“The Most Historic Park in America’s Most Historic City”

by Danae Peckler, HFFI Preservationist

On the first page of his 1991 book, Robert A. Hodge called Alum Spring Park, “the most historic park in America’s most historic city.” These days, people might view that ambitious moniker with suspicion. However, the more one learns about Fredericksburg’s past, the more remarkable it becomes. The park encompasses 34.75 acres around the Alum Spring—named for the crystalized salts that form on the surface as the spring’s water evaporates. However, the area has also served many other purposes:

  • A source of clay for local indigenous populations that camped along area waterways
  • The site of multiple 18th and 19th century grist and saw mills along with millworker houses
  • A hospital and prison camp for Hessian and British soldiers marched to Fredericksburg after Cornwallis’ surrender in October 1781
  • A place for dueling and more than a few tragic deaths
  • A quarry for local sandstone
  • A place of refuge and conflict during the Civil War, as well as the site of many veteran reunions into the 20th century
  • A plentiful source of ice in the winter
  • A popular local swimming hole in the summer
  • A wondrous place to explore the area’s natural and cultural history.

Local newspapers and long-time residents credit Hodge—a geologist, educator, and local historian—as the galvanizing force behind the creation of Alum Spring Park. After moving to Fredericksburg for a teaching job at James Monroe High School in 1956, Hodge began taking students to Alum Spring to illustrate the area’s natural history, using its diverse rock formations, from the bed of Hazel Run to its sandstone cliffs, as visual aids for teaching geologic time. And for the many decades that he lived here, Bob Hodge also read, thoroughly researched, and wrote about local history in his spare time. Decades after his efforts to create Alum Spring Park, he published a small book about the property, entitled A History of Alum Spring Park, to chronicle all that makes it unique and historically significant (copy available at the CRRL Downtown branch).

The area was actually first proposed as a park by the Fredericksburg Development Company and appears in the firm’s 1891 map of holdings in and around the city. However, the idea for a public park did not come to fruition until the land was threatened by a large townhouse development in the mid-1960s. The Planning Commission and Recreation Commission supported the park idea, and in October 1965, Fredericksburg City Council voted unanimously to purchase the land that comprises Alum Spring Park today (The Free Lance-Star, Oct. 6, 1965:4).

The city’s Recreation Commission, of which Bob Hodge was a member, made a careful study of the 34.75-acre property in consultation with National Park Service staff and state Outdoor Recreational Department officials. In December 1967, a formal report made to the City Council “emphasized the primary purpose of the park was to preserve the natural state of the tract as much as possible,” and provided a plan for the park’s immediate development along with some long-range proposals (Hodge 1991:39).

Presently, two planning efforts stand to substantially affect the landscape within and around Alum Spring Park—both require and assume that the city will acquire the neighboring 34-acre tract of woodland on the east side of Emancipation Highway, north of the park, from the University of Mary Washington (UMW).

The Parks & Recreation Master Plan currently proposes a wholesale redesign of Alum Spring Park, reorienting it toward the busy Emancipation Highway (Route 1). This plan calls for closing the ford entrance and removing most of the existing facilities to build a new larger parking lot, bathroom/ welcome center, and playground on UMW’s undeveloped land (Figure 1). Simultaneously, the Small Area 5 plan currently proposes the construction of a new “connector road,” extending from the William Street/Blue & Gray Parkway (Route 3) intersection to meet with Idlewild Drive or Beverly Lane (Figure 2).

Figure 1: Detail of proposed alterations to Alum Spring Park in a recent update provided to City Council and the Planning Commission (City of Fredericksburg Parks Master Plans, July 2024).
Figure 2: The Small Area 5 Plan report from April 2024 features several graphics with varying depictions in the locations of the new connector road, as well as the new entrance and parking lot at Alum Spring Park (above images on pages 32, 40, and 42).

City staff’s proposed plans to build a new roadway with a multi-use path, 50-space parking lot, new welcome center/restroom facility, picnic shelters, and a playground on UMW’s forested tract seems to be at odds with many stated environmental and historic preservation goals.

Given its proximity to Hazel Run and Alum Spring, much of Alum Spring Park and UMW’s wooded 34 acres are located within “Resource Protected” and “Resource Management Areas” under the Chesapeake Bay Protection Program. The rest of UMW’s parcel is within the “Whole Lot Provision” of the Resource Management Area (Figure 3). Both the Alum Spring and UMW tracts have also been identified in George Washington Regional Commission (GWRC) reports focused on bettering our environment. In the Green Infrastructure Regional Plan, both parcels are identified as Contributing Eco-Core areas, and “the over-arching finding is that proper forest retention can provide important water quality benefits to the Commonwealth and Chesapeake Bay Watershed,” based on recent studies on the impact forest buffers have in protecting against erosion and stormwater runoff (GWRC 2016, 2017). 

From a preservation perspective, these plans will have a negative effect on known cultural historic resources. The 1968 Recreation Commission report to the City Council called for archaeological investigations at one of the known mill sites; however, few, if any, such studies have been conducted. The area also has a significant indigenous, Colonial, Civil War, and industrial history—much of which has yet to be thoroughly documented and analyzed. Localities and other state agencies often avoid disturbing areas known to contain important cultural artifacts, embracing the cheapest option, which is to preserve them in place. Given that almost every inch of the UMW and Alum Spring Park tracts falls within the highest probability in the City’s Archaeological Predictive Model, both plans will come at a higher price to taxpayers (Figure 3).

Figure 3: FredGIS imagery showing the current Alum Spring Park property and neighboring UMW tract with the Chesapeake Bay Watershed layers at left and the Archaeological Predictability Model at right.

It is often said, “history repeats itself” and “no idea is ever new.” In 1980, a proposal for a new road connecting the end of Alum Spring Drive to the Route 1 Bypass was voted down by City Council after an uproar from local groups, including “the Jaycees, the Planning Commission, Recreation Commission, Economic Development Commission, and the Rappahannock Garden Club,” who “chiefly [opposed the road] because it would border tranquil Alum Spring Park” (The Free Lance-Star, Feb 28, 1980:17). The Public Works Committee had supported the idea as a “trucking link that would open an undeveloped section to business use” (The Free Lance-Star, Jan 25, 1980:3). A January 28, 1980, editorial in The Free Lance-Star addressed the feelings of many residents had for this special place in the city:

Crossing tiny Alum Spring is like entering another century. You may hear a truck on the Bypass or spot the top of a nearby apartment complex. But the distractions are few amid the splendid isolation of Alum Spring Park’s wooded hills.

There is a sense of discovery and reflection to these 35 acres. A 2,000-year-old sandstone cliff and an abandoned railroad bed from a century ago suggest a resistance to change. For close to 40,000 visitors a year, a piece of Fredericksburg’s past has been delicately and beautifully preserved….

With the Fredericksburg area leading Virginia in growth, it has never been more important to safeguard our remaining natural and historical resources from the temptation of short-term economic gain….

The Council should do more than ratify the overwhelming arguments against this proposal. It’s time to go on the offensive in protecting our natural assets. Possible scenic easements on nearby undeveloped tracts should be explored as a way to insulate the Alum Spring “experience” from future developments.

As currently proposed, the “new” plans fail to protect much of what City Council’s Vision for 2036 describes as important to Fredericksburg’s future and identity. They do not preserve one of the few sizable, undeveloped, Eco-Core areas in the City; do not reduce run-off into our waterways; do not protect known cultural historic resources; and do not appear to make prudent use of taxpayer dollars.

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