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Early, Remote Life at Dahlgren

December 18, 2017 

Officer's Quarters, 1921
Officer's Quarters, 1921
Administration Building, 1920
Building 111, 1920s
Main Battery, looking toward river, 1921
Officers Barracks, temporary Main Office building, 1918
Employee cottages, 1919
Officers' quarters, Jenkins Road, 1919
Sampson Road, 1921
 
Main Gate, 1942 
Main Gate, 1945 
 
Main Gate, 1951 
 
Main Gate, 1950s 
BOQ building with view of tennis court, 1942 
 
Community swimming pool, 1948 
 Dahlgren Golf Course, year unknown.
 
First private school at Dahlgren 
Grades of Dahlgren School, 1935 

Life at Dahlgren may seem isolated now, but there was a time when living at Dahlgren was like living on the American frontier. When Navy officials first identified the tract of land along Machodoc Creek that came to be known as Dahlgren, it was mostly inhabited by rural farmers. Isolation is exactly what they were looking for (see our earlier blog on the problems with the last proving ground)  but such isolation presented many challenges to the base’s development. Dahlgren’s earliest engineers and inhabitants came up with some creative ways to face those challenges, and both the base and community today are nearly unrecognizable from before World War II.

As the time came to start construction for the base, the Navy’s engineers were faced with the task of taming the wild land of rural Virginia in the most efficient, cost-effective way possible. The earliest structures were reused from Indian Head’s Marine detachment at Stump Neck. The buildings were disassembled, floated down the Potomac River on barges, and reassembled at the Dahlgren site. They created sidewalks out of planks of wood laid in a line so that one could avoid ankle-deep mud.

With regard to driving in this muck, by 1919 workers covered a few station roads with oyster shells.  Construction was generally slow going due to labor shortages and difficulty in obtaining materials. The Armistice in November 1918, however, solved the labor problem, and with the return of the men from overseas, the work force nearly doubled from 250 civilian laborers and 75 civilians to 500 civilian laborers and 125 civilians by April 1919. Housing for these earliest employees was another problem. An early newspaper noted that if you assisted with firing operations a few years after the base opened, you were likely to be housed in a tent near Yardcraft, but “you were most fortunate if you lived in one of the station’s eight existing residences constructed on Welsh Road.” There was one residence in particular, the commandant’s house, which would bring Dahlgren to the attention of Congress, but more on that in a future blog.

Security in the area presented another problem. The base didn’t put up barricades until the late 1930s, and the fence went up around 1940. Prior to that, Marines patrolled the base on horseback. The occasional interloper was not uncommon. “As a matter in point one lady remembered with horror an answered knock on her front door which revealed two grizzly characters armed with pistols. They persuaded her that she must buy their bootleg whiskey.” It’s not such a surprising anecdote when you consider that, before the arrival of base, residents recalled they might only see the sheriff twice a year or not until election time.

The river served as a crucial outlet to the outside world. Roads were so poor it was easier to visit Washington than other places in King George. Dr. Charles Bramble remembered that his first contact with Dahlgren in 1924 required river access. When he taught at the Naval Postgraduate School, he kept contact with the chief scientists at Dahlgren, and every time he needed to visit, he would have to call for the station to send a boat to the Morgantown, Maryland, side of the river so he could cross the Potomac River. The Captain’s chauffeur would take care of his car while he visited the station. (Bramble would later go on to serve as Dahlgren’s third Technical Director, called Director of Research at the time.) Otherwise, the primary method to cross the river was by Captain Bruce’s mail boat. Colonial Beach employees relied on Captain Bruce for transportation to work. On one particularly wintery day, Bruce was breaking ice to try to cross the river. The boat was about halfway across when they heard the noon whistle. So, rather than continue struggling on the river crossing, they turned around and went home.  Generally, the trip would take about an hour. Dahlgren later set up two steamboats, Grampus and Porpoise, to make the trip, and the use of these boats was made available to non-base employees, free of charge.
 
 Capt. Pickerall, Chief of Transportation, Ed Pickerall, a station driver at the Proving Grounds Dahlgren, in 1920
 
 Boat for transporting Navy employees, in dry dock on railroad car bed, 1926.
Mess Hall and Store, 1918 

 

Shelton's Store, 1927 

Shelton's Store, 1927 

Dahlgren’s isolation proved difficult for the dependents of officers stationed at the base. A small commissary near the docks and the Shelton Store near the station provided some basic necessities. Anything beyond those necessities required a complicated, long journey to either Washington, D.C., or Fredericksburg. For a Washington trip, one or two wives took a list from everyone and accompanied the Captain or an officer who was on his way to D.C. for official business.  The Captain had a weekly meeting at the Bureau of Ordnance, so he kept a chauffeur and car on the Maryland side of the river.  At least the road to D.C. was paved; the road to Fredericksburg was not. The road “shook your eye teeth out.  In fact, the roads were effectively impassable from December to March, and car owners objected to having to pay a license fee for the whole year.”  Two spots along the route were particularly troublesome, Deep Bottom (off Route 301) and Peppermill Hill (on Route 206). A car on its way to Fredericksburg would take four carrier pigeons from the air detail with them.**  If they got stuck, they sent a pigeon back to base where the hostler, Bob Fuller, and his team of mules were waiting. When he received the message, he would go out to rescue the car. The team back on station knew that if about 25 minutes passed and no pigeon was received, the car was past Deep Bottom, 45 minutes for Peppermill Hill. If you took a team of horses and a carriage, the entire trip would start around one or two o’clock in the morning and last about two days. 

There were some positive sides to the professional and social isolation, and the base soon developed its own community, including medical, educational, and recreational facilities. Vice Admiral George F. Hussey, a Proof Officer at Dahlgren during the 1930s, fondly recalled that, since there was nowhere to buy a meal in the area, visitors were normally invited back to some officer’s house for lunch, and out of that grew a good liaison and “some very fine friendships.” Before Dahlgren, the nearest doctor was about 15 miles away, and if you needed him, he’d come see you within a week. Once the base had its own medical officers, they serviced the whole community, and former resident James Payne remarked that it was “probably the most important service we received from the base.”  The more social side of life at Dahlgren also united base and community members. The Recreation Hall hosted monthly dances that proved very popular all the way from Fredericksburg to Waldorf. There was swimming, golf, tennis, baseball. Movies were available for a nickel. A school for base residents started in 1919 and provided education for the first grade through high school. The first school building was opened in 1922, though we’ll have more information on Dahlgren School in a future blog post. The arrival of Dahlgren truly sparked a complete alteration of the community.

Dahlgren's first fire truck

The base and community’s growth and development also generated an economic change. The station’s payroll initially consisted of blue collar workers, so those jobs were available to local people. With the advancement of technology and the onset of World War II though, the base needed more people and more specialized, white collar professionals, and so the area became more populated. Longtime locals saw an increase in home construction, in church congregations, and in the schools. One example that highlights the economic stimulation is the addition of a bank to the Dahlgren community. Prior to 1951, employees were paid in cash because the closest bank was in King George or Colonial Beach. But with the arrival of a bank, the base was able to convert its payroll to check.  A base newspaper from 1952 lists a myriad of concessions available to the station:

  • Auctioneer

  • Automobile (license and title service)

  • Bank of Dahlgren

  • Beauty Consultant

  • Beauty Shop

  • Barber Shop (civilian)

  • Barber Shop (military)

  • Bus tickets and Schedules

  • Bowling Alley

  • Cafeteria

  • Chapel Services

  • Children’s Clothing

  • Church Services

  • CPO Mess, Open

  • Commissioned Officers’ Mess, Open

  • Cleaning and Cobbler

  • Cosmetics

  • Dahlgren Store

  • Electrical

  • Glasses

  • Golf Equipment

  • Greeting Cards, Novelties

  • Insurance

  • Library

  • Magazine Subscriptions

  • Navy Exchange

  • Newspapers

  • Notary Public

  • Piano Lessons

  • Piano Tuning

  • Typewriters, Adding Machines

  • Sunshine Laundry and Dry Cleaning

  • Veterans’ Adviser

Considering what they started out with, adding a beauty consultant or a bowling alley or a store for golf equipment is very big progress!

In today’s time of fast Internet, malls, and, ya know, paved roads, it’s hard to grasp all the challenges faced by early Dahlgren residents. Though Dahlgren still remains a rural community, simple amenities like Route 218, three grocery stores within two miles of the base, and a growing number of restaurants make this area a very different place than the first “Dahlgrenites” knew. Later interviews with some of these residents show that they looked back on these times with a great deal of nostalgia. Those employees and dependents truly tackled the challenges thrown at them, and now we can only be grateful we don’t have to take a cage full of birds to drive to Fredericksburg!


 

 

References:

  • Rodney P. Carlisle and James P. Rife, The Sound of Freedom:  Naval Weapons Technology at Dahlgren, Virginia, 1918-2006 (Washington, D.C.:  U.S. Government Printing Office, 2006).

  • “If you’re an old timer, then you’ll remember—,” News Sheet, 13 March 1952.

  • James N. Payne, “Early Days of Dahlgren and Before,” 19 October 1988.

  • Charles C. Bramble, interview by Cynthia Rouse, 31 January 1977.

  • Harold M. Gouldman, Jr, interview by Cynthia Rouse, 27 July 1976

  • George F. Hussey, interview by A. B. Christman, April 1966.

  • “Concessions and Facilities,” News Sheet, 14 Feb 1952.

  • Boynton Braun, interview by Jack Brooks, Jr.

 

 

 

**In the time when planes didn’t have radios, carrier pigeons would transmit messages. Yes, the pilot would release a pigeon, from the air, to send his message back to the ground base (Boynton Braun, interview by Jack Brooks, Jr., 8)