Ellanor C. Lawrence Park

CONTACT INFORMATION: Walney Visitor Center Open hours: Mon & Wed-Fri 9-5 p.m., Saturday-Sunday 12-5 p.m. Closed Tuesdays. The park's trails, picnic tables and grounds are open dawn to dusk.
703-631-0013 TTY 711
5040 Walney Road
Chantilly, Virginia
John Shafer

Department Resources

Related Resources

Ellanor C. Lawrence Park's History

Most of the land that is now Ellanor C. Lawrence Park was once part of a farm called Walney. The Fairfax County Park Authority has owned the land since 1971. For the 230 years prior to the Park Authority’s ownership, only three families owned the land: Brown/Lewis, Machen, and Lawrence. Today, exhibits and programs tell the story of those families, the American Indians who were here before them, and the park’s natural resources.


Humans have lived on the land that became Walney for more than 13,000 years. Ancient paleo-Indians used Clovis spear points found near Dulles Airport to hunt medium to large game toward the end of the last ice age. Their prey included woodland caribou and, possibly, mastodon. A smaller spear point found at ECLP dates from 9,000 years ago. By then, larger groups of archaic Indians moving in small geographic areas were taking advantage of plant foods and hunting deer, elk and bison. Prehistoric people probably used this land over the next 8,000 years.
By the time settlers arrived at Jamestown, this land may have been occupied seasonally by Dogue (or Tauxenent) Indians whose main villages were east along the tidal Potomac River. Although the Dogues grew crops, they fished and hunted around the Potomac for much of the year. Hunting deer and gathering nuts would have provided important food sources during winter months. The Indians also would have traded with tribes from the mountains to obtain good rock for making tools.
To travel east and west, the Dogues followed an ancient trail that leads from Occoquan to Aldie. Colonists improved this trail they called Mountain Road. Today, it is Braddock Road. An Indian site near Braddock Road just west of the park was used for thousands of years and may have been a seasonal camp for the Dogues.


The first land patents in, what is now, western Fairfax County were issued in 1727. That year, Francis Aubrey acquired land now within the park south of Big Rocky Run. Aubrey sold his land to Colonel John Tayloe, who sold it to Willoughby Newton of Westmoreland County in 1739. Newton never actually settled on his Fairfax County land. He leased it to tenant farmers. One was a man of singular determination named Thomas Brown. Brown, illiterate but energetic, obtained a three-lives-lease from Newton. The lease was to run for the lives of Thomas, his wife Elizabeth, and their oldest son Joseph. Brown paid annual rent of 530 pounds of “neat” tobacco (cured and of marketable quality). He also was required to build necessary structures and plant 200 apple trees. The lease, dated 1742, tells us that Brown was already living in a house on the land. This house sat near the old Indian trail (now Braddock Road) and was probably built on top of an Indian camp site.
Over the years, Brown purchased acreage outside of his leasehold. Thomas and his youngest son, Coleman, bought more than 600 combined acres north of Big Rocky Run. This land now forms the core of Ellanor C. Lawrence Park. In 1776, Thomas Brown sold his three-lives-lease on the land south of Big Rocky Run. By this time, the soil was probably played out from 35 years of tobacco production. Coleman eventually purchased most of that land in 1811.Both Thomas and Coleman Brown planted tobacco as their primary crop. Their fortunes were based on tobacco, but tobacco quickly depletes soil of nutrients, and the methods used promoted a great loss of topsoil. Thomas switched to mixed crops after the Revolutionary War, planting wheat, corn and oats. Eventually, Coleman followed suit.
The smokehouse and springhouse at ECLP
The smokehouse and springhouse at ECLP


At his death, Thomas Brown left all his land north of Big Rocky Run to his son Coleman. Coleman became a well-respected citizen of Fairfax County and served as a vestryman for the Episcopalian Truro Parish, even though he was a Baptist. He was a major contributor to and life-long member of Frying Pan Baptist Church. Although Brown never attained the stature of great landowners like George Washington or the Fairfaxes, he did enjoy a comfortable life from the products of his land.
In his old age, Coleman Brown turned management of the farm over to his son-in-law, Coleman Lewis. Lewis, who had married Mary Brown, was an ineffectual manager, and the farm’s productivity and profit slid downhill. To prevent Lewis from completely ruining the farm, Brown made the Lewis children his heirs and stipulated that they could sell the farm and divide the proceeds. None of Brown’s grandchildren were particularly anxious to settle on the farm, so in the early 1840s, they began a hard-sell campaign to encourage a cousin, Lewis Henry Machen, to buy the property. Machen agreed in 1843 and became the owner of the 725-acre estate, which his son Arthur named Walney.
Machen was not a farmer. He was a clerk of the United States Senate, a position he held for almost 50 years. His post was a political appointment, and he purchased Walney partly as a hedge against the insecurity of a job dependent on political patronage. Machen moved his wife Caroline, his daughter Emmeline, and sons Arthur and James to Walney. The Centreville farm was a four-hour journey from the capitol, and Lewis spent most of his time in Washington. Ill health and his Senate duties combined to prevent him from making the trip often.
Most of the farming duties fell on Arthur and James, boys in their teens when the family moved to Walney. Arthur was a scholar, happiest with his nose in a book. He was active in the operation and management of the farm in his teenage years, however he had a different calling and entered Harvard Law School in 1849. James, who loved farming, was left to run the farm.
Although Lewis Machen had little to do with the day to day farm operations, he took a keen interest in its management. The 1840s and 50s heralded the scientific farming movement, and Machen was an avid proponent of the latest methods and techniques. He wrote voluminous instructions to James (to James’ occasional exasperation) detailing schedules to apply and new techniques to use. Machen was a meticulous record keeper and demanded the same of his sons. The family papers contain thousands of letters and ledger entries documenting the activities of the slaves and hired hands, prices paid and received for various commodities, the amount of Peruvian guano used as fertilizer, and other details about life at Walney.
Like other Fairfax County farmers of the period, the Machens dealt with unproductive soil. Although the Browns had started mixed-crop farming, years of tobacco production were made worse by Coleman Lewis’ poor management and a general economic decline in the county in the early 19th century. The Machens grew grains (oats, wheat, rye) and corn as well as vegetables. They raised cattle, sheep and hogs. And they planted tobacco at least one year. In 1860, the Census lists them as having produced 8,000 pounds of tobacco.
Walney sustained extensive damage during the Civil War as troops from both sides crossed the property. In 1861-62, more than 40,000 troops camped in and around Centreville and cut most of the available trees for firewood, shelter and fortifications. The result of this deforestation was extensive erosion, and evidence is still visible on the property today. After his father died during the Civil War, James took over the farm and gradually moved into dairy farming, as did many of his neighbors. James’ switch to dairy farming was prompted by the growing access to the Washington/Alexandria market, falling grain prices due to the tilling of the great plains, railroad shipment, and the fact that dairying required a smaller labor force than other types of farming. It also was probably the most effective use of the property.
By 1880, James was producing 3,000 pounds of butter a year. He was still growing corn and wheat and was producing some fruit to sell. Despite reverses during the Civil War, Walney continued to provide for the Machens.

Walney Visitor Center
Walney Visitor Center


In December 1874, the main farmhouse burned. James enlarged the stone house, which is now the Visitor Center, and moved his family there.
James continued to raise dairy cattle until the 1890s and then suddenly abandoned dairying. The reason is not certain. Dairy farming remained profitable in the Centreville/Chantilly area until the 1970s, however James was in his sixties and none of his four children were interested in farming. In addition, his wife Georgie died in 1895. In their almost 30 years of marriage, they lost nine children of six years and younger. One gets the impression that James was tired. He remained an active and respected community member until his death in 1913. He also remained a member of St. Johns Episcopal Church in Centreville which his mother helped found in the 1840s. James is buried there next to Georgie and several of their children.
James began renting acreage to other local farmers before 1870. In the 1890s, he began to rent rooms in the stone house. After his death, the children rented the farm to tenants through the 1920s. The farm declined significantly under tenancy. It appears to have been abandoned for several years in the late 1920s and early 1930s before Ellanor C. Lawrence bought the farm from the Machen heirs in 1935. Ellanor continued to rent the stone house of Walney until she began to renovate it in the late 1940s.
Ellanor Campbell Lawrence grew up in South Carolina and moved in 1916 to Washington, D.C., where she met and married David Lawrence. Lawrence was a syndicated columnist and author as well as the founder and publisher of U.S. News and World Report. The Lawrences used Walney as a country estate and a retreat from the hectic professional and social life of Washington. They did not live in the stone house when at Walney.
Ellanor increased her landholding in 1942 with the purchase of Cabell’s Mill, Middlegate house and the surrounding 20 acres. This land had been under separate ownership since the time of Willoughby Newton. Ellanor and David lived at Middlegate when visiting. They entertained guests there, and family members often gathered at Middlegate for Christmas.
Under Ellanor’s direction, some of the old farm buildings and tenant structures were torn down. At the same time, the stone structures at Middlegate and Walney were renovated. Ellanor was an avid gardener, and she added landscape features and extensive flower plantings. Pasture and crop fields were left to revert to old field and forest. Ellanor was very interested in the human and natural history of the property. Upon her death in 1969, she left the property to her husband with the intent that it be given to a public agency and that its cultural and natural features be preserved. David Lawrence deeded 640 acres of Walney and Middlegate to the Fairfax County Park Authority in 1971 in memory of Ellanor.

Middlegate and Cabell's Mill
Middlegate and Cabell's Mill



The use of the property by the Machens and others left telltale signs on the land. Foundations and road cuts are obvious and easily understood; others are subtle. Gone is the oak/hickory forest that covered the rolling hills in prehistoric times. The predictable change in plant communities from grass to cedar to oaks is known as succession. You can trace the use of the land by its stage of succession. Steep slopes along streams were often left uncut and are full of large hardwoods, however, flat areas on uplands were used for row crops or pasture until the 1960s and are covered with cedars and pines. Some areas were left to revert to forest long ago. These have open forest of mature hardwoods. If left alone long enough, the whole park would grow into forest dominated by oaks and hickories.
The physical shape of the stream valleys reflects the land’s agricultural history. Smaller creeks trickle through channels that are far too large to have been carved by the existing flow. In the past, they carried large amounts of water that ran quickly off cropland during storms. Runoff from such areas is far greater than that from natural habitats. Cropland runoff also carries large amounts of silt that scour channels and smother stream bottoms.
Erosion gullies are found throughout the park. These are remnants of land clearing during the Civil War. They begin at the top of ridgelines and course straight downhill into the streams. Although now dry and covered by leaf litter and vegetation, they once filled with torrents of water during rainstorms, carrying away valuable topsoil and profoundly changing the shape of the land.
Because they have been undisturbed for many years, stream valleys are focal points for much of the park’s flora and fauna. Beautiful spring wildflowers bloom, and ferns and moss cover the banks. Massive oaks, many over 100 years old, tower over dogwood, spicebush, pawpaw and witch hazel. Deer and the occasional turkey search the forest floor for food, foxes den on the slopes, and numerous bird species can be seen throughout the year. Walney Creek’s cool, clean water hosts insect larvae and several species of minnows, salamanders and crayfish. Big Rocky Run supports a variety of small fish species, but it lacks the diversity and abundance of Walney Creek because of water flow and temperature problems caused by runoff from heavily developed land in its watershed east of the park.
One final example of the human influence on the park’s natural landscape is difficult to interpret. Scattered across ECLP are many shallow, round depressions of decidedly man-made origin. Perfectly circular, ranging from 3 to 10 feet wide and from 6 to 24 inches deep, they sit on both ridgetops and floodplains. They are partially filled with leaf litter and woody debris, and many contain a variety of plants. Those in the floodplains are seasonally filled with water and serve as breeding sites for frogs and salamanders. Their origins are a mystery. Discovery of their purpose could reveal much about how people interacted with their environment.
As the area around Centreville and Chantilly becomes increasingly developed, Ellanor C. Lawrence Park remains an island of green space in a sea of construction. The land of Walney continues to respond to and influence people’s relationship with the environment in which they live.
Fairfax Virtual Assistant