Marriage Certificate of Frances Fleming Carter Allen to V. Ward Boswell. The date is December 10, 1949!

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